The Gate Check Bag Dilemma On Planes

Have you ever been waiting to board a plane and heard this announcement?

Dear Passengers,

This flight is going to be totally full so we’re asking 60 passengers to gate check their bags to their destination for no additional charge.

This was the announcement at the gate for a JetBlue flight from JFK to Orlando. I stared at my “Group D” on my boarding pass and thought to myself, “I’ll risk it.” For this trip, I was only bringing a backpack I knew could fit under the seat and a messenger bag carrying my iPad, headphones and a small travel-sized pillow for my back, which I’d be taking out as soon as I boarded the plane and got to my seat.

After seemingly the entire plane boarded, our group was called.

The person in front of us scanned her boarding pass and was immediately stopped by one of the gate agents.

“You’ll have to gate check that bag,” she said.

Her bag wasn’t exceeding large and would have easily fit into an overhead compartment. They put a tag on her bag and told her she had to give it to the baggage person at the end of the jetway before boarding the plane.

She did as she was told and handed over her bag.

As we walked towards our respective seats towards the back of the plane, we passed one empty overhead bin after another. My only thought was that if I was this woman, I would be totally pissed. Why was she forced to gate check her bag when there was plenty of space to bring it with her?

“Mandatory Gate Check”

The policy airlines have that allows gate agents to tell passengers they need to check their carry-on bags because there is no space on the plane is one of the more aggravating things I experience when flying. If there are still 50 people on the jetway, how do they know that there will be no space on the plane for a bag?

Unless they can calculate the space taken up by each bag carried onto the plane so far, I’d say that pulling bags out of line is only a guess.

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We were flying from JFK to Orlando. This is before every child on the plane has purchased a metric ton of souvenirs, such as lightsabers, wands and plush sea creatures to bring home with them. It’s more than likely that even if the plane is full, the 9-month-old in the child seat isn’t bringing a full-sized carry-on bag with them.

This brings me to an ethical dilemma.

If the gate agent puts a tag on your bag for gate check, are you required to hand it over?

Now I’m not one to suggest anything on Your Mileage May Vary that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. I’ll admit that there was a time when an agent put a gate check tag on my bag and halfway down the jetway, I tore it off.

I figured that if the plane was really full, I would gladly hand my bag over. Know what happened? I got to my seat and the overhead bin was totally empty. I smiled at the flight attendant on the plane as I put my bag into the compartment where it sat alone until the overhead compartment doors were closed just before takeoff.

Even though I was right and the overhead bin space wasn’t full, I didn’t feel any satisfaction from my action. Instead, I sat there feeling angry and upset. I was angry because I was asked to check my bag when it wasn’t necessary due to space constraints and upset because all of the other passengers like me were lied to by the gate agent.

There are many reasons that the gate agents want to check bags when a flight is full. They might want to speed up the boarding process so the plane leaves on time.  They could truly think that the overhead bins will be full but I don’t believe that because they load this plane every day, even multiple times a day. They know how many bags will not fit. Why make the false statement that 60 passengers will need to gate check bags? When they over exaggerate to make a point, people can tell they’re lying. Maybe they need 5 or 10 people but no one will volunteer if they figure someone else will. So ask for 60 and if you get 5 or 10, great. Know what those 5 or 10 passengers feel like once they get on the plane and see empty space? Suckers!!! (Note from Sharon: Yup! It happened to me a few years ago – they asked me to gate check my bag because of lack of room, and I did. Besides turning out that there was still PLENTY of room in the overhead, they broke something in my now-checked bag).

Final Thoughts

As long as U.S. airlines charge for every checked bag, passengers will continue to bring as much as possible in their carry-on bags. It’s a simple matter of cause and effect. Know which airlines I’ve never been asked to gate check a bag with? Southwest and Frontier. Southwest lets you check two bags for free and Frontier charges for carry-on and checked bags (with checked bags costing less than a carry-on). In the quest to maximize revenue from checked bags, airlines have created a problem of people bringing too much onto the plane with them. Passengers would rather risk having to gate check a bag (for free) than pay the extra to bring a checked bag.

I hope I’m never put in a situation like I was before when asked to gate check a bag. That’s one reason I have co-brand credit cards with airlines that provides me with earlier boarding. People on the plane first don’t get asked to check their bags and that is a benefit worth the annual fee for the card.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

4 thoughts on “The Gate Check Bag Dilemma On Planes”

  1. ‘As long as U.S. airlines charge for every checked bag, passengers will continue to bring as much as possible in their carry-on bags. It’s a simple matter of cause and effect.’
    This is exactly it. Don’t charge for checked bags and actually take care of them. People will start checking bags.
    Look at the Asian carriers for examples.. Almost everyone who has a suitcase will check it and the airline doesn’t charge for it. You can even check your souvenir bags on JAL or ANA. They’ll put it in a plastic tote and it’ll come out in one piece on the other side.

    Rarely seen the bins fill up on a domestic flight and the warning about ‘contents shifting during flight’ needed to be taken literally. Once I found my personal item two rows ahead of me because it slid to the end of the overhead compartment during landing.

    1. Jinxed_K: You are correct. When traveling in Asia, I have never once been on a plane where all the overhead bins were full, even when the plane was 100% full. I guess the Asian airlines are not trying to gouge their passengers out of every single penny they can. Not only that, I have been on 1.5 hour economy class flights where they served the economy class passengers a hot meal! (on Garuda).

  2. In the past week(ish), I flew SAN-ATL-AVL, AVL-ATL-RDU, and RDU-ATL-SAN. I had booked a basic ticket.

    They called for gate check volunteers on the first SAN-ATL leg and on the RDU-ATL leg, and I happily checked the bag I would have checked if they didn’t charge a fortune for the privilege.

    The flight out of Asheville was delayed due to fog — about 2.5 hours by the time we boarded, and another 30 minutes or so before takeoff. They took nearly all the carry-ons at boarding, and I have to say, it was the fastest de-plane I’ve experienced in years, maybe ever, For this one, it was the gate-check where your bag is one the jetway when you get off, not the through-check where it’s at baggage claim. I kept my underseater with me throughout, though it was in the overhead on many of the flights, since it won’t always go under on aisle seats.

    AVL and ATL both had FuelRod stations, but I hadn’t thrown mine in the bag this trip, so I’m not sure if they were charging for swaps or not. There wasn’t anything large enough to read in passing either way.

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