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'Overweight" Baggage

Inspections show inaccurate airline scales may cost travelers money

Oct 26, 2008

Before packing your suitcase and heading to the airport this holiday season, consider this: The airline's baggage scale may be the reason you're paying extra for an overweight bag.

A Sun Sentinel analysis of nearly 2,000 South Florida airport scale inspections found that more than one in four resulted in failures from 2005 to mid-2008, many for technical reasons but some because they couldn't weigh accurately.

Palm Beach International Airport had the worst record for weight-related failures, 12 percent, while Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International and Miami International had 4 percent.

Inaccurate scales could mean travelers are unnecessarily shelling out money for heavy bags, as some airlines have increased fees for overweight luggage to compensate for extra handling and higher fuel costs.

Airlines said only a very small percentage of customers pay overweight bag fees, which are usually at least $50 each way for bags more than 50 pounds, and charges most commonly occur on international flights. Some consumers have filed complaints with the state in recent months, including Joseph Jablonski, of Flanders, N.J.

The 20-year-old and his mom packed a single bag for their four-day Bahamas cruise in July. It weighed 50 pounds on the bathroom scale at home and the JetBlue scale at the Newark airport. Returning from the cruise, Jablonski said he was surprised when a ticket agent in Fort Lauderdale said his bag was too heavy.

"They were trying to tell us the bag gained 35 pounds in four days," he said, noting they didn't buy much on vacation.

In response to Jablonski's complaint, the state inspected JetBlue scales in early August. The scales passed, and the complaint file was closed.

Spokesman Sebastian White said the airline, which has one of the best inspection records in South Florida, has no record of Jablonski's complaint or evidence of a problem.

Time and money issues
Scales are inspected every 12 to 15 months at South Florida airports. The reports do not show whether faulty scales erred in favor of the airline or consumer. Scales are allowed a small margin of error.

"It's rare that you see a scale seriously off," said Scott Morecroft, inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Bureau of Weights and Measures.

He and others said inaccurate scales most often favor passengers.

"Sometimes you'll get a read that's just obviously wrong, and sometimes when there is an error ... the odds are just as good it's in the customer's favor," said Tim Smith, spokesman for American Airlines, a major carrier in South Florida. But some passengers are convinced problems with airline scales go unnoticed because travelers and ticket agents either assume each scale is accurate or are too busy racing through the check-in process to question a scale's accuracy.

"We checked three different scales and each scale was showing different," said Dilip Patel, a Miami resident who filed a complaint on behalf of his sister-in-law Deena Patel.

Deena Patel departed Miami in May on a Northwest Airlines flight to India. She repacked her two bags several times and left behind gifts for relatives to avoid paying overweight fees.

Patel, who was with his relative that day, said the Northwest ticket agent refused to check his sister-in-law's bags on another scale in the terminal — one that showed her "overweight" bag was a few pounds under the limit.

"She said there was no time to check and it wasn't her problem," Patel said.

Northwest tests its scales once a year, spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo Shannon said.

A state inspector's report, filed more than a week after the complaint, shows all Northwest scales passed inspections. Notes indicate Cardinal Scale Co. had serviced the scales prior to the inspector's visit.

Adding to stress of travel

Forcing customers to repack at the airport or pay a fee "puts people through an undue amount of stress," said Kate Hanni, executive director for Overweight bag fees are just a "trick" airlines use to generate additional revenue, she said.

"There should be a 5-pound grace weight," Hanni said.

Airline employees are not likely to know whether scales are inaccurate unless the problem is obvious, state officials and scale companies said.

"If it's 1 or 2 pounds off, they're not going to notice," Morecroft said.

Some airlines, including Miramar-based Spirit Airlines — whose scales at Fort Lauderdale passed inspection only 53 percent of the time and therefore ranked among the worst performers — allow their ticket agents to waive the fee for passengers with baggage weighing 1 or 2 pounds over the limit.

Airlines with some of the best inspection records at South Florida airports, such as JetBlue, exceed state requirements by contracting with scale companies for three-month calibration checkups. Spirit said it has its own employees test scales every six months "because it's cheaper," and outsources maintenance on an as-needed basis. Others do not perform any routine maintenance.

State regulations do not require fines to be issued for failed inspections, even for repeat offenses. The priority is to get problems fixed, officials said.

Owners of scales with minor weight errors are required to fix them within five days as long as the scale errs in favor of passengers. If the scale's calibration benefits the airline, the owner has one day to make the correction. Scales that are seriously wrong are pulled from service until the problem is fixed.

"Scale problems typically occur through wear and tear," said Max Gray, chief of the Bureau of Weights and Measures. "There's not a lot a scale owner can do to prevent it."

Patel said the experience his sister-in-law had at the airport left his family feeling "cheated."

County airport authorities, Patel said, should provide accurate scales for travelers to test their bags before getting in the check-in line. That way consumers can fix their weight problem or argue effectively with airlines that don't appear to have accurate scales, he said.

"Most of the travelers, their hands are tied," Patel said. "Even if they want to cancel the ticket, they have to pay."

Inspections show inaccurate airline scales may cost travelers money
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