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Ask Airfarewatchdog: Do Airport Luggage Scales Lie? And More Q&A

I doubt it's a conspiracy, but you should never trust airport check-in desk luggage scales.
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Are Airport Luggage Scales Accurate?
Q: I recently took a trip where I was dangerously close to being overweight with both my checked bags. With this in mind, I weighed both my bags with a certified scale before leaving the house and found that each bag weighed under 40 pounds. When I got to the check-in counter, however, my first bag weighed in at 57 pounds on the airline scale, the other at 42. So I took some stuff out of the first bag and put it into the second bag to keep both bags under the 50-pound limit (after which excess weight charges would kick in). Is it possible the airlines' scales aren't zeroed automatically? Or is this a conspiracy to add up those "overweight" charges?

A: I doubt it's a conspiracy, but you should never trust airport check-in desk luggage scales. WBZ-TV in Boston reported that the scales at Logan Airport's Terminal E (the international terminal, where you can really get hit with serious luggage fees since international overweight charges are very high, as this updated fee chart shows) were inaccurate. Most local jurisdictions have a bureau of weights and measures responsible for checking the scales at least annually, but a lot can happen between checks. It's a good idea to carry a portable digital luggage scale if you typically travel with checked bags weighing near the 50-pound "overweight" limit so that you can check the accuracy of the airport scales. They're available at local luggage stores or online.

Airlines Playing Games With Seat Selection?
Q: Do airlines block out a large section of seats to make it appear there are fewer seats remaining? When Alaska Airlines cancelled the final leg of our trip, we reviewed the airline website for flights returning a day before and after our original return date. None of the alternate flights offered adjoining seats. Yet, when we called Alaska, they immediately assigned us two seats together in a section that appeared to be completely filled on their website. How likely is it that we will be reassigned seats?

A: Yes, some airlines do block out seats, even if the plane is half-empty, and sometimes a call to the airline will sort things out. They do this in part to accommodate last-minute business customers who are flying on higher-priced "walk up" fares, to cater to their preferred frequent travelers and also, in some instances, to entice consumers to purchase "premium" seat assignments for a fee. Even if you end up not sitting together, it's always possible to ask fellow passengers to trade seats. A good strategy is to offer to buy the accommodating passenger a couple of cocktails on board, or bring along some Starbucks gift certificates ($10 should do the trick) as a thank-you.

This Airfare Strategy Is Risky (In More Than One Way)
Q: We were scheduled to fly from Chicago to Orlando via Atlanta for my brother-in-law's wedding. Our flight from Chicago to Atlanta was delayed due to weather so we ended up arriving at the gate for our connecting flight to Orlando (the last flight of the day) with just five minutes to spare, only to learn that Delta had given our seats away to standby passengers. As a result, we couldn't get to Orlando in time for the wedding, which was scheduled for the following morning. Under what circumstances are airlines allowed to give away your seat to standby passengers? Why do they do this?

A: First of all, come on. You really put yourself on the last flight of the day flying through Atlanta? Whenever you're flying for a "can't-miss" event (wedding, funeral, cruise departure, important business meeting), it's a bad idea to take a connecting flight and a worse one to schedule your arrival at the last minute on the last flight of the day. To answer your question, Delta probably gave away your seat because they figured you wouldn't make the connection and a standby passenger is the proverbial bird in hand. This has happened to me as well, and it's very annoying -- but apparently it works for the airlines' bottom lines otherwise they wouldn't keep annoying passengers like this.