Sky-High Fees for Overweight Bags

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Jens-Ulrich Koch / AFP / Getty

A Ryanair Boeing 737-800 prepares for takeoff at the Leipzig-Altenburg Airport in eastern Germany

Update Appended: Feb. 3, 2009

The economy's gotten so bad, it won't be long before we all revert to hunting-gathering. So it's no surprise that every company seems to be doing what it can to earn a little more cash — including airlines. Extra charges for food, movies and blankets have become commonplace, but could airlines also be lining their pockets with fees for overweight baggage measured on faulty scales?

Offending Party: Ryanair, a low-cost European carrier

What's at Stake: a 20-euro ($26) charge for an allegedly overweight bag

The Complaint: Andres Felipe Alonso-Rodriguez flew on Ryanair last August from Valencia, Spain, to Milan. At check-in, the scale at the airline counter showed that his bag weighed 12 kg (26.5 lb.), 2 kg above the limit for a carry-on, so Alonso-Rodriguez was forced to check it. The cost: 20 euros. That's almost one euro for every one of his names.

Alonso-Rodriguez didn't think his bag was that back-breaking, and he says the airport scale registered 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) even with nothing on it. When he arrived at his destination, he weighed his bag on another scale and found that it was under the 10-kg limit. Good thing Oprah doesn't have Ryanair's scales, or she'd be more depressed than usual.

The Outcome: A rep for Ryanair says the airline is not responsible for maintaining the scales in the Valencia airport. So, were those scales miscalibrated? It's impossible to say, but if they were, it wouldn't be that surprising.

In 2007, an investigation by the Sunday Times of London found that a 14.8-kg (32.6-lb.) piece of luggage placed on Ryanair's scale at London's Stansted Airport registered 17 kg (37.5 lb.). Numerous bloggers and online posts also attest to Ryanair's allegedly faulty scales.

But the problem is not confined to Europe. In December, investigators at Tucson International Airport inspected 15 scales and discovered they were all off-kilter. In November, a check of 810 scales at New York City's La Guardia and J.F.K. airports found that 102 of them had not been calibrated correctly. Of the defective scales, 28 belonged to American Airlines, which charges some of the steepest bag fees in the industry: $15 to check the first bag, $25 for the second and $100 for the third; to check overweight (over 50 lb.) bags costs $50 to $100 per piece.

"As a passenger, I'm not sure how you can avoid paying the fees, other than weighing your luggage at home on a scale," says Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. "You can certainly say you're not going to pay it, but then the airline can say you're not getting on the plane."

Macsata says the best thing to do if you think you've been wrongly charged for a piece of weighty baggage is to keep your cool. Don't lash out at the airline representative. You can ask to have your bag weighed on a different scale, but if you still get hit with a fee, pay it with a credit card, then call your credit-card company and let them know you plan to dispute the charge. You should also file a grievance with the airline.

"In a case like this, your available remedies are limited," Macsata says. Just one more example of how unfriendly the once friendly skies have become.

The Avenger attempted repeatedly to obtain comment or recompense from Ryanair, neither of which the airline provided. After the initial publication of this article, Ryanair's rep called to say the airline is not responsible for maintaining the scales in the Valencia airport.

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