On a recent flight, an airline employee (either gate agent or flight attendant) who had just stepped out of the plane told my family that there was no more room in the overhead compartments, and we needed to gate-check our bags. I asked if we could keep just one, but was told it was completely full. So we checked them, after stuffing everything we absolutely needed into my son's backpack and wife's purse.

As soon as we got onto the plane, we realized that there were plenty of empty overhead spaces, especially near the back where we were seated. The first employee had outright lied to us. I mentioned this to a flight attendant who said that the reason was just time based - once we got close enough to takeoff, they automatically started gate-checking carry-ons. We then noticed that passengers behind us in line still had their carry ons. So that didn't seem accurate either. So a 3rd attendant told us that it was solely weight based - the airplanes had to balance the amount of weight above and below the passenger compartment.

Is this accurate? Do airlines gate-check carry-ons because there is too much weight up top or none on the bottom? If so, how do they choose which and how many bags to check? If not, what reasons other than room would cause the airline to gate-check bags?

  • I'm migrating this from aviation.stackexchange.com to travel.se where it will perhaps more on-topic. Aviation.SE is primarily made up of pilots, aerospace engineers, and other aviation enthusiasts. Questions about airlines treat their passengers aren't really on-topic there unless it has to do with aviation regulations.
    – Bret Copeland
    Aug 11, 2014 at 22:04
  • I have only ever heard about weight being an issue in small planes like the Fokker 50. What type of plane did this flight use?
    – Relaxed
    Aug 11, 2014 at 22:12
  • @Relaxed: The luggage is going on board either way, so absolutely no change to weight.
    – Jan Hudec
    Aug 11, 2014 at 22:12
  • @JanHudec Obviously, but in a Fokker 50, the issue is where people are seated/where the center of mass is, whereas in a larger jet, it does not seem to really matter (at least I have never seen the staff taking any particular measures in this respect).
    – Relaxed
    Aug 11, 2014 at 22:13
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    @Relaxed: If the aircraft is going to be full, the CG will be within limits. Balance would only be issue if it was half-full and everybody sat to one end. In which case the flight attendants would just ask some people to move to the other end. No reason for checking luggage in for that.
    – Jan Hudec
    Aug 11, 2014 at 22:21

3 Answers 3


Out of first hand experience with this as a previous cabin crew, sometimes the cabin crew of a flight signal the ground agents about the overhead compartments being full in the middle of the boarding process, so to avoid possible delays if removing excess hand luggage from the cabin is needed, the ground agents will prohibit cabin luggage for the remaining passengers and check them in at the gate just to be in the safe side and to avoid delays.

The logic behind this makes a lot of sense actually, delays are extremely expensive to airlines (financially and reputation-wise). Plus, extra luggage in the cabin can lead to over filling overhead compartments which lead to safety related hazards, compartments will be full to the point it can be easily popped out open by turbulence, or luggage will fall down on seated passengers heads when opened by passengers.

Bottom line, this is not as bad as it seems if you look at the bigger picture, and remember checked-in luggage is a pain in the neck for airlines, so they are not doing it for fun :)

  • 1
    But what about the OP's observation that there was in fact still plenty of space? Is it likely to be some honest mistake on the part of the cabin crew? Worry that some other part of the cabin was already too full? Or could there be some other reason?
    – Relaxed
    Aug 12, 2014 at 7:37
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    @relaxed, they signal the ground agents once they see passengers start to spend sometime to find a space to store their luggage, so extra space better than extra luggage. Aug 12, 2014 at 7:40
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    So "it's completely full" was most likely an intentional lie, told to pacify a passenger who, if told the truth "there are some areas of the plane that are full" would want to take their chances and keep their hand luggage? Aug 24, 2016 at 8:38

I suspect it is to speed up boarding.

Stowing and unstowing bags takes a lot of time and they can take up quite a bit of room in the narrow aisles. So they are trying to get as much as possible checked in.

There is actually always enough room in cabin for the one bag per person. At worst some can be stowed under seats. So they'll let you take it if you insist enough. After all not everything may be checked in (electronics, anything with lithium batteries) or shouldn't be (anything fragile).

But please keep in mind that it indeed does slow down the boarding and disembarking, so often checking in will be more convenient for you and your fellow passengers as well, especially if you have some luggage checked in (and will have to wait for) anyway.

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    OTOH, low cost carriers actually discourage checking bags in. It might take a little more time when boarding but on the whole I have heard it does improve turn-around time. Without evidence, I find it difficult to believe that gate checking actually speeds up the whole process.
    – Relaxed
    Aug 11, 2014 at 22:34
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    @Relaxed: It should speed up the actual loading and unloading. The check in will obviously take longer. And yes, I am aware of the mix of policies where they discourage you from checking bags in and then on some flights tell you that you should; I suspect it does depend on the load and whether the aircraft is delayed and needs the loading sped up.
    – Jan Hudec
    Aug 11, 2014 at 22:40
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    That's possible and I don't know any better but it sounds like a lot of speculation rather than a real answer.
    – Relaxed
    Aug 11, 2014 at 22:47
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    Personally I love gate-side check=ins. They've always been free and I no longer have to worry about the bag, gain extra room, etc.
    – CGCampbell
    Aug 13, 2014 at 16:32

Sometimes airlines do require carry-on baggage to be checked for weight-and-balance reasons, but I've only ever heard of it being for front-to-back balance, usually in small commuter jets. Left-to-right balance is almost never an issue for airplanes: the dominant factor is the fuel tanks in the wings because of how far out from the center of gravity they are. I've never heard of top-to-bottom balance being an issue, simply because the top and bottom are both so close to the center of gravity.

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