Is it correct, that if the passenger checks in a suitcase - but never shows up at the gate - they have to take the suitcase off the plane before take-off?

Is this a regulatory issue - or is it a company policy?

Edit: I was asking in general, but if an answer requires specifics... :) In this case it was RyanAir flying Malta to UK. They were delayed so much, that it was no longer possible to make the connecting flight (separate booking), but refused to remove the suitcase from the airplane, so my girlfriend could just leave and catch a better flight tomorrow. This surprised me, as I have always heard and believed they will take your suitcase off the plane if you don't show up at the gate.

  • 5
    In what country and with what airline? It can vary with both!
    – Gagravarr
    Mar 31 '16 at 12:06
  • 2
    You might want to narrow this down to smaller geographical regions and/or airlines.
    – JoErNanO
    Mar 31 '16 at 12:25
  • @Kjensen I think your original question and your edit diverge into two separate things: 1) do they need to unload the suitcase 2) how to retrieve the suitcase in case one decides not to fly. Maybe you should align the two things or ask a new separate question for the latter.
    – mts
    Mar 31 '16 at 12:38
  • When I had separate bookings, the reason I missed the second is that both airlines refused to transfer the bag and I had to wait an hour for it in baggage claim.
    – WGroleau
    Mar 31 '16 at 16:34
  • More or less adding to others comments AND a comment on RA. | You can expect them to take it off. If it's Ryan Air you can also expect them to be rude and unhelpful and to charge you anything they reasonably can and as much as they unreasonably can that they can get away with. | Ryan AIr have their place and I have flown with them and still would BUT be prepared for worst case stuff to "just happen", NEVER give them a chance to even just maybe cause you to be too late at check in such that it would be "your fault". Prefer Ryan over Tiger if there is ever a choice. Apr 1 '16 at 10:47

In Europe, the question is covered by Regulation EC 300/2008. Annex I, section 5.3 reads

Baggage reconciliation

  1. Each item of hold baggage shall be identified as accompanied or unaccompanied.
  2. Unaccompanied hold baggage shall not be transported, unless that baggage has been either separated due to factors beyond the passenger’s control or subjected to appropriate security controls.
  • 8
    The beyond the passenger's control bit it quite important; after all there are regular unaccompanied pieces of baggage flying: those which did not manage to board the same plane as their owners (notably due to tight correspondences) and are following via a later plane. Mar 31 '16 at 16:56

This rule was instituted after the Lockerbie bombing. Pan Am flight 103 was a multileg flight from Frankfurt to Detroit, via London and New York. There was an aircraft change at London. A passenger, booked to travel from Frankfurt to Detroit, loaded a suitcase bomb onto the first aircraft at Frankfurt and he himself travelled with it as far as London. At London he deplaned and left the airport; but his luggage was automatically transferred to the next flight as he was booked through to Detroit. The bomb detonated over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing all aboard and eleven on the ground.

In response to your specific question, I surmise that the Ryanair agent did not want you to think they would remove the baggage, because this would cause further delay; therefore by pretending that you would be parted from your baggage, you were persuaded to stay on board. I can assure you that if you insisted on deplaning and left the airport, they would remove your baggage from the hold (or if they didn't they would be in a lot of trouble for it).

  • 2
    Although Locerbie may have caused the current form of the rule, at least as far back as the 1970s, airlines would pull bags off flights in Europe if the passenger failed to get on. I know because several times I was on planes when this happened. I do not know if it was actual regs or just the airlines caring about the safety of their passengers. It used to scare the pants off me when I learned that they do not do this in USA (pre-9/11 - not sure what they do now.)
    – Flynn
    Mar 31 '16 at 17:30

The need to unload the baggage of passengers who don't show up at the gate is driven by concerns about bombs in checked baggage. The general principle is:

It should be impossible for a passenger to deliberately cause a bag he checked in to be carried on a flight that he is not himself on.

If someone could check in a bag and then have a reasonable chance of getting the bag to fly without him simply by not coming to the gate, that would be too convenient a way for terrorists to get bombs into baggage holds. Some efforts are made to screen baggage at the airports, of course, but the screening process is not perfect.

It used to be assumed that a terrorist would not be willing to go down with the plane he bombs -- in this age of suicide attacks this is probably not as airtight an assumption as it was once thought, but presumably the requirement to fly together with your bags still provides some kind of deterrent.

(Late and lost bags are routinely flown without being accompanied by their owner, but that's different in that the passenger cannot really do anything to make his bag be late.)

  • 3
    This is not a theoretical risk. The rule was implemented after Pan Am flight 103.
    – Calchas
    Mar 31 '16 at 12:56
  • So RyanAir's refusal to remove the OP's girlfriend's suitcase is in breach of this rule (otherwise the would-be terrorist could simply replicate her scenario)?
    – JBentley
    Mar 31 '16 at 14:22
  • 4
    @JBentley: It is not clear to me from the question that the airline refused to unload the suitcase from the aircraft -- if the passenger will not board, that's what they have to. But the rules probably don't say that they have to give it back to the passenger immediately after unloading it, or that they can't hit the passenger with a bill for delaying the flight in that way. Mar 31 '16 at 14:30
  • Yeah, while they have to unload it they certainly won't like the situation and will make it as inconvenient as possible. Apr 1 '16 at 1:36

As the other answers explained, it is correct that an airline cannot fly with the baggage of a passenger who has decided not to board the plane.

The airline's refusal here is because they're not prepared to delay all the other passengers on the flight by potentially unloading and reloading all the bags and that they're unwilling to rebook the passenger on a flight the following day. Of course, if a passenger point-blank refuses to get on the plane, the airline cannot force them to travel and their bags must be unloaded. However, unloading bags for passengers who decide not to travel as a matter of convenience is not a service the airline wishes to offer for the convenience of one passenger, set against the huge inconvenience to all other passengers.

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