Airport luggage scales: Overweighing your bags?

Michael Oder - BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) -- How accurate are the scales at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport? WIAT 42 News investigated and found errors that could have cost passengers more money when checking bags. I've been working for months to find out about the scales at the Birmingham airport. They take a beating every day. The next time you fly and check a bag, you might want to check the scale, too.

Everyday thousands of people fly in and out of Birmingham, hundreds of flights a week. Those who check a bag are very aware of how much they weigh. "I am. I have a scale right beside me weighing as I go," laughed Leamon Stoudemire, a Birmingham resident. When they get to the airport and put their bag on scale, most don't think twice about the read out.

"I weigh it before I head out," said Robin Holley. She tells me she's usually not surprised when she puts her suitcase on the scale. Those scales are important. If your bag is as much as one pound over the limit, you can be charged a heavy bag fee.

"You know, if you're really traveling far and you've got to take a couple weeks of clothes, it's hard to keep it under 50 pounds," said Holley. "I think it's ridiculous."

A new report says that as many as 77% of airport scales could be inaccurate. So we wondered -- how accurate are the scales at the Birmingham airport?

First, we took a bag with a five pound weight inside to several local shipping stores. Each scale weighed in just under six pounds -- 5.94 to be exact. Then, we took it to the airport. We checked scales at each airline. Of the 17 scales we checked, five scales overweighed our bag by a several pounds. Two scales actually under weighed our bag. The display on one scale didn't even work. Then, we saw inspection stickers that were dated 2013.

The stickers come from inspectors with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Weights and Measures division. Months into our investigation, it became clear that the Weights and Measures division is  woefully understaffed. Because of issues like the ones we found at the airport, the state is now making a drastic change.

"Mostly lack of revenue and cut back in manpower," explained Weights and Measures Director Stacy Boshel. Since our investigation started, his division is now letting certified service agents inspect the scales and pumps and report back to the state. In 2011, his department went from having 31 agents to just having seven.

"They'll never catch up with probably 150,000 devices to test annually," said Boshel. "No way they'll ever get around to all of them."

"We have not had any type of complaints," said Tony Herrera-Bast, with the Birmingham Airport Authority. She tells me passengers haven't complained about being charged for a heavy bag.

"Some of our larger airlines own their own [scales] because it ties into their system and other use scales that belong to the airport," she explained. The Airport Authority tells me they do actually have the scales serviced every year and inspected. She showed us the handwritten inspection stickers on scales at the airport. Bast explained the green 2013 stickers are from when the scales were first installed. The airport says the scales have been inspected since then.

Bast's advice to travelers? "First of all, when you come up here, don't assume that this is just going to work like my scale at home," said Bast. She says passengers can ask to take things out of a heavy bag to reduce their weight or ask for a bag to be weighed on another scale.

I reached out to the airlines that operate their own scales at the airport.

Bast, and everyone I talked to in the travel industry, says it's up to the passenger to know the rules and fees. To help, AirFareWatchdog has a complete list of the fees airlines charge. Check them out here.

Ultimately, you should check with the airline you booked your ticket with for their rules on bags.

Copyright 2015 WIAT 42 News

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