Avoid Being Forced to Gate Check a Carry-On Bag?

Avoid Being Forced to Gate Check a Carry-On Bag?

How can you avoid being forced to gate check a carry-on bag? Readers know that I detest checking luggage (see How to Avoid Checked Luggage and 6 Reasons to Never Check Baggage). But what happens if the Gate Agent insists you have to gate check your carry-on, with all your valuables inside it? 

Reader Patrick unfortunately had this unpleasant experience with being forced to gate-check his carry-on:

“Please inform me of my rights to bring aboard my carry-on. I was going to Cabo with a connection.  When we were boarding the gate agent said there was no room for our one carry-on bag. They said we had to check it on the jet bridge. We asked the agent on the ramp where do we get it between flights (4 hours), but he said we wouldn't get it until our final destination.  I told him that wasn't good,  my wife had medication in there and had to have access to it. He said unless we were in first class, they couldn't do anything.
In the meantime a flight attendant came out of the plane and said they had room for one bag. I immediately ripped off the checked luggage tag & gave it to the attendent. They made such a big deal about my taking off the tag, they said they can remove me from the flight, that was a TSA secured bag, I could be fined. The flight attendant kept provoking me about the incident until we took off, even after I apologized numerous times. Is it true about the tag and do we have to let them check our carry on? Thanks for your assistance. This was an American Airlines flight from Chicago.”
First of all, I'm glad that Patrick and his wife were in the end able to bring their carry-on aboard, including the crucial medication they needed. Is there anything they could have done differently, other than flying first class, to have avoided having their carry-on bag tagged to be gate checked?
Ensure Your Carry-On Meets the Airline's Carry-On Size and Weight Guidelines
Patrick mentions just one carry-on bag, but doesn't say whether it met the American Airlines size restrictions. For American Airlines, carry-ons must:
  • Fit in the bag sizer
  • Maximum 22 inches long, 14 inches wide, 9 inches tall
  • All carry-ons must fit under the seat or in an overhead bin

While this doesn't apply to Patrick's international flight, note that on domestic American Eagle flights each passenger is limited to a personal item in the cabin, with a carry-on item (maximum  45 inches combined for length/width/height) will be valet checked at the gate or planeside. 


Most Airlines State That They (Not You) Get to Decide Which Bags Qualify as Carry-Ons

While American Airlines gives the above measurements as maximums for allowable carry-on bags, that doesn't mean that you have an absolute right to carry on a bag that is under those measurements. By flying any airline, you are subject to that airline's terms and conditions, which are stated in the airline's “Conditions of Carriage.” Here are American Airline's Conditions of Carriage as they pertain to carry-on baggage, bolding mine:

The suitability of carry-on baggage will be determined by American. Each customer will be limited to one carry-on bag and one personal item…At times, additional limits may be placed on carry-on baggage based on the main cabin stowage capacity of specific aircraft, which can result in carry-on bags being checked in the boarding area. In the event it is necessary to check carry-on bags, ensure that fragile or valuable items, such as keys, medication or computers are carried in your personal item.”

Don't Fight the Gate Agent Who Insists on Tagging Your Bag
Since the airline is the final arbiter of what gets to be brought on as carry-on luggage, you don't want to get bogged down in arguing with the gate agent who insists on tagging your bag. Instead, if it does happen, just let him/her do it and proceed down the jet way. What you do next is up to you.
If You Choose to Remove Your Gate Check Tag, Avoid Being Seen Doing It
I'm not advocating for removing your gate check tag, but if you do choose to do this, avoid having anyone see you do this, particularly the gate agent and airline staff. The last thing you want to have happen is to be kicked off the flight.
Creative Last Resort Approaches When Gate Agent Insists on Checking a Carry-On
I've heard of some road warriors getting gate agents to back off their insistence on gate checking a carry-on by cooly rattling off a complex international routing to exotic destinations, with short connection times. Most gate agents are going to hesitate before gate checking a bag on a downstream route that includes TBS-VKO-OMS-OVB-TSE.
Then again, your bluff may be called and you may be asked to produce your itinerary that includes all these destinations, so if you may need a refundable ticket in hand if you're thinking of using this to try to get out of a forced gate check.

Another strategy I've heard of for some airlines that allow it is asking to purchase excess valuation insurance. This isn't possible for American Airlines, but is for United, since United's Contract of Carriage p. 25 stipulates, bolding mine:
A Passenger may, when checking in for a flight and presenting Baggage to be checked for transportation, declare a value higher than the maximum limitation of liability amount…UA's higher valuation may be purchased at the one-way rate of 1 USD per 100 USD of declared higher value, but total declared value may not exceed 5000 USD…
…Excess value charges will be payable on a one-way basis at the point of Origin for the entire journey to the final Destination…”

Ultimately You Do Need to Follow All Crewmember Instructions, Including Regarding Gate Checking Bags
No question, it's incredibly frustrating dealing with overzealous Gate Agents who insist on gate checking your bag, increasing the possibility of the airline losing your bags or not even loading them onto the plane (this is what happened to us with Transaero–see Is Transaero a Good Airline? Not if You Want Your Baggage to Arrive With You–I'm experiencing some delicious schadenfreude now that the airline has filed for bankruptcy).
But as painful as that was, it would have been worse not getting to our destination that day, so do remember that you can be kicked off a flight for not complying with all crewmember instructions, as unreasonable as they may seem.
If you've had a gate agent insist on gate checking a carry-on bag, what did you do?
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