PHOENIX — With small errors adding up to big dollars for travelers, the state Department of Weights and Measures has penalized several airlines for inaccurate luggage scales.
Shawn Marquez, the agency's compliance director, said his inspectors found problems with devices being used at both Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix and Tucson International Airport. He also found situations where airlines did not post their policies on how much customers would pay if their bags were considered overweight.
Marquez said his agency finds the problems particularly disturbing because of the money involved.
He said a customer whose pound of cheese or bologna at a deli counter is actually a bit short might be out a few cents.
“If something is one pound over, they're not going to charge you $50 or $100,” he said.
But Marquez said the situation is quite different at the airport, where each airline has policies where overweight bags result in surcharges.
“So if it's just a little bit off in their favor, it's going to cost the customer,” he said.
What's worse, Marquez said, is that inspectors found problems right at the “break point,” the spot where an airline imposes a surcharge.
“If they were going to charge you (at) 50 pounds or more, at 50 pounds they were off,” he said. Ditto for those airlines where 70 pounds became the point for higher fees.
“If you're going to be charging somebody that much money just for being slightly off, your scales should be right,” he said.
He said the problems came in all types.
In some cases, Marquez said, the scale did not reset to zero.
“So, right off the bat, if there's a number showing on there without any weight on there, you're automatically going to be overcharged,” he said. In other cases, scales would become “stuck” at certain numbers.
Marquez said travelers need to protect themselves so they don't become one of those folks you see at the airport, yanking items out of a suitcase in hopes of getting the bad under the surcharge limit.
The first step, he said, is making use of the bathroom scale. While they're not perfect, they should provide a pretty good idea whether a bag is anywhere close to the limit.
And if the airline's scale shows that bag is overweight, travelers should ask that the item be put on another scale to see if there's a difference.
“They have, 18, 20 of them,” Marquez said of the airlines. “And if you get a better reading there, they'll go with it.”
Inaccurate scales are not the only problem state inspectors found.
Marquez said state law requires the weight of the item be visible to the customer.
“Imagine getting gas and you don't know how much,” he said. “You're just squeezing the handle but you can't see it.”
He said if an airline imposes a surcharge for an overweight bag, the policy — including the weight break point and the fee — must be posted.
“You have to know what it is you're going to be charged,” Marquez said.
“It has to be clearly visible,” he continued. “You can't stick it on a little disclaimer ... on the bottom of something you're never going to know.”