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Weighing luggage: Who's in charge of airport scales' accuracy?

Agencies charged with ensuring that airport scales are properly calibrated vary by state and they do follow a national standard, but you can ask for an overweight bag to be re-weighed.

November 13, 2011
(Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles…)

Question: Recently, my family and I flew to Seattle on Alaska. Aware of the 50-pound-per-bag weight limit, we were careful not to overpack. I also bought a luggage scale, and we limited each bag to about 45 pounds. When we put our luggage on the scale at the airport (at LAX and SeaTac), each bag registered 5 to 10 pounds overweight. Only because I mentioned our luggage scale were the excess baggage fees waived. Is there any agency charged with seeing that airport scales are calibrated? It would be very easy for an airline to intentionally show that luggage is overweight to collect the $25 excess-weight fee.

Michael Silverstein

North Hollywood

Answer: The amazing thing about travel is all the cool stuff you never knew you needed to know and in this case, it's metrology, the study of weights and measures.

The simple answer to Silverstein's question is yes, there is an agency charged with making sure the scales are properly calibrated. In Los Angeles County, it's the Bureau of Weights and Measures; in Seattle, it's part of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Inspections at LAX showed that 84% of the airport scales were accurate. That number was 93% at Bob Hope in Burbank and 62% at Long Beach. Those scales are inspected and calibrated at least annually by the 70 inspectors working for the county bureau, said its director, Jeff Humphreys.

The Seattle airport scales are checked every 36 months. Washington state has 11 inspectors to cover its 68,095 square miles, said Jerry Buendel, program manager for Weights and Measures. (Los Angeles County is 4,070 square miles.)

Agencies that deal with measures follow the standards set forth by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which has "traceability" to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in France. There, a kilogram — the holy grail of weights — is locked away so that it can be the continuing world standard.

None of which solves the overweight bag problem but does suggest that any scale you buy, whether it's a bathroom scale or a luggage scale, may not have quite the same level of attention paid to its calibrations. This doesn't mean your scale is inaccurate, but it doesn't mean it is, either.

If you think the airport scale is off, ask to have your bag weighed on another scale, Buendel said. If it still appears to be overweight, "be prepared to take out some things and repack a little bit," he said.

Using packing cubes will help make that task less odious, said Andrew Hamilton, president of Antler USA, a company that specializes in lightweight luggage. (Yes, it does help if you don't start with a suitcase that weighs a ton.) Hamilton, who travels often, also notes that having elite status or flying first or business class may entitle you to check a bag that exceeds the usual 50-pound limit.

Consumers can also file a complaint. In L.A. County, the number is (562) 622-0400 or (800) 665-2900. You may get results, and you'll surely get some measure of satisfaction.

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