Are Air Berlin’s luggage scales a “scam”?

Luggage fees are a quick and relatively easy way for an airline to make money, but the European discount airlines have turned it into an artform.

If your carry-on tips the scale a few grams over the limit, the price of your air transportation can routinely double, thanks to their punitive and arbitrary baggage surcharges.

Nicholas Dominick recently found himself on the wrong side of that scheme when he flew from Venice to Münster, Germany, via Berlin on Air Berlin. Knowing the airline’s strict luggage policies, he’d weighed his luggage and it added up to a total of 40 kilos.

“However, when we got to the check-in counter, the agent, who was unbelievably unpleasant, said the scale showed our total weight to be 48 kilos, and she wouldn’t let us check in unless I paid an additional 120 euros,” he says. “There was very little time before the flight, and the agent didn’t seem like they would be very helpful anyway, so I paid the fee with cash and we left to board the flight.”

But then things got a little more interesting. He explains,

As we were boarding the flight, another passenger approached us to say that he, too, had been overcharged by the same agent. He had weighed his bags prior to getting to the airport and they were 4 kilos under the 40 kilo limit, but the check-in lady said his bags weighed 44 kilos and charged him an excess baggage fee as well. Clearly, the scale that this agent was using was calibrated incorrectly.

It got worse. Air Berlin had incorrectly tagged their luggage, and their belongings were lost for almost a month. In other words, the airline had charged them extra and then lost their suitcases — a “bad experience,” says Dominick. (That’s putting it nicely.)

I assumed that his polite, written inquiry to Air Berlin would yield a prompt explanation about the scales in Venice and at the very least, a sincere apology for losing his belongings. Air Berlin also should have covered some of Dominick’s expenses while his luggage was lost.

But two months later, and several emails between Air Berlin’s North American office later, he didn’t have any kind of meaningful response from the airline. That’s when I decided to step in to help.

I contacted Air Berlin’s North American office on his behalf, and asked if they could help get an answer. The response? We don’t handle customer complaints from this office.

But they forwarded Dominick’s file to the main office, which eventually responded:

We are sorry we disappointed you in so many ways. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments with us.

We would like to extend to you our regret and sincere apologies for the inconveniences caused.

Our records show you checked in three bags weighing a total of 48kgs. Please note that all scales are calibrated and inspected on a regular basis. Against this background, we regret a refund of the excess baggage fee is not possible.

We would also like to apologise for the disruption of your service to Münster and subsequent delayed baggage delivery. For further assessment, please submit all original receipts of additional costs incurred by the service and baggage delay. Kindly include your bank details (SWIFT code, account number).

In addition, as a gesture of goodwill, we would like to grant you a discount of 150,00 € on your next reservation with us for a flight with airberlin, Niki or Belair.

At this time, please once again accept our most sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused. Thank you for bringing these occurrences to our attention and for giving us the opportunity to review them.

Dominick is unhappy with the airline’s response. He calls the luggage scales a “scam” and believes Air Berlin’s apology is insincere.

He wonders: Is Air Berlin’s compensation enough?

A look at its contract of carriage (PDF) suggest that it might be lowballing him.

Baggage delays: In case of baggage delay, the air carrier is liable for damage unless it took all reasonable measures to avoid the damage or it was impossible to take such measures. The liability for baggage delay is limited to 1 131 SDRs (approximate amount in local currency).

But we won’t know the answer until Dominick submits his receipts.

“The more I learn about Air Berlin,” he says, “The more I wished I had never flown them.”

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • sirwired

    It’d be nice if it were a legal requirement to refund any and all baggage fees paid if the bag does not arrive on the same flight as the passenger.  I have no idea why the airlines think it’s a good idea to fight that requirement; it just makes them look even MORE customer-hostile.  After all, FedEx will refund my money if my package is late, and their whole business is charging “baggage fees”!

    As far as the scales go… it’s hard to call it a “scam” without more data.  Consumer scales are never calibrated except in the low-rent Chinese Scale Factory, so it’s hard to say which one is accurate.  In my state anyway, scales must be checked annually by the local Dept. of Weights and Measures.

    Even if it is out of whack, it happens.  Scales that get bags slammed on them all day long will eventually get knocked out of calibration.  That’s an accident, not a scam.

    If I was a similarly situated consumer, I’d politely request the bag be checked on the scale in another check-in lane if there were any surprises on the weight.

  • Nick Gilbert

    This happened to me with a different airline in the Dominican Republic, I weight my back at the hotel and it was under 50 pounds, then at the airport it was 55 pounds, my wife’s back also weighed higher at the airport.  Luckily we had extra room in our carry on and were able to take some stuff out.

    I’m not sure exactly what they mean by calibrated on a “regular basis” but it seems they are not doing it regularly enough.

  • Crissy

    I saw that he was in a rush and the agent wasn’t very nice, but I would have asked them to try another scale.

    I recently weighed a bag myself and was 48 pounds, when I got to the airport I was 51.5 pounds.  The Jetblue agent didn’t charge me, just taged that bag as ovverweight.

  • Bernard Rappoport

     He shouldn’t have paid cash.  With a credit card, if the bag hadn’t arrived, he could have disputed the charge as being a service not received.

  • Kairho

    We went to India last month and while we were not overweight on the outbound my bag weighed 19 kg and on the return, with no contents changed except the addition of maybe 3 kg worth of purchases, it weighed in at 17 kg.  Go figure.

    (then again we were on a major, real, airline, not one of the cash strapped toy ones)

  • Cosmos Human

    Don’t scales have to be certified by the local governmental authority? Are the scales at “ZERO” before the baggage in placed?

  • Cybrsk8r

    @SirWired.  As an engineer, I find a calibration error of over 20% to be unlikely.  Also the fact that a second passenger’s bags also weighed 8 kilos more than a previous measurement makes it more likely that the airport scale was off, perhaps deliberately.  As for your arguement that “things just happen” well, maybe they do, but that shouldn’t give the airline a license to screw over it’s customers, which seems to be what you’re suggesting.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I HATE DISQUS!!!!  It is universally reviled on message boards across the internet.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I’m sorry to hear about that. If you have a better solution, please let me know. I’m open to it.

  • John Keahey

    A suggestion would be to arrive early enough to check your bags on the airline’s scales before the stations open and the lines start. I’ve done this several times in Sicily and Rome.

  • y_p_w

    I rather like it.  I can use my preferred user name across multiple websites, and they allow editing.

    Some don’t implement it well, but I think it’s better than most of the commenting engines I’ve seen.  It’s not specifically a message board software system.  They specifically don’t encourage quotes or give other features like you’ll find on message board systems, which is intentional.

  • TouchyFeely

    Calibrate regularly.  Sure.  if you actually believe that I have a nice bridge you might like.

  • TouchyFeely

    You must have a different interface than I do, because I have half a dozen choices on how to login. 

  • Cybrsk8r

    Logging in isn’t the problem.  The problem occurs when the text lags behind the typing, somtimes by as much as three seconds.   Also, check the image.  After four lines of text, the text dissappears behind the bar.  I,likes the system the way it was when I first started comoming onto this site.  The previous sentence illustrates the problem. You have no way of seeing what you typed when it’s behind the bar.

  • Bill

    Can’t get my password to work.

  • LarryB

    I’ve flown Air Berlin (MUC – Orly) and had to deal with the luggage thing. At least you can pay their ridiculous fees at the check-in counter now. When I did it, I had to walk halfway across the airport, wait in another line, walk back with a receipt and then check my bag. At least the didn’t lose it.

  • Michael__K

    The textarea should re-size automatically if you have a browser that supports iframes.   You may want to try upgrading/re-installing browsers (the latest versions of IE, FF, & Chrome should all work).

  • Miami510

    I was surprised to hear this story about Air Berlin.  My experience flying with them has been exemplary. 
    I have my own way of moderating the excess baggage charges.  I arrive a the airport a little earlier than required and look for any airline check-in counter that, at the moment, has no flights, i.e. there are no people in line.  I use their scales to weigh my luggage.  Recently I found I was slightly overweight… so I unpacked my hiking boots and put them on and put the shoes I was wearing in my check in luggage.  My wife’s check-in luggage was also slightly over in weight.  She took some items and put it in the handbag she carries.  Then we sailed through our own check-in line with no overweight problems.
    Air Berlin made a public relations error.  When they offered a credit on a future flight they were merely doing what they should have done: refund the overweight charges. 
    Side note:  Thanks, once again, to Christopher Elliott for this Website.  These stories and the postings make us all aware of the pitfalls in travel and give us some coping mechanisms.

  • bc

    The time to dispute your luggage issue is at the airport, not months after the flight. Did you expect Air Berlin’s response to be anything different than “our scales are calibrated often”? 
    I had EasyJet try this on me, I had put my luggage on a scale at an empty station before I got into the check-in line. When it all of a sudden showed 4kg over the limit I insisted they weigh it on another scale.

  • bc

    And this is the place to bring this up?

  • NoJets

    Actually. I worked for an airline. I constantly witnessed the scales being checked by the state weights and measures department and they were always correct.

    So, actually, from what I witnessed, your statement is technically correct. The scales were NOT calibrated regularly, because they didn’t need to be.

  • NoJets

    Having worked for an airline, I witnessed the scales being inspected by the state weights and measures department. I never saw one that did not pass inspection.

  • y_p_w

    Yeah – I find that some web browsers stink when it comes to resizing windows automatically.  My solution is just to try and enter as much as I can, post, then edit the post.  For whatever reason, the edit box doesn’t have the same issue.

  • Dave Lieberman

    Venice is not in the United States and their airport is notoriously passenger-unfriendly.

  • Steve_in_WI

    Really, I see two separate issues here: one is the question of whether or not the scales were correct. Being off by 20% is a huge discrepency, but I can’t say whether the customer or the airline are correct.

    However…the passenger’s bags are delayed almost a month, and the airline’s response is to offer him a probably useless discount on a future ticket? That’s the part that disgusts me. Because of the delay, he ought to be refunded 100% of the bag fees he paid, regardless of whether or not the scale was correct.

  • moiraj927

    I hear you loud and clear!  I was away for two weeks and when I returned, I could not login.  The indication was that I would have to re-register.  Disqus would not accept my old ID and PW so I tried Facebook and Yahoo.  Facebook did not allow me to register, but Yahoo did.  Unfortunately, I am now posting as moiraj927 which is my Yahoo ID and not as Sadie Cee which was my former Elliott ID.  I also have the problem of text disappearing behind the bar which is annoying if one is trying to review what one has written or to make a correction.  I hesitated to make this known as it is not the largest problem in the world, but now that you mention it, I took the opportunty to make it known.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I have the latest version of IE8

  • NoJets

    Thanks for the clarification.
    Sorry, I thought TouchyFeely was making a general statement and not Venice specific.

  • cowboyinbrla

    Except, Miami, to claim the “refund” the passenger has to choose to fly this airline again – within the timeframe the voucher’s good for. Airlines are notorious for issuing vouchers that are good for, say, one year from the date you purchased the original ticket – which might have been four months before the flight and six months before the voucher was finally issued – giving you six months to decide to travel, book a flight, and use the voucher, or it’s worthless. On top of that, the voucher will often be only applicable to certain classes of fares, so if you find an inexpensive internet-only fare, for instance, the voucher may not apply.

    Vouchers in general are worth only slightly more than Monopoly money.

  • Michael__K

    Looks like in IE8 the textarea expands (at least for me) but the buttons remain stationary and may hide 1 or 2 lines of text underneath.

    One workaround is to insert blank lines under the buttons (which you can edit out later).

    Or use FF(8+) or Chrome.

  • Lindabator

    They did ask for his receipts and bank routing information, which shows they would be refunding once they received that – he may just not have wanted to wait!

  • moiraj927

    Can you tell Bill where he should bring it up?  He is obviously asking for help.

  • euro_flyer

    To me there’s two basically independent issues in play..

    #1 is the scales and their accuracy.. I’d say that SO LONG AS the scales were properly calibrated at the time of the incident- and if required by local or national commerce law or the like, bear the proper inspection seals by the relevant authorities, AND that the airline can provide such documentation to this effect, then I’d say no.. the “official” scales showed the weight as XX and that’s what was and should have been charged..

    Short of that, then I think the OP does have the possibility for a legitimate claim of inaccuracy… but again, this is not to say that their is no possibility of the OP’s scales being off or improperly calibrated or the like..

    #2 is the bag claim.. To me, this should be more a matter of following contractual, convention or applicable consumer law on the matter. If the OP is entitled to more, and has or can meet the any required documentation requirements, then that’s what the OP should receive..  By contrast, if the OP isn’t entitled to such, or cannot or will not produce the required documentation, then no, thee OP should not receive anything further.. To me, this second point should be a matter of more objective assessment and not one of subjective interpretation.

  • Asiansm Dan

    First, why paying by cash? It seem it’s a scam by local check-in agents. Many airlines use the Airport service when they don’t have a sufficient number of flights to have their own check-in counters or personnel. I remember there are some airlines give bonus to the agents who enforce the weight limit and collect extra fees. I believe Nicholas claim. I think Air Berlin had their own investigation and found the claim legitimate.

  • Nancy Dickinson

    I have to wonder if someone’s toe isn’t sliding over to the scale when they weigh bags?

  • Nancy Dickinson

    Scales can also be set for “Tare” though that usually shows as a negative number prior to weighing.  I have to wonder if the same 8 pounds means something is amiss?

  • MarkieA

    But 8 kilos in this case? That’s over 16 pounds! Your home scale would have to be waaaay off.

  • MarkieA

    I’m beginning to think that “calibrated” means that the airline can rest assured that their airport scale is just the right amount wrong.

  • n_dominick

    Thank you to everyone who has added their thoughts to our issue with Air Berlin.  In hindsight, I of course should’ve used a credit card for the baggage fees.  Then again, I don’t think even a credit card company would’ve agreed to charge back the excess baggage fees when the airline refuses to budge on their stance about the scales being correct.  In any case, it is still my hope that the combination of the month-long delivery delay, and the airline’s own contract of carriage will inspire Air Berlin to do the right thing.  And maybe by them seeing this post with all the votes and comments against them, they’ll realize that it’s not a smart move to disappoint so many potential customers.  I am continuing to communicate with them, with hopes of a much-improved resolution.  Thank you again to everyone.

  • flutiefan

    no.  at least in the US.  if a company is charging any money based on weight, the government has to come in and perform a calibration and document it. there are always State Weights & Measures stickers for you to verify. 
     i can’t just set the scale to any ol’ weight.

  • n_dominick

    MUCH BETTER NEWS!  After I sent Air Berlin the link to this wonderful article by Christopher Elliott, they have agreed to refund the 120 Euro excess baggage charge (as well as all the expenses we incurred due to their nearly-month-long baggage delay)!  I fully believe that all of your comments and votes made a wonderful difference!  Thank you to everyone, and especially Christopher Elliott!

  • Ana

    Where to begin? Every part of this trip was horrid. NEVER AGAIN. Our flight from JFK was late, which made us miss the flight we had to catch from Berlin to Corfu, Greece. Their only gesture of help to us? A ten dollar voucher! We were traveling with 7 people! The trip was exhausting and ridiculous to say the least! Besides having to take an extra unnecessary flight to Kohln, Germany to take to Corfu, the leg room was sized ten timed too small and the food was beyond gross. To make matters worse they lost ALL SEVEN LUGGAGES! How in the world- they are the ones who had assured us (because we asked insistently in Kohln, since we were terrified this would happen) and THEY SAID over and over that our luggages were on board- they even showed us something on a computer screen that said so. But when we got to Corfu there was nothing. A fun family trip- where we are supposed to be enjoying time with our greek relatives has turned into a sad headache. This all happened within the last 7 days, and after calling everyday for hours they’ve just informed us that it is a lost cause. We are furious! How can you assure us our luggages were on board and then they weren’t? Not to mention all the sentiments items and hundreds of dollars that are irreplaceable. Never again! Please just pay the extra couple bucks for another airline, airberlin is not worth it. They should be ashamed. They were also very short and rude with us.