Airport Ethics: And This Is How Cheating Becomes Respectable

The owners of these bags are suckers.

Traveling from Cleveland to Washington. D.C., today, I noted that the ridiculous airport baggage checking policies have borne predictable fruit. Easily 50% of the fliers on my plane cheated, sneaking their bags through security to avoid the luggage charge.

And it is cheating.

The airline charges $25 for each bag checked. The airport screeners don’t know or care who is on what flight, so it is easy to get bags through security that are too large to fit in the overhead compartments of some or all flights. Once you get them through security (slowing down the line for everyone else: the line in Cleveland went so slowly that I though I was in a Candid Camera stunt. Six travelers celebrated birthdays, two retired, and one girl went through puberty while we waited. And I had to shave repeatedly), the attendant at the gate will tell you that your bag won’t fit, and gives you a tag. You tag the bag, and leave it on the jetway. Then it is picked up and put on the flight. After you land, the bag is delivered to the jetway, meaning that the cheaters also get their bags without waiting for the carousel, or having to worry about them getting lost.

I continue to check my bag, since this maneuver, effective though it is, is still an unethical exploitation of the vagaries of flying, and clearly unfair to those who play, and pay, by the rules. Of course, a loophole in the rules allows the cheaters to avoid the luggage charges and inconvenience fellow passengers without technically violating the rules. As their behavior becomes more common and obvious, those who play it straight begin to feel like patsies and fools. If the airlines don’t care enough to stop cheaters, why not cheat? The cheaters save money, get better service, and risk nothing. Eventually, a majority of fliers will cheat. Maybe everyone except me.

This, I suspect, is why cheating flourishes in schools, why baseball became infected with steroids, and why so many politicians sell their votes. Eventually a system that doesn’t enforce its rules, reward honesty or exhibit integrity corrupts everyone who deals with it. When unethical conduct really does work better than ethical conduct, it becomes difficult to argue that it’s unethical.


Graphic: Colourbox

5 thoughts on “Airport Ethics: And This Is How Cheating Becomes Respectable

  1. I just got back myself and saw the same thing. The worse part on one of my legs was that a couple with two small children opted not take advantage of the offer to board before their “group” and as a result there was no room left in the overheads and had to stuff all of their baby stuff under the seats. Even though the flight wasn’t full there wasn’t one bit of room left.

  2. I’ve recently flown and noticed the behaviour you described — in fact, I took part in it!

    I’ve paid the charges willingly when I couldn’t pack lightly enough to fit everything in a carry-on. However, my understanding is that on small planes, even the one carry-on bag you’re allowed won’t necessarily fit under the seat in front of you and there are no overhead compartments, so you’re offered the jetway service. That’s why I left my backpack at the jetway for a flight to New Haven, anyway. I didn’t notice any full-sized pieces of luggage being rolled around. Are you sure you weren’t observing something similar? In my experience, the only bags that go through security with the passenger are ostensible carry-on bags with dimension restrictions and all that.

    • With respect, it’s not at all difficult to bring a too-large bag in through security, and I should add that I fly from the same airports that Jack does.

      With self check-in it’s trivial to bypass the usual ticketing attendant who would first question the bag (and the airlines–rightly–encourage you to use it).

      In the security line, the TSA is not part of the airline and has no real interest in enforcing airline-specific policies for 10-20 different airlines. Every airline has slightly different rules and ALL passengers from ALL airlines go through the same security screening. TSA will only get involved if the bag is too big to fit through the X-Ray machine. Otherwise, I expect they assume that the ticketing attendant has given it a thumbs-up.

      So all that’s left is the gate attendant, and the only available remedy to him or her is gate checking. And keep in mind that the problem is less about single bags being too large as it is about too many just-small-enough bags to fit in the available space.


    • That’s how it works here. There are lots of little metal cages on stands before security that your bag HAS to fit in or you are forced to check it. Security will send you back if your bag does not completely fit inside the cage. Funniest thing is to watch the passenger that has stuffed, stood on and generally squished their bag into that cage, almost miss a flight because they can’t get their bag out of the cage. If you wedge a bag into it, it will bulge out the sides of the metal bars and really hold itself in. Of course, this doesn’t mean bags too large never get through. Security is, after all, trying to keep actual security as a priority rather than baggage policing. But they do pay a good amount of attention to bag size and I have seen them send many people back to luggage checkin. I have even seen airport security stop a woman and ask her to show him that her bag fits in the cage. When she could not get it completely inside, he sent her to baggage check in.

  3. This same kind of cheating is going on in the express check out of the grocery here all the time. Yesterday, after standing in the express check out line with a bag of dog food and container of cream for about 15 minutes, I looked at the woman behind me and said…. either these are the slowest cashiers on the planet or there is a huge number of people unable to count to 12 in our society. She laughed and said lets count. We did a quick non-scientific survey and of the 9 people still left in front of us, only 1 had less than 12 items. The 7 people behind us did much better with 5 of them at less than 12 items.

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