The Insane World of Baggage Check-in Times

American, Baggage, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Northwest, Southwest, United, US Airways

Is there anything more ridiculous than the various baggage check-in time cutoffs that airlines impose? It’s not the idea that bothers me; it’s the hodge-podge execution that drives me crazy. Delta added to the fun by changing JFK’s cutoff from 30 to 45 minutes before departure, all in the name of improving customer service. Please, give me a break. Yes, it improves customer service in that they’ll hopefully lose fewer bags, but it hurts customer service by requiring people to show up earlier.

Life could be much easier. “Bags must be checked in 30 minutes or more for domestic flights and 60 minutes or more for international.” That’s easy to understand and to communicate, right? But of course, a policy that starts out that way turns into a nightmare as carve-outs occur.

I understand that some airports could benefit from more time. In that case, I’d suggest standardizing around the more strict cutoff systemwide. I’d much rather know that it’s a 45 minute cutoff at every airport. Instead, airlines decide to make little exceptions all over the place. The worst offender is easily American Airlines. They have an unbelievable 4 different cutoff times for domestic flights depending upon from which airport you depart. How are you supposed to keep that straight? If your standard is 30 minutes, does Minneapolis/St Paul really need to be 35 minutes? Come on.

And if that’s not confusing enough, some airlines have different rules on their website than they do in their contract of carriage. The contract of carriage is the document with the final say, so stick to your guns if you met the guidelines in that document but not on the website.

Who is the best at making this easy? Well, JetBlue has a flat 30 minutes domestic and 60 international. And they fly to some of the most painful airports around, so the temptation to make JFK earlier than Portland (Maine) has to be there. While they get thumbs up for making the policy simple, they get thumbs down for making it extremely hard to find this info on their website. I’ve linked to it (as well as the others) below. Here are the baggage cutoffs for domestic travel on select carriers.

Airline 15 30 35 40 45 60
American (Conditions of Carriage)   Default MSP ANC, ATL, DFW, EWR, IAD, MCO, ORD, SJU DEN, JFK, LAS, LAX, MIA, STT, STX  
Continental (Contract of Carriage)   Default        
Continental (Website)   Default     ATL, DEN, LAS, LAX, MCO, PHL, PSE, TPA  
Delta (Contract of Carriage)   Default     ATL, DEN, JFK, LAS, LAX, MCO SJU, STT, STX
Delta (Website) DCA & LGA (Delta Shuttle only) Default     ATL, DEN, JFK, LAS, LAX, MCO SJU, STT, STX
JetBlue (Contract of Carriage/Website)   Default        
Northwest (Contract of Carriage/Website)   Default     ATL, DEN, EWR, IAD, LAX, TPA LAS
Southwest (Contract of Carriage/Website)   Default     BWI, DEN, IAD, LAS, LAX, MCO, MDW, PHX  
United (Contract of Carriage)   Default     ATL, CLT, DEN, IAD, JFK, LAS, LAX, MCO, ORD, PDX, PHL, PHX, SEA, SFO, TPA  
United (Website)   Default     ATL, CLT, DEN, IAD, JFK, LAS, LAX, MCO, ORD, PDX, PHL, PHX, SEA, SFO, TPA, IND, RNO, SMF, SNA, YEG, YHZ, YUL, YYZ  
US Airways (Website)   Default     ATL, BUF, CLT, DEN, DFW, HNL, IAD, LAS, MCO, OGG, PHL, PHX, PIT, SEA  

*Edited 2/4/08 to add RNO/SMF for United website policy

  • If you don’t know these airport codes, you can look them up here.

  • Anything that is bold in the table means that the airline has differing rules for that airport on its website when compared to its contract of carriage. I would recommend obeying the more strict of the two, but if you find yourself stuck, you can try to fight for compensation from customer relations after the fact. (You’ll never get anything resolved at the airport.)

  • US states and territories as well as Canada count as domestic here

  • American is the only airline for which I couldn’t find the full contract of carriage. The conditions of carriage are close enough for this purpose.

  • US Airways does not actually specify this information in their contract of carriage, and that is strange. What it does mention is that “If a customer with a seat assignment on US Airways does not obtain a boarding pass at least 30 minutes (60 minutes international) before the scheduled departure time, the customer’s seat assignment (including those seat assignments on continuing or returning flights) may be subject to cancellation. This policy does not apply to US Airways Shuttle flights.
    Passengers departing ATL/DEN/DFW/HNL/IAD/LAS/OGG/PHL/PIT/SEA must present themselves at the US Airways ticket counter no later than 45 minutes prior to departure. Passengers failing to comply will be re-accommodated on the next available US Airways flight.” That’s not the same thing.

You thought this was fun, just wait until tomorrow when I show the international policies for these airlines.

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6 comments on “The Insane World of Baggage Check-in Times

  1. Notice of course that one airport makes repeat appearances on your list, that being crappy DEN. In that case it isn’t the airlines so much as the airport that is the cause of most of the problems. It takes forever for baggage to move through Denver all because of the over-priced automated baggage system they installed. I’ve had to wait up to 40 minutes for my bags to arrive at the baggage claim many times. So in the case of Denver, I think 45 minutes is about equivalent to 30 mintes everywhere else.

  2. Jason, the overpriced automated systems were installed so there wouldn’t be that long of a wait.

    Those systems are quite probably one of the biggest fiascos (or at least the most known) in the airport business. Those systems never worked as designed, and every carrier except United never used the system. Even then, United only used the system for outbound luggage checked at Denver. They dismantled the system in 2005 or 2006 because cost one million dollars per year to keep running.

    So we’ve got a conveyor and baggage cart system at Denver, not a fancy automated system..

  3. It’s also that bags at ATL, DEN, or MCO etc have a pretty far counter-to-tarmac distance to travel — think about the layouts of all those places — you could be going FAR from the lobby to the plane…

  4. I agree about that, but then how can an airline like JetBlue manage 30 minutes in MCO, DEN, etc? They have a pretty good operation in MCO, so you’d think if they could do it, others could as well.

  5. (Sorry for the late response to an old post — I just discovered your blog — but I thought you might find it interesting.)

    I have learned the hard way that there are different baggage check-in times for the curb-side check versus the baggage check at the interior of the airport, also. At ORD recently I arrived at the United terminal to find an extremely long baggage check line (due to the fact that only 2 actual attendants were working at a hub airport line of probably 30 or 40 check-in windows) so I thought for a second and decided to use the curb-side check, which I almost never do. I had arrived at the airport an hour before my domestic flight. I waited in the curb-side line for about 15 minutes or so — it was much shorter than the interior line — and by the time I got up to the front, the agent denied my bag! It turns out I had gotten to the front of this line exactly 44 minutes prior to my departure time. Meanwhile, NOWHERE is it posted that the curb-side check time differs from the interior check time. There was even an agent walking up and down the interior line telling people to jump out to the curb-side for a “shorter line and only a $2 fee!” –NO MENTION of an idiosyncratic 15 minute check-in differential! As you can guess, after much arguing, I went back inside with my bag and by this point did not have enough time to wait through the abysmal interior line before its 30 minute cut-off took effect. I had to literally force an agent to rebook me onto a later flight, and let me tell you, it was an AWFUL experience and very difficult to effect.

    I understand that it must take a little longer to pull the little curb-side cart around to the interior baggage collection area (in this case only about 15 feet away, but alright, fine, I’ll give them this reasoning); however, what bothers me extremely is that:
    1) This cut-off time was never once mentioned (there is a great missed opportunity on the curb-side check-in signage itself, which clearly states the $2 fee but nothing more)
    2) The agents trying to hawk their $2 service seem to deliberately avoid mentioning a cut-off time difference
    3) In my particular case, the baggage cart with the entire 15 minutes of previous bag checks was *still waiting to be taken inside when I stepped up to have my bag checked.* They could very easily have thrown my bag right on top with everyone else’s, but instead, argued with me that it was too late *while the cart stood idly next to them.*

    The whole experience was extremely frustrating and caused me to have to take a later flight, missing paid work time, etc. I probably should have written a letter about it at the time, and now I regret not doing it… anyway, I thought it would be worth a warning to your readers!

  6. SO I had the pleasure of my first CUTOFF time rule by AA. So AA is doing something fishy and they of course know it. They sometimes overbook the flight, LEAVE a suppose “30” seats on hold by the “AIrport” so you don’t have a confirmed seat and as soon as you arrive 5 min to late. They have given you seat away.This happened to me in MIA, it was so obvious, I was in shock.

    …and the worst is, they SLAP you in the face with.. AHHHh you should have arrived earlier.

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