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Airline baggage rules can be even more convoluted than you think

If your trip has flights on two airlines, find out which carrier's luggage limits apply

Published: July 03, 2015 12:00 PM

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Say you are flying from New York to Singapore round trip with a connecting flight in Los Angeles, and your itinerary involves two different airlines on a single ticket that you bought in a single transaction. The two airlines have different baggage allowances and fees. Whose rules apply for your trip?

More than 14 million passengers in the United States faced this question concerning airline baggage rules between June 1, 2014, and May 31, 2015, according to the Airlines Reporting Corporation, an airlines-owned company that compiles such data. The answer lies with the initial carrier of the trip.

If the U.S. or Canada is your origin or destination

If your journey begins or ends in the United States (including U.S. territories), the carrier on the first segment of the itinerary has the right to set the baggage allowances and fees for the entire itinerary. So says the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over such matters. Canada also recently imposed an identical rule. The rule is in force for both domestic and international carriers, and for all airlines on the ticket. But the most important—and relief-inspiring—point is that the same luggage rules must apply for every flight on the ticket.

If you travel complex itineraries, be aware that this so-called “first carrier rule” also applies to tickets for which the United States or Canada is the farthest checked point (example: Hong Kong to Vancouver to New York back to Hong Kong).

A carrier is defined as the “marketing” carrier—the one that has the flight number—not the “operating” carrier, in instances where they differ.

Before you buy new luggage, check our luggage buying guide and brand Ratings.

If your travel is entirely outside the U.S. or Canada

You need to remember these three words: most significant carrier. For multi-airline tickets in most of the world, the allowances and fees applied are those of the most significant carrier of the route. You’d have to be well-schooled in airline-industry minutiae to figure out on your own which airline is the most significant carrier on your ticket.

Suffice it to say that it it has to do with how the flights on your itinerary move through various geographic zones. The most significant carrier system was established by the International Air Transport Association industry group (the same people who wanted to shrink your carry-on bag) and has been in place since 2011.

Unlike the U.S. and Canada stipulation that require a single baggage standard throughout an itinerary, the IATA’s most significant carrier can change at different points, depending on where you check and/or retrieve your checked baggage.

As if it couldn’t get any more convoluted, the most significant carrier rule can apply on a journey to or from the United States or Canada too—if the first carrier of the itinerary so chooses.

So what are you to do?

The most important fact is that airlines and ticket agents are required to disclose the baggage allowances and fees that will be applied throughout a ticketed itinerary within, to, or from the United States. How they disclose the information could vary, so be aware when you are booked on a multi-airline ticket and be sure to find the applicable baggage rules.

As for itineraries abroad, ask the airline for the applicable rule if it is not disclosed on your ticket or confirmation.

Maybe a standardized carry-on size might not be a bad idea after all.

Susan Feinstein

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