Pennsylvania Scale Company Keeps Airports Humming with High Quality Luggage Scales and Excellent Service Support
By Christopher Cussat
Just about anyone who has traveled by airplane has done it—dragged your over-packed suitcase (Do you really need that many Swim Suits?) up to the check-in counter. Then with as much coolness possible amid the often aggravating minutia of modern travel, you wrestle that bag with the grace of a bronze-medal winning Olympic caber tosser, and heave your woven, polyester/nylon, travel-sized cornucopia of life’s necessities onto an airport luggage scale. With bated breath, as if waiting for lottery numbers to come up, you fixate on the digital readout and pray that your suitcase is not one ounce overweight—thus sparing you from hefty baggage fees. Amid all this fun, you may have never considered where those airport luggage scales come from, but Pennsylvania Scale Company out of Lancaster, PA has been supplying them for decades.
According to Rob Woodward, vice president and general manager of Pennsylvania Scale Company, some of the first luggage scale units were developed in 1991 for the Pittsburgh International Airport and were sold by Acme Scale & Supply Company. Designed for concerns about luggage weight and balance affects on aircraft aerodynamics, these early scales were not necessarily commercial devices. “But we still provide 100 percent support for these remote display scales today, which were based on our own industrial scale electronics at that time,” he adds.
So for Pennsylvania Scale, making baggage scales was a natural extension of the company’s industrial scale product line, and in fact, many of the parts used are shared with its other products. “Because of this, our baggage scales are much more heavy duty; they use commonly available parts to support; and our PLUS+ Series main board easily retrofits existing products that date back to 1991,” Woodward explains.
As a result of deregulation coupled with high fuel costs, many carriers started charging for checked baggage as a potential revenue source and also to justify low ticket prices. From this, airlines found an opportunity to add margin to their highly competitive and seemingly arbitrary ticket prices. “It really became an issue during the 1980s when airlines were losing money due to high fuel costs—so the trend continues today towards more fuel-efficient aircraft and added-on fees for extras—including charging by weight for checked luggage (especially overweight bags) and additional costs for extra bags,” said Woodward.
This trend has truly become part of the income model for airlines. In his article for The Washington Post, Christopher Elliott reported that baggage fees are definitely big business. “In the first three quarters of 2016, carriers collected $3.1 billion in luggage fees, an increase of roughly $300 million from the previous year.” He noted how airlines associate luggage with dollar signs. “For example, American Airlines charges just $25 for a checked bag on a domestic flight, but the fee quadruples if your bag weighs more than 50 pounds and doubles again to $200 if it’s over 70 pounds.”
It is no surprise that when people started being charged money for something that used to be “free,” they wanted to be assured that the process and equipment determining said fees are fair and accurate. As Elliott’s article title suggests, sometimes airport luggage scales can lie. “It’s not an uncommon allegation, and sometimes, it’s actually true. Ticket counter weights in Phoenix, Raleigh, NC, and Seattle have been found to be inaccurate—errors that sometimes enrich the airline.”
Woodward concurs, explaining that when consumers complained about the poor quality of the scales at airport check-in stations and potentially overcharges based on incorrect weights, Weights and Measures departments got involved to assure equity in the marketplace and started to enforce scale accuracy and certification of the scales. “From there the market exploded as airports, airlines, and consumers began demanding accurate bag fees based on commercially approved devices.”
Pennsylvania Scale has helped to address such consumer concerns by providing high quality scale products and excellent service support. This is why so many airports choose and prefer Pennsylvania Scale’s equipment. Woodward explains, “Sustained accuracy and ease of service are the biggest reasons why our scales are specified.” Obviously, during peak traffic periods and seasons, a non-working scale would create a huge bottleneck at any airport. “We are also supplying quite a few electronic replacement kits where the customer can keep the existing platforms—say as in remodeling or replacing unsupported electronics—to save cost and add reliability,” he adds.
Because Pennsylvania Scale works with so many dealer/distributor partners, field support is fast, easy, and best of all uses commonly stocked load cells and parts. Most dealer service agencies are relieved and gratified when they have to support scales they know and can have a simple service call with a high satisfaction
rate. “For example, whenever possible, we use standard ‘brick-style’ single point load cells or commonly available single end shear beam load cells; most of these are dealer-stocked parts. The single end shear beams are the same as commonly used in floor scales meaning absolute bulletproof durability and fast, simple troubleshooting when there is a problem,” Woodward notes.
But even the best scales with the best service support need to be properly checked, maintained and calibrated. According to Elliott, luggage scales are generally regulated at the state level and are subject to inspections quarterly or yearly, depending on their location. “Local Weights and Measures laws also apply, but a minimum of annually would be recommended. The biggest issue is always mechanical interference due to improper installation (platform cover rubbing or shifting in the bagwell) and interference with trash and other material,” adds Woodward. At most airports, calibration and scale performance falls to their maintenance departments. When possible, they prefer installations or repairs to happen off-hours (which is a challenge considering that terminals usually have round the clock access). The worst thing that can happen to an airport or airline is if a scale is red-tagged due to a consumer complaint or failed inspection—especially during heavily-travelled holidays.
In addition to general maintenance issues, sometimes due to logistic and bureaucratic hurdles, just getting their equipment into airports can be a challenge for Pennsylvania Scale and other distributors. At any given time, maintenance departments, airlines, general contractors, scale resellers, architects, or other parties actually specify the exact scales and designs to be used. “Like so much of our industry today, the route to market is often highly fragmented—but a local, licensed dealer plays the critical role in getting the scales placed in service correctly and provide documentation back to Weights and Measures,” said Woodward.
He adds that this procedure is not as standardized as NTEP had intended, due to differences in local legislation and enforcement. Generally for commercial applications, the scale must be placed in service by a qualified scale calibration company with current weight traceability. “For example, because we always ship pre-calibrated and ready to use in serial number matched sets, this step is important to provide documentation. When the scale is not self-contained, it’s not unusual for the electronics and scale bases to get cross-matched in the installation process—but In this case, it’s absolutely critical.” As Woodward noted earlier, Pennsylvania Scale dealers also have flexible and responsive after-sale support which makes all the company’s products “dealer-friendly” in a way that most others are not.
Pennsylvania Scale’s business and service model obviously works well in this niche market because one can find its luggage scales in airports throughout the world, including many popular tourist destinations in Mexico and Central/South America that use the company’s equipment exclusively. Pennsylvania Scale’s newest customers include Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport, where 100 percent of the company’s scales are used throughout the entire facility—most notably in the airport’s new terminal expansion and remodeling project. In addition, the Greenville Spartanburg International Airport remodeling project recently incorporated the company’s M64 scales.
One current new trend in luggage scales seems to be customer self-weigh and repack stations which provide convenience to travelers because bag weights can be adjusted to minimize excess fees prior to the check-in process. This gives consumers more control over fees and also expedites the ticketing process. Another airport trend is integrating luggage scales with self-service check-in kiosks.
Woodward concludes that one of the advantages of being a smaller and more adaptable supplier company, especially regarding luggage scales and addressing future trends and advancements, is being able to make changes fast and without layers of approvals. “For example, more than once we’ve been able to save the day by making quick adjustments to support bad check-in counter designs. Like is often the case within our industry, we have lots of blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes and our good work isn’t always fully appreciated. But it benefits all of us to be involved early on during the conceptual stages of any project—and being ‘fast on our feet’ when problems arise is always a good thing!”
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Reprinted with permission, all rights reserved ©2018 WAM Publishing Company, Inc.