It started out as just an ordinary trip to the Caribbean and wound up as a baggage claim nightmare thanks to two airlines, three airports and the always unnamed gremlins responsible for the increasing amount of misplaced—and downright lost—luggage around the globe.
Air Jamaica lost my checked bag on a flight into St. Lucia. A day later, still no bag. Stuck with nothing more than the clothes I was wearing in the heat and humidity, I invested in a whole new tropical wardrobe (at no small expense). My bag showed up just in time for my next flight, a 30-minute LIAT service to Dominica. And guess what? My checked bag went missing again—with almost all of the clothes I had purchased in St Lucia. Once again, a full day passed without the suitcase appearing. And once again, I found myself shopping for an island-appropriate wardrobe.
Since then I have not flown anywhere—tropical or otherwise—without minimal toiletries and at least one change of clothes in my carry-on bag. And when some cabin attendant tries to tell me I’m over limit, I get mighty stroppy and lay on the tale of the Caribbean trip that went south because of bad baggage handling.
But I count myself luckier than some. Like Southern California traveler Julia Clerk, who became detached from her checked bag on a 2006 Delta flight from the Dominican Republic to San Diego. “The bag got as far as Atlanta,” says Clerk. “I had to take the bag through U.S. customs and I personally put it onto the conveyor belt in the Delta area right outside of customs. That was the last time I ever saw it.”
Despite identification with Clerk’s name on both the outside and inside of the suitcase, Delta was never able to locate the missing bag. “The most frustrating part was putting in a claim for compensation,” she remembers. “First of all, trying to talk to a live human being at Delta rather than a machine, and then trying to itemize every single thing in the lost bag—exactly where I bought it and how much it cost. The whole process took about three months and lots of wasted time.”
Misplaced baggage has become one of the banes of air travel, a problem that continues to get worse thanks to flight delays, increased passenger loads, staff cutbacks and just plain bumbling on the part of airline and airport personnel responsible for keeping track of luggage.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. carriers misplaced an average of 6.73 bags for every 1,000 customers in 2006, up from 6.64 bags per thousand the previous year. That’s more than four million bags that went missing last year just in the U.S. And while the vast majority of these were reunited with their owners within 48 hours, thousands of bags were permanently lost.
“The problem is caused by a couple of factors,” says Steve Lott, head of North American communication for the Geneva-based International Air Travelers Association (IATA). “One is that simply more people are flying. Load factors across the world are at record highs. You also have the issue of delays and missed connections and their impact on luggage. Then there’s the security side of it—especially August of 2006 when the liquid carry-on rules went into place and you saw a big spike in checked baggage. All of these things have a ripple effect that causes mishandling of bags.”
While it may be a huge headache for passengers, lost luggage is no bed of roses for the airlines either. “It’s a huge cost to the airline industry,” says Lott. “More than $3 billion in 2006. That’s a big hit to their bottom line. So the airlines have a huge incentive to improve the situation.”
Commuter airlines generally have the highest rate of misplaced bags among domestic airlines. According to the DOT, Atlantic Southwest had the worst baggage performance last year (mishandling 17.37 bags per thousand passengers) followed by American Eagle (14.42). Of the large carriers, U.S. Airways was the biggest culprit (7.82) followed by Delta (6.88). Over on the other side of the pond, British Airways had the worst baggage performance (23.0) followed by TAP Air Portugal (21.0) and Lufthansa (18.1).
British Airways spokesman John Lampl agrees: “Most lost luggage occurs because of missed connections.” Another factor, says Lampl, is older airports that were just not designed to handle the number of passengers and baggage that are now passing through. He says this is especially true at London Heathrow, the main BA hub, which suffered a baggage meltdown in the wake of the new liquid and gels restrictions last year. “The infrastructure could not cope with the number of bags connecting at Heathrow,” says Lampl.
But help is on the way. U.S. Airways has sunk $20 million into improving baggage system infrastructure at their Philadelphia hub, improvements that have already seen a decline in mishandled luggage, says Durrant. Heathrow is scheduled to open the $8.4 billion Terminal Five next March (2008). “Once T5 opens, all BA flights will be under the same roof and the same baggage system and the chance of misconnecting will be greatly reduced,” says Lampl.
And looming on the horizon is high-tech bag tracking technology, systems like RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) in which a tiny computer chip is embedded in each individual baggage tag. “RFID will in time become system-wide,” says John Infanger, editorial director of Airport Business magazine. He also thinks that increasingly sophisticated airport security screening systems employed by the TSA will have a spinoff benefit of helping airlines tracks down lost bags. “Once every airport in the U.S. has a tech-based bag tracking system in place,” says Infanger, “a nationwide network can be set up in which all bags at all airports in the system can be tracked from one central location.”
Despite the high percentage of mishandled bags that are eventually returned to their owners, there is still the question of why some luggage goes permanently missing and what happens to that baggage when the airlines cannot identify the owner. Although there is the well-publicized case of the stolen bags that were found in a dumpster near Houston Airport last year, the problem of theft seems to be minor.
“Periodically you do see theft,” says Lott. “But that’s fairly rare. A more common explanation is lack of identification on the bag. The bar code gets ripped off and there is no ID anywhere on or inside the bag and consequently no way to reunite bag and passenger.”
Most airlines keep the lost bag for at least three months, waiting for a claim to be made. If there is simply no way to identify the owner, the bag and contents are eventually sold to a third party, most likely the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, which has contracts with many of the major carriers. The contents are then sold at its outlet store in the Appalachian foothills.
International carriers have similar policies. But in the wake of last year’s baggage meltdown, BA has stopped auctioning off unclaimed luggage and now retains everything at a warehouse near Heathrow. “We are now holding onto all lost bags and trying to repatriate them,” says Lampl.