AirTran Airways
David Osborn / Alamy  /  Alamy
No. 1: The only 2009 airline to rack up fewer than two baggage complaints per thousand passengers, AirTran is — at least where safely-arriving luggage is concerned — as sure a bet as there is.
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updated 11/12/2009 9:27:56 AM ET 2009-11-12T14:27:56

Though it happened a few years back, Kathy Dragon remembers her worst baggage-handling nightmare like it was yesterday. The owner of a cultural walking tour company, Dragon’s Path, Dragon had flown from Miami to Paris to meet a group that she’d arranged to lead on an eight-day trek through Provence.

Her luggage, however, didn’t make the rendezvous. Consequently, Dragon had to mobilize her tour without maps, a first-aid kit, or any clothes but the ones she’d shown up in. Over the next week, in between increasingly frustrated calls to her airline and its affiliated delivery company, she led her group on all-day walks wearing a pair of borrowed men’s hiking boots that were several sizes too big.

“Of course,” Dragon remembers, “my bags finally showed up on the last day — just in time to bring them on the flight home.”

For those of us who fly frequently, Dragon’s story may be all too familiar. Luggage that gets lost, delayed, damaged, or even pillaged has started to seem like just another side effect of today’s airline industry ills. But it doesn’t have to be—because in fact, some carriers rate much better than others when it comes to baggage handling.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s October 2009 Air Travel Consumer Report (which tracked baggage complaints for domestic airlines between August 2008 and August 2009), the overall number of travelers reporting mishandled luggage dropped significantly this year.

Of the roughly 51 million air travelers who flew during the reporting period, close to 208,000 filed baggage complaints (relating to lost, damaged, or delayed baggage, charges for excess baggage, carry-on problems, and difficulties with airline claims procedures) with their carriers — a big number, but way down from last year’s total of almost 270,000.

Hawaiian Airlines
Andy Jackson  /  Alamy
No. 2: Small but mighty, Hawaiian’s passenger load is a fraction of other domestic carriers’ (in 2009 it transported just 758,452 travelers). Still, it takes baggage-handling responsibilities seriously — as proved by its No. 1 rank in 2007 and 2008.

Part of the improvement may have to do with airlines stepping up their game. Of the 19 domestic carriers ranked in the DOT’s report, several have recently undertaken new initiatives — like new computerized tags and tracking systems — to help protect baggage from getting misplaced, and for reuniting it more quickly with its owners when it does.

Video: How do airlines effectively track bags? “Other airlines have simply been taking their customer-care responsibilities more seriously in an effort to stave off bankruptcy,” says Steve Snyder, spokesperson for Frontier Airlines (ranked No. 3 on our “Best” list). “We all knew we had to run an extremely efficient airline in order to retain loyal passengers.”

More likely, though, the drop in baggage complaints is directly related to the current economy, in which fewer travelers are flying (total passenger numbers are down more than 2.5 million from 2008). Of those who do, many more are choosing to carry on their luggage, thus avoiding the fees that carriers now require for checking bags.

Regardless of these overall trends, though, the differences among airlines when it comes to baggage handling can be dramatic. So choose a carrier with our lists in mind — unless you don’t mind walking miles in someone else’s shoes.

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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