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Journey your bag takes once it leaves the check-in counter

Ten things baggage handlers will not say

Jami Makan  Jun 08, 2010

1. “Don’t pack light—we need the money.”

These are turbulent times for the aviation industry. According to the Air Transport Association of America, passenger revenue fell 18 percent in 2009, the largest drop on record. In the past decade airlines have also been hit with extra costs related to fuel prices, security and unionization: 40 percent of air-transportation workers were unionized in 2009, compared with 12 percent of the general workforce. “It’s a tough, tough industry to achieve any success,” says Daniel Ortwerth, transportation analyst at Edward Jones.

So it’s no surprise carriers are cutting corners. Passengers have kissed hot meals goodbye while paying for itinerary changes, frequent-flier bookings and even blankets and pillows. Another hit: luggage fees. In January most major domestic carriers bumped these to $25 for the first checked bag, $35 for the second (but amounts can vary), which could generate $117 million in new revenue, according to consultancy IdeaWorks. It’s a mixed bag for handlers like Shae Flores of American Airlines: Sure, fliers are checking fewer bags, but they’re cramming more into them, requiring “more upper-body strength,” she says.

2. “We’re losing fewer bags—because there are fewer to lose.”

It's true, fewer bags are getting lost in transit these days: There were 3.91 “mishandled” (lost, stolen, damaged or delayed) bags per 1,000 passengers in 2009, compared with 5.26 in 2008 and 7.05 in 2007, according to the Department of Transportation. But baggage handlers shouldn’t pat themselves on the back. Catherine Mayer, VP at travel-tech firm SITA, says the DOT undercounts errors by excluding reports from passengers with an international leg in their flight. (The DOT agrees, saying airlines are required to file mishandled-baggage reports only for domestic trips.) What’s more, industry experts attribute the downward trend to the fact that there’s less luggage to lose; US Airways, for one, says it has seen a 20 percent drop in first-checked-bag volume.

Mayer says the vast majority of lost bags are reunited with owners within 48 hours. But when they aren’t, airlines sell off unidentifiable bags to defray the cost of insuring lost luggage claims. Final stop: the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala., a 40,000-square-foot store that peddles their contents as “lost treasures from around the world.”

3. “Some of us have sticky fingers.”

Last June, Sekita Ekrek, a New York–based entertainment consultant, flew to Chicago to visit family. Upon arrival at her sister’s place, she says, she went for her camera, which she’d put in a checked bag before the flight, but it was gone. Upset, she decided to file a claim against the carrier, American Airlines. But by the time she got home and found the original model number, it was too late; the airline’s 30-day window had passed. “They said, ‘That’s our policy, end of story,’” says Ekrek. (A spokesperson for American Airlines says that camera equipment is excluded from the policy because of liability limitations.)

To be fair, 30 days seems generous compared with the limits set by other airlines. Brandon Macsata, executive director for the Association of Airline Passenger Rights, says some airlines require that you report stolen goods before leaving the airport. Alexander Anolik, a San Francisco attorney specializing in travel law, says that while courts will probably not sympathize if you miss a 30-day window, same-day-reporting rules are unreasonable. Airlines likely owe you money even if it takes a few days to notice that something’s gone, he says.

4. “Sure, we can handle your pet—but can your pet handle us?”

Intending to fly with your pet? Though some airlines, like Southwest, don’t allow animals in their cargo hold, others will let you “check” Fido. But be prepared: When flying as cargo, animals can be exposed to loud noises and extreme temperatures. Even the mere separation from owners can be difficult. Wilmington, Del., attorney Lou Hering once checked his cat Zeb on a flight from L.A. to New York. Zeb didn’t make it onto the same flight and arrived several hours after Hering did. “He walked out of his carrier and didn’t even look at me, he was so mad,” recalls Hering.

First and foremost, experts suggest reading your airline’s pet policy. Pamela Martin, assistant professor of small-animal internal medicine at Tuskegee University, says young puppies and kittens should accompany you in the cabin, since they can’t regulate their body temperature as well as adults can. If you must check your pet, she suggests writing your telephone number on the crate and taping a picture of the animal to it, in case your pet escapes from its carrier. Traveling internationally? Web sites like list important entry requirements and information.

5. “We don’t actually do that much.”

From the moment you surrender your luggage at check-in, most of the heavy lifting is done by machines. Bags travel by conveyor belt, then get routed to the right gate, says Rick Stoess, of Mason, Ohio–based Intelligrated, which has manufactured conveyor and sortation systems used at airports. In small airports, the sorting is done by hand, but in larger ones, scanners read the bag’s bar code, and a device sweeps it into the correct lane. Often, automatic security screening gets integrated into this labyrinth. The primary task for handlers: transferring bags onto the plane, either by cart or aluminum container.

Radio-frequency identification could reduce human involvement even further. According to Pankaj Shukla, director of RFID business development for Motorola, which acquired a company that helped pioneer the technology, RFID works by inlaying a microchip and an antenna inside a tag, increasing the system’s accuracy to nearly 100 percent. But, says Shukla, while paper tags cost around 4 cents each, RFID tags run in the midteens. So don’t expect the industry to make the expensive upgrade soon. McCarran International in Las Vegas is the only American airport using RFID fully.

6. “Not all bags are created equal.”

In the movie "Up in the Air," travel-obsessed downsizing pro Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) takes his firm’s ambitious new hire to a luggage shop after she brings a clunky suitcase along on her first business trip. Indeed, finicky fliers say the smallest details matter, and industry experts agree that some materials are better than others. According to Dawn Sicco, U.S. wholesale marketing director at Samsonite, ballistic nylon—originally used in World War II flak jackets—has become the “pinnacle of the industry” since first appearing in luggage two decades ago. For hard-shell suitcases, Sicco says polycarbonate is best. Lightweight but strong, this synthetic resin is found in police riot shields and bulletproof glass.

Baggage handlers can be picky too. Flores, the American Airlines handler, says she prefers bags with “spinner” wheels that rotate in circles; this makes it easier for her to push bags in any direction without lifting them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean consumers should opt for spinners. Dan Bohl, a district manager at Colorado Bag’n Baggage in Denver, says the wheels on four-wheel suitcases are more susceptible to damage and dislocation because of their placement.

7. “Stressing about baggage claim? You should.”

Ever wonder what happens if someone walks off with your suitcase at baggage claim? Airlines hope it won’t happen. “It’s more of an honor system,” says a spokesperson for Southwest. Legally, says travel attorney Anolik, until your belongings are back in your hands, they’re still the airline’s responsibility, and on trips involving connecting flights with multiple airlines, it’s the first carrier that matters. In the case of checked luggage poached at baggage claim, airlines say that they’ll negotiate a reasonable payment if they can’t find your bags but that it’s impossible to hunt for bags once they’ve left the airport.

Fortunately, the Department of Transportation has made it easier to get reimbursed for expenses ranging from a toothbrush to a new suit by cracking down on airlines that had been violating its baggage-handling rules. Anolik notes the domestic limit for claims is now $3,300 but cautions that for international flights, calculating compensation can be tricky, since liability is likely to be priced in “special drawing rights,” a complex monetary unit made up of differently weighted currencies.

8. “Many of us don’t actually work for the airlines.”

Not all baggagehandlers work for airlines; many are contract workers employed by so-called ground-handling companies. JetBlue employs a mix of both, while American uses contractors at airports where it has just a handful of flights per day. Major ground-handling companies include Swissport International, which employs about 1,500 baggage handlers in the U.S. and, like its rivals, gets most of its business from foreign airlines. According to Michael Boyd, president of aviation consultants Boyd Group International, third-party vendors are popular as a way for airlines to save money, since ground-handling firms compete for contracts, hire more short-term workers and tend to be less unionized.

John Conley, director of the Transport Workers Union’s air-transport division, says outsourcing baggage handling can mean slower service and mistakes. “If I were working for a contract group, it’s likely that I’ll have less of a wage...and probably less of an investment,” he says. A Swissport exec says that’s not true, and Boyd agrees consumers shouldn’t worry, since it’s a straightforward job most handlers can do no matter who the boss is.

9. “We can’t handle unusual items.”

In the wake of 9/11, airlines have put more effort into specifying what things are always, sometimes and never allowed on planes. Rules on their Web sites address everything from a deceased relative’s cremated remains to an athlete’s vaulting pole. But issues still come up from time to time, such as when fliers try to check unusual items. When Mark Thomas, a wildlife biologist and avid hunter from Alabama, tried checking antlers at an Alaska airport in 2006, he says, airline workers didn’t want any part of it. “It’s like it was nuclear waste,” he says.

Thomas isn’t alone. When United Airlines tried banning checked antlers on its flights last year, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance encouraged its members to bombard United with complaints; the ban was eventually reversed. (A spokesperson for United says the ban was due to the damage caused by antlers and animal horns; United now has new requirements in place for packaging and cleaning them for transport.)

10. “If you think we’re bad here, just wait till you go abroad.”

In some parts of the world, smugglers have been known to transport drugs in the luggage of unsuspecting air passengers. In other regions, security may be especially lax, and pilfering of bags or their contents is of greater concern for travelers. Worldwide, 11.4 bags per 1,000 passengers were mishandled in 2008, according to SITA; industry experts say that figure is far lower in the U.S.

Using luggage locks during foreign travel is a good idea, but to prevent smuggling and theft (at least of a bag’s contents), some fliers are wrapping their suitcases in layers of clear plastic. Smarte Carte, a provider of luggage carts at major airports, offers plastic-wrapping stations in Auckland, New Zealand, and Perth, Australia. Florida-based Global Baggage Protection Systems, meanwhile, operates as Secure Wrap in 47 airports worldwide. Not going abroad anytime soon? Domestic travelers can try out Secure Wrap for $9 to $14 a pop at John F. Kennedy International in New York, George Bush Intercontinental in Houston or Miami International. In Miami, where drug smuggling is an especially big worry, 2,000 to 4,000 pieces of luggage get wrapped on any given day, says Secure Wrap Executive Director Daniel Valdespino. But a Transportation Security Administration spokesperson says agents will open bags if they have to, even plastic-wrapped ones.

Ten things baggage handlers will not say
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