In Andrew Price’s first year on the job, airlines lost his luggage seven times. That would be bad enough if he were the average continent-hopping businessman, but Mr. Price is the man the airlines rely on to help them stop losing bags.
On a three-day trip to Canada from Switzerland last year, his bags landed on the final day — when he was already at the airport. He sent them straight home. They arrived a week after he did.
“Passengers can run to catch a plane, but bags can’t,” says Mr. Price, 40 years old, who heads the Baggage Improvement Program, a five-year global campaign launched by the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group in Geneva that is trying to help members step up their luggage game.
Baggage is one of the aviation industry’s great unsolved problems. Engineers have built jets that can soar at twice the speed of sound, carry almost 900 people and stay aloft for nearly 24 hours. But the industry has yet to ensure a piece of luggage reaches its destination along with its owner. Last year, more than 31 million bags — around 1.4% of all checked luggage — arrived late, industry officials say. Roughly 1.8 million bags never arrived. Some take unexplained detours.
When Chloe Good started a round-the-world trip last October, her backpack didn’t even make the first leg, a hop from New York to Chicago on United Airlines. Replacing clothes, malaria pills and the bag when she reached Paris cost far more than United’s $1,491.14 reimbursement check, she says. The 25-year-old Miami native says she exchanged so many calls and emails with United’s luggage agent in India that he told her about his love life and invited her to visit him in New Delhi.
“I was laughing because I didn’t want to cry,” recalls Ms. Good. Four months later, in rural Morocco, she got an email from United saying it had found her bag and wanted to ship it to her. Unable to carry two backpacks, Ms. Good had United send it back home. A United spokesman says the situation was “exceptional.”
Mr. Price faced many exceptional luggage situations when he designed baggage systems at British Airways earlier this decade. Handling irate passengers and their delayed bags wasn’t part of his job description. But equipment breakdowns and labor problems at Heathrow Airport, BA’s giant London hub, occasionally forced the airline to park passengers and their bags outdoors, under tents. During one episode, Mr. Price helped soothe restive crowds by day and sort their bags by night.
The experience helped him land a job at IATA in 2005, where he launched the baggage program two years later. Airlines quickly got on board because they spend about $3 billion annually compensating passengers and shipping late bags.
To get a handle on luggage woes, Mr. Price’s team last fall conducted weeklong audits of nine major airports, including Dubai, Lisbon and Dallas-Fort Worth. The result is a “baggage tool-kit” for airlines and airports, mixing tips from front-line staff with geeky analysis of industry benchmarks such as bags lost per thousand passengers.
Mr. Price’s team concluded that problems start right from check-in. When planes are fullest during holidays, for example, airlines hire temporary agents who bungle airport codes and send bags astray. Skycaps in the U.S. who scribble their initials with black markers on check-in labels so travelers know whom to tip, inadvertently block the bar codes. Mr. Price’s team picked up a simple solution from staff at American Airlines: Give them red pens.
Many agents accept items far bigger than they should. In regions with lots of migrant workers, such as the Middle East, people routinely try to check overweight bags packed with swag for home or items so heavy — including car engines and cement blocks — they halt baggage belts. “Don’t be surprised if you see someone checking in a refrigerator,” Mr. Price cautions visitors to the Persian Gulf.
Once a bag disappears from view, it travels down long belts at 7 feet per second as lasers try to read its destination from matchbook-size bar codes affixed at check-in. Many travelers keep old tags as souvenirs of previous trips. While the hobby once gave steamer-trunks cachet, Mr. Price says it confounds scanners. Computers eject them for manual handling, which increases the risk of misadventure.
Next, a gantlet of automated paddles sorts bags by flight. “It’s kind of like a pinball machine,” says Mr. Price. A backpack strap can jam the contraptions. At a South American airport where bags bunched on belts and clogged sorters, Mr. Price’s team proposed painting bright stripes every 3 feet to suggest good spacing. It got luggage flowing.
If belts stop rolling at a busy airport, mountains of bags pile up and can quickly fill every bit of available storage space. Mr. Price saw that happen repeatedly at BA, which in 2007 faced roughly one million late bags, BA officials say.
In March 2008, BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh unveiled a giant new terminal that he called “a baggage system with a building on top.” Although he promised it would end luggage chaos, opening-day teething pains produced a fiasco. Thousands of bags were stranded.
Today, Mr. Walsh boasts the system sets records for speed and accuracy. Deep underground, bags in little blue carts zoom automatically down roller-coaster-like tracks at 20 miles per hour and can beat their owners to distant boarding gates. “It’s the closest thing we’ve got to Disneyland,” says Iain Bailey, system architect at Heathrow owner BAA. The system’s Dutch producer, Van Der Lande Industries, is now expanding on such automation with robotic baggage loaders at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
IATA officials say their baggage program is starting to yield big improvements, but Mr. Price cautions that some bags will always be mishandled. That’s why he advises fliers to buy a generous travel-insurance policy, which can actually make baggage problems financially rewarding. He has one himself.
“I’m probably one of the few people in the world who looks forward to losing his bags,” Mr. Price says.