Why your bags aren’t better off on a big airline


Which airlines are most likely to lose your luggage? The bigger ones.

The Department of Transportation issues statistics each month on the rate at which airlines “mishandle” luggage — that is, don’t deliver it to you with your flight. Those statistics bounce up and down, but taking a much longer view reveals that some airlines have been significantly better than others at baggage service.

Over the past 10 years, UAL Corp.’s United Airlines, AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and Delta Air Lines Inc. — the nation’s three biggest carriers — have the worst baggage-handling records among major airlines. United’s mishandled baggage rate between 1998 and 2007 was 29% higher than that of Continental Airlines Inc., which had the best 10-year track record among major air carriers.

Baggage handling has drawn a lot of attention lately from travelers who find they now have to pay for baggage service that used to be free. In general, it has gotten worse at airlines. The rate of mishandled bags for the eight major carriers who were flying 10 years ago was 28% higher in 2007 than it was in 1998.

One eye-popping number: 23 million. That is the number of passengers who have had bags delayed or lost over the past decade by major airlines.

That could turn around because of the baggage fees — travelers are checking fewer bags to save money, and airline executives say reduced volume should allow them to improve baggage reliability. Fewer bags checked means fewer instances of luggage being left behind because of aircraft weight issues or baggage handlers being overwhelmed with volume and botching flight connections or misrouting suitcases. In July, for instance, the first full month of fees to check any baggage, American says its customers checked one million fewer bags than in July last year, and the number of mishandled bags dropped by 35%.

The Air Transport Association, a trade group representing airlines, blames the nation’s clogged air-traffic-control system and growing air-travel delays for the increased rate of mishandled bags over the past decade. “Delays cause missed connections. Missed connections cause mishandled bags,” says ATA spokesman David Castelveter.

Airlines with better on-time records also have better baggage records, as delays can lead to luggage getting left behind. As airlines rush to catch up with their schedules, ground time between flights shrinks, leading to more missed connections for baggage.

American, for example, used to fare relatively well in baggage performance, with a baggage-handling rate close to average until 2001. Since then, though, it has worsened every year, as the airline’s on-time dependability has also declined. “There is a correlation,” says Mark Dupont, American’s vice president of airport services. From 2004 on, “there has been a consistent decline in each one — dependability and baggage.”

But American, which has had the highest rate of mishandled bags among major airlines through the first six months of this year, has also lagged behind competitors in buying new technology to improve baggage handling. Other airlines, for example, have been using hand-held bar-code scanners for several years to better track bags and make sure each bag is being loaded into the correct airplane.

American is testing a mobile unit at 10 gates in Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The units, mounted in the cab of the tractors that drive bags between connecting flights, give bag runners more timely information on gate changes and other flight information than the sheets of paper they get handed now, which could be 30 minutes old or more and lack gate changes and other information.

Baggage problems are a major source of frustration to airline passengers. When bags turn up missing, airlines often tell passengers that they have no idea what happened to the bag. Worse, even though many passengers now pay baggage fees that can end up being hefty, airlines don’t refund the fees if the bags don’t arrive on the same flight as the passenger. Passengers who had to wait hours or even days for bags to be delivered often have to file complaints with airlines to get any compensation, and it often comes in the form of vouchers toward future trips, rather than a refund of baggage-service fees.

Rafael Sabbagh Armony and his wife were returning home to Brazil after a two-week vacation in the U.S. when he flew straight into American’s problems. His June 23 American flight from San Francisco to Miami for a connection to Rio de Janeiro was diverted to Los Angeles for an emergency landing. After waiting more than five hours, American put passengers on another plane that didn’t arrive in Miami until close to 3 a.m. American gave them vouchers for a hotel room and some food, but held their luggage at the airport, even though they wouldn’t leave Miami until 8:35 p.m. the following day.

When Mr. Armony and his wife arrived in Brazil, they learned their luggage hadn’t arrived with them. It was on the next flight, which wasn’t scheduled to land until two and a half hours later.

“The vacation itself in the United States was really nice. We loved being there,” Mr. Armony says. “But the airplane part was traumatic.”

American’s Mr. Dupont says the baggage should have been returned to the couple that night in Miami, then rechecked the next day and carried on the correct flight to Brazil.

Delta was consistently better than the industry average for lost bags until 2003; since then, it has been significantly worse than the industry average. Delta says its renewed emphasis on building up its hubs in Atlanta and New York-Kennedy mean the old, mostly manual baggage systems in those locations were overwhelmed. In Atlanta, for example, drivers shuttle bags between terminals, as conveyor belts don’t link most of Delta’s terminals. “The Atlanta baggage infrastructure was built for only one-fifth of the volume we handle now,” says Steve Gorman, Delta’s executive vice president for operations.

The airline is halfway through a $100 million capital campaign that includes new conveyor belts and baggage technology. This year Delta began deploying hand-held scanners. And technology will tackle another frequent cause of mishandled bags: Luggage that arrives in Atlanta but doesn’t connect to flights more than two hours away gets dumped in a holding area — sometimes to be forgotten. Workers have to manually fish them out for their connecting flights.

Tighter controls have been put in place that have lowered missed connections, Mr. Gorman says, and next year, new technology will automatically flag bags when it is time to load them for connecting flights.

Over the past 10 years, Continental, Southwest Airlines Co. and Alaska Air Group Inc.’s Alaska Airlines have been the best at baggage handling. Continental’s prowess is notable because, much like United, American and Delta, it runs big hubs at congested airports, but in eight of the past 10 years, its mishandled-baggage rate has been better than the average of major airlines.

A spokesman says Continental has been treating baggage delivery as one of its most important goals for many years now. “Flying on time helps tremendously, but it also takes investment in equipment and systems,” he says.

United, for its part, says it has adopted new technology such as better scanning and tracking of luggage, changed procedures for loading and transferring bags between airplanes, improved maintenance on baggage sorters and the creation of a baggage-control center. Improvements in its on-time performance have led to improved baggage handling over the past five years, too, a spokeswoman says.

The airline suffered turmoil in its operations in 1999 and 2000 amid feuds with labor groups and ended up in bankruptcy reorganization in 2002. But by 2007, United’s baggage-handling rate was better than Southwest’s. So far this year, it has run slightly better than the average for its peers.

United had its worst year of the past decade in 1999, when it mishandled 7.79 bags per 1,000 passengers, or at least one bag lost for every 128 passengers. That’s means that more than one passenger per planeload ended up filling out forms and worrying if belongings would ever be returned.

Over the past five years, US Airways Group Inc. has been the worst carrier at domestic baggage handling among big airlines, including America West Airlines Inc. over that period. (US Airways and America West merged in 2005.) Last year, as the company struggled mightily in its operations as a result of problems integrating the two airlines, it suffered the worst year of any major carrier over the past 10 years: US Airways had 8.47 mishandled baggage reports for every 1,000 passengers, or one report for every 118 domestic passengers.

The airline has undergone an operational turnaround this year and through the first half of 2008 has been better than Delta and American in baggage service.