(eTN) – The airlines say it doesn’t happen often – less than once for every 100 passengers – but when you lose your luggage, you never forget it.
Away from home without medication. On vacation in borrowed clothes. Attending an out-of-town business meeting in slacks and a golf shirt. Taking a luxury cruise with no formal attire. Going on a long-planned safari with no guns. Possessions lost, sometimes damaged or never seen again.
It’s happening more frequently every year. According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, in 2002, there were 3.84 reports of mishandled baggage for every 1,000 passengers. In the first nine months of 2007, the rate was 7.25 per 1,000 passengers – nearly double. The raw number is staggering: 3.45 million reports in those nine months.
And, yes, the numbers tend to rise around the holidays when air travel and weather delays are at their peak.
“It just goes hand in glove with the congestion problems that all the airlines have been experiencing,” said Ben Popken, editor of The Consumerist, a consumer-awareness blog. “As they go up, so do lost-luggage complaints. . . . You have more flights that they’re putting more people onto, and they’re slicing their margins of error. They’re decreasing the amount of ground time, and you just trim out all those different factors, you increase the likelihood people’s baggage will get lost in the process.”
Because airlines, struggling after Sept. 11, laid off thousands of employees, “there are a lot less baggage handlers, and a lot less oversight of the baggage handlers,” said Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, a 21,000-member activist group lobbying Congress to mandate reforms about how airlines treat passengers.
But an industry spokesman sums up the cause for lost luggage in one word: “delays.”
“And the cause of delays,” said David A. Castelveter, vice president for communications for the Air Transport Association of America, an airline-industry trade group, “is an antiquated air-traffic control system that needs to be replaced, and weather. We have an air-traffic control system that is incapable of handling the volume of traffic we have today.”
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People lead to boo-boos: Here’s the journey most pieces of luggage take: From the check-in counter through X-ray machines along conveyor belts to sorting areas, and then placed on carts to the plane – reverse the process when the plane lands: from carts to conveyor belts to the carousel.
“The challenge is if there’s an itinerary,” said Stephen Black, director of airport operations for St. George-based SkyWest Airlines. Say you’re flying from St. George to Melbourne, Fla., changing planes at a hub airport or two – in this example, Salt Lake City and Atlanta. “[A bag has] opportunities to possibly get separated from the customer as it goes through the first stop in Salt Lake and the second stop in Atlanta,” Black said. (This may explain why regional carriers such as SkyWest, Comair and American Eagle usually have higher rates of mishandled-baggage reports than the larger airlines.)
And while much of the process is automated, the system relies on baggage handlers and security crews to do their jobs. “The more people who handle it, the more potential boo-boos that could occur,” said Bill Race, manager of central baggage for JetBlue Airlines.
“The biggest culprit is a tight connection in a hub where the customer is very quickly walking or running to a connecting flight,” Black said. “Through our best efforts, we occasionally can’t get [the bag] unloaded, transferred and reloaded onto the next aircraft as quick as the customer sometimes might make that connection from gate to gate.”
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That other 1 percent: Airlines are trying to find innovative ways to solve the lost-baggage problem, said Carol Zupancic, western director of airport customer service for Delta Air Lines.
“We’re loading our airplanes in a new way” to make connecting to a flight easier, Zupancic said. For a plane stopping in Atlanta, for example, “we’ll be putting bags getting off at Atlanta in one part of the plane, the bags connecting to other airports in the other part,” she said.
Delta has also tested a scanning technology – similar to what cargo carriers use to track packages – in its Salt Lake City, Atlanta and Cincinnati hubs, and aims to have it operating systemwide in 2008, Zupancic said.
When your bag doesn’t show up, your next stop is that forlorn little room near the carousel: the baggage claim counter.
Castelveter described the process: “They’ll ask you for your bag tag – the little sticker that is generally put on your ticket jacket that has your name, your bag-tag number and a bar code. They will take a claim, put it into the computer. That claim will include asking you about the type of bag – the size of the bag, the color of the bag, hard- or soft-sided – and they have a little chart. . . . They’ll put it in the computer and begin tracing for it.”
“Ninety-eight percent of the time,” said JetBlue’s Race, “the bag shows up the same day, most likely on the next flight.” In most cases, a bag will be found within hours of a customer’s claim – and most airlines will arrange to deliver that bag to the customer’s home or hotel room.
According to Castelveter, more than 99 percent of mishandled bags eventually are returned to their owners. For that other 1 percent, airlines have a claims process for customers to try to retrieve or be compensated for their missing items.
A customer fills out a form with a detailed inventory of the missing items, Castelveter said. “When that claim form comes in, somebody immediately takes it and codes all those inventory items that you’ve listed,” he said. “If somebody found that bag in Salt Lake City, and nobody claimed it, after 72 hours [the airline] will send it to the claims center, and somebody will open it and code all the contents in the bag. . . . The computer will then begin matching every bag that’s being held with every claim that is requesting those type of items.”
In practice, it doesn’t always work so well, said Popken of The Consumerist, recounting his own experience dealing with one airline’s claim process. “The byzantine route that I had to make in order to even make contact to make a claim with their lost-item department was just completely ridiculous,” he said.
“They had an online form for the lost and found, but when you try to navigate to it, you got a broken Web-page notice. . . . It was very difficult to find a phone number for [the airline’s] lost-and-found. The customer-service numbers that I called were dead-ends . . . wandering in this void of phone trees that led nowhere. I ended up sort of hacking the company directory and harassing this lady in human resources – and she gave me a direct number for their lost-and-found department, which was another voice-mail box.”
The airlines also have limits on what they will cover for reimbursement. Delta, American and United, for example, top out at $3,000 per passenger. And most airlines won’t cover cameras, computers, electronics, jewelry, artwork or prescription medicine – which is why carriers advise passengers to pack those in their carry-on luggage.
Hanni, the founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, wants to hold airlines more accountable for lost luggage. She’s pushing for federal rules to require all bags be delivered within 24 hours or airlines would face civil penalties.
“There’s no impetus to solve anything” under the current system, Hanni said. “The only way to do it is to charge the airlines, per bag and per day.”
Hassle-free luggage tips:
Get to the airport early. The more time the airline has to get your bag to the plane, the more likely it will get to your destination.
If you’re changing planes, try to book flights that allow some time in between. Staying on the same carrier can help, too.
Pack within the weight limits – usually 50 pounds per suitcase (except for Delta, whose limit is 40 pounds per suitcase).
Don’t overstuff soft-sided luggage. Remember, your luggage may be opened and inspected by security personnel.
If you’re carrying Christmas presents, don’t wrap them in advance. Also, be sure to check the TSA’s prohibited-items list (tsa.gov).
Keep the important stuff – cameras, computers, jewelry, eyeglasses, prescription medicine – in your carry-on luggage.
Put an ID tag inside your bag, in case the one on the outside falls off. Include your cell phone number (because you likely won’t be home).
Write out an inventory of what’s packed inside your checked bag or suitcase. Carry a copy with you, and put another copy in the bag.
Remember that many bags look alike, so a distinctive marking or colors will help you identify your bag better and deter would-be thieves.
If you’re taking something you won’t need until you get to your destination (e.g., golf clubs or skis), consider shipping them instead.
Is your luggage safe?
ABC News crunched government data to see what valuables have gone missing from luggage. See how Salt Lake City International Airport fares. Go to abc news.go.com /Travel/ story? id=3988223
Airlines offer limited liability for lost or damaged baggage. For most U.S. airlines, it tops out at $3,000 per passenger for domestic travel, and for international travel, a maximum of $640 per bag.
Passengers must prove the value of the lost or damaged items, usually with receipts and other documentation. Airlines won’t accept blame for improperly packed items, or for damage caused by security agencies. Airlines also exempt many items for reimbursement – usually such items as cash, camera equipment, computers, electronics, jewelry, business documents or works of art.
Legislation for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights has been introduced in Congress. In addition to mandating airlines to inform passengers about delays and other inconveniences, it includes this provision: “If a passenger of a covered air carrier submits a claim to the air carrier for lost baggage, the air carrier shall make every reasonable effort to return the baggage to the passenger within 24 hours.”
Similar bills in the House and Senate have not been acted on. A citizens group, the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, is lobbying for the legislation. That group’s Web site is www.flyersrights.org.
In New York in August, Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed similar legislation, which is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. But USA Today reported last week, the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, has asked a federal judge to block the new law – saying only the federal government can regulate air-travel rules.