Baggage

Lost bag rate dips. Again.

Good news for air travelers who check their bags and worry about those bags getting to their destination.

According to the just-issued SITA 2018 Baggage Report, airlines around the world have once again improved the rate of baggage delivery, continuing a more than decade-long trend of improvement which has seen baggage mishandling drop by 70% since 2007.

The rate of bag mishandling has dropped, notes SITA, even though 2017 saw a rise in the number of passenger to more than 4 billion.

In 2017, the number of mishandled bags was 5.57 per thousand passengers, the lowest level ever recorded.

That’s good news, but mishandled bags cost the industry an estimated $2.3 billion in 2017. And it is of course a hassle if it is your bag that ends up delayed or lost.

So SITA is encouraging airlines to continue investing in end-to-end bag tracking.

“Over the last decade, we have seen significant improvements in bag management as airlines have taken advantage of technology,” said Barbara Dalibard, CEO, SITA, “End-to-end tracking produces data which reveals where improvements can be made in operational processes. While we won’t see a sudden change in 2018, it is a real turning point for the industry as airlines begin to unlock the value of the tracking data for the 4.65 billion bags they carry.”

 For a look at what happens to your checked bags once you hand it over at the check-in counter, see my recent At the Airport column on USA TODAY: The trip your luggage takes without you.

What happens to those checked bags?

My ‘At the Airport’ column for USA Today this month was all about the journey luggage takes between the check-in counter and the plane.

Here’s a slightly shortened version of the original column:

For passengers, the route from airport curb, through security, to the gate and onto the plane usually proceeds in straightforward, if often slow, irritating and all too familiar steps.

But what about the journey checked luggage takes from the check-in counter to the plane?

That process is a mystery to most travelers, but not a secret, so I visited Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to follow the route luggage takes from the ticket counter, into the “bag well” (a noisy, cavernous, machine and luggage-filled area where all checked bags spend time) and out to the planes.

Sea-Tac Airport, like many other fast-growing airports around the country, is working with the Transportation Security Administration to upgrade and optimize its current baggage handling system to make the process faster, smoother and more reliable.

But, at just about every airport, the route a bag takes from the check-in counter to the plane continues to be, essentially, the same.

“You come into the airport lobby and you or an agent at your airline ticket counter puts a bag tag on the bag,” said Ed Weitz, Capital Project Manager for the Port of Seattle. “The airline then associates that bag tag with a ten-digit code and puts it on the [moving] belt so it can go through the wall and into the airport’s baggage handling system on the other side.”

At SEA, the ‘other side’ is like a highway made up of 12 miles of conveyor belts (10 miles for outbound bags; 2 for inbound bags headed to bag claim). Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has 14 miles of conveyors across its five terminals and, at Los Angeles International Airport, the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), which processes about 25,000 outbound bags a day, has 3 miles of conveyor all its own.

By contrast, at tiny Walla Walla Regional Airport in Washington State, where there are 4 or 5 roundtrip flights a day (depending on the day) there are 20 feet of conveyor belts in the bag handling system. At Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton, which offers 3 roundtrips daily to Portland on Boutique Air, “Bags travel about 25 yards on a private, hand-pushed baggage cart, often by the same person that checked you in,” said airport manager Steven Chrisman.

I wasn’t able to travel with the bags on the conveyors at the Seattle Airport, but both DFW Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport have shared short videos offering thrilling bag eye-views of the journey.

 

At SEA, checked bags from various airlines mingle together on the conveyor system that first takes the bags to and through one the TSA’s Explosives Detection System (EDS) machines.

If the bags are cleared, they go to the ‘sortation’ phase of their journey, where luggage tags are automatically scanned and bags are divvied up by airline.

After that, a system of diverters sends bags by batches of flights to a carousel ‘makeup’ area where bag handlers armed with tag readers stand ready to manually separate bags by flight.

“As the bag comes through on the conveyor belt, I scan it to see if it’s a bag for my flight,” said Delta Air Lines Ramp Agent Kim Farrington. If so, Farrington transfers the bag from the carousel to a cart that, when full, gets driven out to the plane where handlers move the bags from the cart to a belt loader that sends them up into the plane.

For wide-body aircraft, containers filled with baggage may be taken from the bag well and loaded directly into the hold.

On Delta, and other airlines that have embedded RFID (radio frequency identification) tags into the traditional bag tags, there’s an added step: a photo eye reads the RFID into on the bag tag as its goes onto the plane and notifies a passenger via an app that their bags have been loaded. When the bags come off the plane at the other end, the photo eye reads it again and lets the passenger know they’ll soon be reunited with their luggage.

Better Bag Hygiene

Cameras, RFID tracking systems and other improvements are helping lower the number of checked bags that are lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered. But Dereck Howard, Delta Air Line’s Department Manager, Below Wing at Sea-Tac Airport, told me the number of lost and delayed bags could be lower if more passengers practiced better “bag hygiene.”

That includes making sure old luggage tags are removed and new ones are put on neatly.

“If you are self-tagging, don’t put the tag somewhere where it can slip off,” said Howard, “And be sure to peel off the little secondary ‘bingo’ tag from the bag tag and put it somewhere else on the bag so we can read that if the main tag falls off.”

Howard also advises passengers to “neaten up,” their luggage before checking it in. That includes securing loose straps that might get caught in the conveyor belt rollers and machinery and making sure not to check bags that are over packed or those with faulty or straining zippers or closures that could pop open during the bag’s journey.

Go ahead, check that bag. Chances are good it will arrive.

 

Go ahead, check that bag.

On many airlines it may cost you a fee, but the good news is that airlines and airports are getting better at getting your bag to its destination.

According to the SITA Baggage Report 2017, in 2016 the rate of mishandled bags was 5.73 bags per thousand passengers.  That’s down 12.25 percent from the previous year and is the lowest ever recorded.

This, despite a spike in the number of passengers, which last year hit an all-time high of 3.77 billion.

According to SITA, since 2007, the rate of mishandled baggage worldwide has fallen 70 percent, due to investment in technologies and processing improvements by both airlines and airports.

SITA promises more improvements over the next 18 months as the majority of the world’s airlines (those that belong to IATA, the International Air Transport Association) have adopted a resolution requiring every piece of checked baggage to be tracked along its journey by June 2018.

“We are on the brink of a new era in airline baggage management because the world’s airlines are committing to track baggage throughout its journey,” said Ilya Gutlin, SITA President, Air Travel Solutions in the report, “This requires data capture, management and sharing across airlines, airports and ground handlers giving a better view of where each piece of luggage is at every stage.”

Once IATA Resolution 753 becomes the accepted rule in June 2018, every bag must be tracked and recorded at four mandatory points: at check-in; aircraft loading; at transfer between carriers; and on arrival as the bag is delivered back to the passenger.

When that system is in place, says IATA, airlines will be able to share the information with their passengers and code share partners allowing them to track their bag, just like a parcel.

Mishandled baggage isn’t just a bummer for passengers. Wayward bags cost airlines money.

SITA’s report shows that in 2016 airlines spent $2.1 billion on recovering and reuniting passengers with their bags.

 

Free museums & expensive luggage delivery

Photo courtesy Harvard Museum of Natural History via Flickr

I’m a big fan of “free” and a big fan of the Museums on Us program that offers free admission on the first weekend of each month to more than 150 museums around the country to anyone who has Bank of America or Merrill Lynch credit or debit card.

The list includes museums, zoos and attractions such as Chicago’s Alder Planetarium, where general adult admission is usually at least $12, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Mass. where adult admission is usually $9.

With the money you save, you might want to fly down to New Orleans and hop on one of the new riverboats  now cruising up the and down the Mississippi or buy yourself a meal at the new full-service Wolfgang Puck Express restaurant in Terminal 7 at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where things like bacon-wrapped meatloaf and oven roasted salmon are now on the menu.

Or use your saving towards the new baggage delivery service being sold by American Airlines and BAGS VIP Luggage Delivery. Beginning Monday, Aug. 6, you can pay ($29.95 for one bag, $39.95 for two bags and $49.95 for three to 10 bags) to have the bags you check at more than 200 U.S. airports delivered to your home, office or hotel instead of having to go pick them up at baggage claim and tote them with you.

Passengers can purchase the service on-line up to two hours prior to departure and, for delivery locations within 40 miles of the airport, expect their bags to be delivered to their destination within one to four hours of arrival.

A good deal? For some, maybe. But keep in mind that the price for Baggage Delivery Service is in addition to the regular bag fees that need to be paid at check-in. And for bags that need to be delivered between 41 and 100 miles from the airport, there is an additional $1 per mile charge and an estimated delivery time between four and six hours instead of one to four hours.

No word yet on whether all fees are returned if your luggage goes missing or if delivery times are not met.

Airlines get thumbs up from data; thumbs down from travelers

(From my story on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin. )

Performance-wise, 2011 was a very good year for U.S. airlines. As an industry, overall performance was the best in the 21 years of the Airline Quality Rating 2012 (AQR) (PDF), a yearly report that crunches data such as lost bags, delayed flights, bumped passengers and customer complaints.

“This is not opinion. In almost two decades we have not had this level of optimum performance,” Dr. Brent Bowen, the head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University, told msnbc.com. Bowen conducts the AQR with Dr. Dean Headley, an associate professor at the W. Frank Barton School of Business, Wichita State University. The report was released April 2.

Despite the strong marks, however, air travelers don’t seem to notice. In the Airline Passenger Survey 2012 (PDF), also conducted by Purdue and Wichita State researchers and released Friday, more than half of frequent fliers polled reported being disappointed with the air travel experience.

“By the numbers, 2011 may have been the best year for the airlines,” said Dr. Erin Bowen, one of the survey’s authors and an assistant professor at Purdue University’s Department of Technology Leadership & Innovation. “But airlines are doing a poor job of conveying these improvements to passengers. The objective improvements don’t match up with the experience passengers are getting when they fly,” she said.

Among some other findings from the survey:

Fifty-four percent of frequent fliers don’t believe airlines are being completely honest by attributing fare and fee increases to rising fuel costs;

Given a choice of how to offset rising air costs, air passengers put a la carte fees, such as Allegiant Air’s recently imposed fee for carry-on bags, at the bottom of their wish list. “They’d rather pay a higher fee, take alternative transportation or fly less,” Erin Bowen said;

Passengers primarily rely on price and schedule when choosing an airline. When that is constant, however, travelers consider customer service (36 percent) and on-time arrival (32 percent) as factors.

In a ranking of the most passenger-friendly airlines, Southwest was an overwhelming favorite. More than one-third of frequent fliers surveyed put the low-cost carrier ahead of the 14 other airlines on the list. JetBlue was ranked No. 2 (12 percent), followed by Continental and Alaska (6 percent each).

Southwest also ranked No. 1 as the most preferred airline with 17 percent of the vote. Delta and United were close behind at 12 percent, followed by American (11 percent) and JetBlue (10 percent).

The gap between Southwest and its competitors has been shrinking. In 2009, the first year of the Airline Passenger Survey, the discrepancy between Southwest and Delta was 9 percent; the gap fell to just under 6 percent at the end of 2010, and now sits at 5 percent.

“Southwest has the lead, but other airlines are starting to do a better job of meeting consumer expectations and putting out a friendlier message,” Erin Bowen said.