Improving the odds of having your baggage arrive when you do.

My Well Mannered Traveler column – Mishandled baggage: Mission Accomplished? – on this week is all about the odds of having your checked baggage arrive at your destination airport when you do – and the airlines’ efforts to improve those odds.

The good news is that those odds have been improving.  According to statistics released recently by the Department of Transportation (DOT), in 2009 the major U.S. carriers reduced the rate of mishandled, mangled and lost bags to the lowest level recorded since 2004.

Hooray, right? Well, just maybe.  In 2009 major airlines mishandled “just” 3.91 bags per 1,000 passengers.  That’s an improvement over 2008’s rate of 5.26 but, still, more than 2.19 million pieces of luggage went astray in 2009.

What’s behind the numbers?

The numbers are better, so we might conclude that airlines aren’t just pocketing our checked bags fees but using that money to improve  baggage handling systems.

Some actually did. But last year’s improved statistics have more to do with depressed travel patterns than with airline attentiveness.  In 2009, there were fewer passengers, fewer flights and, therefore, fewer checked bags to be mishandled.

Will it last?

The improved baggage handling numbers will only last, says Catherine Mayer, a vice President at SITA, a company specializing in information technology (IT) for the air transport industry, if airports, airlines, and ground handlers “use this slow travel period to invest in fixing the baggage management system.”

One tool being used by airlines, airports and ground handlers is the baggage improvement program, or BIP. Created by IATA, the International Air Transport Association, the program’s goal is to halve the global rate of baggage mishandling by 2012.  Not just to make passengers happy, say IATA spokesman Steve Lott, but to help airlines fix their bottom lines: “Globally, mishandled baggage cost airlines $3.3 billion in 2008. So the airline industry has a financial incentive to make sure they close the gap.”

The fixes include some costly, sophisticated technology but also some cheap common sense ones, such as painting spacing lines on the belt behind the check-in counter so bags don’t begin their journey all bunched up.

There are also some things you can do to help increase the odds of your bags arriving safely. In addition to putting your contact information and travel itinerary inside your baggage, inspect the outside of your bags before each trip. If there are old tag stubs and bar code labels stuck on your luggage from a previous journey, remove them.  That way you won’t run the risk of confusing the automatic barcode readers in the baggage handling system and having your bags end up in a city you visited back  1999.

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3 thoughts on “Improving the odds of having your baggage arrive when you do.

  1. Aside from lost baggage, I’ll never understand how an airline is allowed to *require* a passenger to check a bag, and then does not provide staff to hand that same bag back to the passenger at the end of the flight.

    Baggage carousels?!? Even a slightly malicious poodle could walk off with my bag before I have a chance to see it. Of course, *I* would be the one to be detained if I claimed that a poodle ran off with my bag..

    My wife (who carries-on, exclusively) recently had the unpleasant surprise of being held to baggage standards different from the ticket she bought: Her U.S. Airways flight was operated instead by Air Canada. The difference in baggage allowances meant she had to check her perfectly reasonably size/weight bag at the last minute, leading to much repacking and scurrying on the floor of a crowded New York airport.

  2. I have been lucky enough to never have a lost bag. I think it is interesting with AA at DFW is trying out:

    Sure, it will cost a bit more to get the technology up and running at other airports, but would be awesome for an airline to be able to guarantee no lost luggage someday!

  3. Hi Harriet,

    This is encouraging news as I travel to the UK 3-4 times each year. I have had awful experiences when I’ve flown with AirFrance, even with an itinerary, luggage tag, and so on.

    And– thanks for the tip about removing old bar codes– my bags are starting to look like pinatas with all the bits of paper stuck on from various travels!

    It would be interesting to get your (or another expert’s) perspective on “best practices” in filing claims for baggage that seems lost for good. After the AirFrance flight, I received a form for compensation that asked for receipts for most items in my luggage. Unfortunately, many of my pricey belongings were gifts… my bags turned up before I had to dig for receipts– but what if it didn’t?

    I’d love to learn more.

    Kate Greenough

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