checked baggage

No fee to check 1st bag on Alaska Airlines – for 1 month

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Here’s a nice gift for travelers to kick off 2015: Alaska Airlines is waiving its $25 first-bag fee – for the month of January.

To take advantage of the offer, passengers must be a member of Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan, but anyone not yet a member can easily sign up for free online or at the airport before they check their bags.

There are some rules and conditions accompanying this offer:

The promotion is good on flights between 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1 through 11:59 p.m. Jan. 31, 2015 and will apply to Mileage Plan members and their companions if they are traveling on the same reservation.

Also, all flight miles must be credited to Alaska’s Mileage Plan to qualify.

For those who haven’t checked bags on Alaska Airlines before (or in a while), there’s another checked-baggage benefit to keep in mind: the carrier’s baggage service guarantee promises that if a checked bag doesn’t reach baggage claim within 20 minutes of the plane’s arrival at the gate, the passenger is entitled to a $25 discount for use on a future Alaska Airlines flight or 2,500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

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

My Well Mannered Traveler column – Mishandled baggage: Mission Accomplished? – on MSNBC.com 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.