Baggage handling called 'dark hole' of air travel


When luggage is delayed, lost or pilfered during flights, it can be a major, and irritating, problem for travelers.

But Theresa Morrow of Seattle had an added misadventure. Her suitcase -- which was lost, found and then returned to her by American Airlines -- came with some disturbing extra contents.

Morrow flew from Boston to Chicago on a business trip in late July. She checked in two hours early for the nonstop flight, but somehow her suitcase got caught in the maze of airline baggage-handling and didn't show up in Chicago.

Later that day, the airline found her suitcase and delivered it to her Chicago hotel. It was undamaged, but when she zipped it open she discovered some of her belongings gone and other travelers' items stuffed into her bag.

"My running shoes, some nice new clothes, my toilet kit and my camera were gone," said Morrow. But there were also men's clothes in the suitcase along with someone else's prescription medicines.

All of which made Morrow wonder about baggage-handling security. "The whole security issue really bothered me," she said.

American Airlines spokes-man Emilio Howard said the company is examining the case.

The airlines have long had problems with the pilfering of luggage in airport baggage-handling areas. Some, such as British Airways, have put surveillance cameras in some baggage-handling areas. Other airlines have cooperated with police stings at airports to catch the tiny minority of baggage handlers who steal.

In the post-Sept. 11 world of air travel, U.S. airport security has been tightened. But according to David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington-based consumer group, baggage handling is "that dark hole -- there are so many trucks and people that go on and off the airfield."

While Department of Trans-portation statistics show the airlines are doing better when it comes to lost, pilfered or damaged bags, it's little comfort to travelers who encounter problems.

So, when you pack for a flight, prepare for the worst -- that your suitcase will be pilfered, delayed or lost. If it isn't, be happy.

One way to avoid luggage hassles is to travel with carry-on luggage only. But if you can't travel so lightly, here are some strategies for self-defensive packing.

Here are things not to put in your checked luggage: cash, jewelry, cameras, business documents or other important papers, heirlooms, passport or other ID, keys, prescription medications.

Take the above items in your carry-on bag, plus anything else you might need for 24 hours in case your suitcase is misrouted and delayed in getting to you -- or vanishes completely.

Always lock checked bags. Although most luggage locks are flimsy, they will help prevent your bag from accidentally bursting open during luggage handling. And a lock may help deter pilfering in airport baggage-handling areas. Luggage straps and even duct tape also make your bag a bit more secure.

Label your bag -- name, address, telephone numbers -- with at least one luggage tag. Also put a big sheet of paper with that information inside your bag in case it's misrouted and the outside tags are accidentally torn off.

If you have valuable items that you must check because of their weight or size, ask the airline about insurance or check to make sure that your household insurance will cover them.

If your bag turns up damaged or opened at your destination airport, check the contents right away and report the problem before leaving the airport. (Airline offices for luggage problems are usually near baggage claim.)

If your bag doesn't show up, report it to the airline and get any forms you must fill out and a copy of your baggage tags. Make sure you get a phone number for checking on your bag status.

When your bag is delivered to your home or hotel, open it immediately to check if anything is damaged or missing. Report problems right away to the airline; get the name of the person you speak with. Follow up with a certified letter to the airline if the loss is substantial.

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