Along with anxiety and long lines that post-Sept. 11 security measures have caused for air travelers has come a somewhat unexpected side effect: fewer complaints of lost, damaged and stolen luggage.
The latest federal government numbers show a lower incidence of mishandled baggage each year since the terrorist attacks in 2001. In general, there are three or four complaints for every 1,000 passengers, down from four or five complaints - which could mean a couple of thousand fewer losses a day nationwide.
The improved baggage numbers in some ways reflect the change that has transformed air travel in recent years. Experts say more people are traveling with fewer bags to check because of the rise of low-fare airlines that fly shorter routes, enabling people to take shorter trips. Technology, security measures and even luggage design have improved. And more passengers may be reluctant to file complaints about lost or damaged baggage because the role of the federal Transportation Security Administration has confused them.
To be sure, claims that cost millions of dollars a year are still being logged at airlines and the TSA. But it is unclear from government data whether more claims are for lost items or for stolen items, and experts say they have heard more complaints about pilfering since Sept. 11, 2001, with travelers wrongly believing they are not allowed to lock their luggage.
TSA screeners at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, for example, were recently accused of stealing items from baggage.
Still, the overall trend appears positive for passengers, said David S. Stempler, president of Air Travelers Association, a Washington-based consumer group.
"Post 9/11, the airlines had to develop systems so they knew which bags were on which planes with their passengers and which were not, and they discovered it was a good way to cut down on misrouted baggage," he said. "Almost all of them put bar codes on the baggage tags now and they use scanners so it's recorded in their computers."
Stempler said the proliferation of luggage on wheels has also made it easier for passengers to take their belongings with them instead of checking them. At the same time, he noted, new federal regulations allow only one carry-on bag as well as a computer or purse, so many passengers are forced to check extra luggage.
Some people are giving up on filing complaints now that they have to do it through the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the federal screeners and has not been as quick to settle claims as airlines, he said. Some passengers also say they cannot prove their claim or that it's not worth the hassle, Stempler said.
Cathy Valero, a Delta Air Lines passenger who arrived in Baltimore from Atlanta on Thursday morning with her husband, Erick, to visit her mother, said she didn't bother to file a claim after a recent trip to Venezuela on Avensa Airlines when her bag was returned looking like "it had gotten caught in an escalator."
"We didn't do anything about it," she said. "It was too much trouble."
Still, she and her family said they considered themselves lucky, given the amount of traveling they do and the little trouble they've had with luggage.
Valero's mother, Pat McLeod of Prince Frederick, said her husband's baggage was lost about a week ago on a Delta flight but the airline had it on the front porch by the next morning.
Some airlines said they continue to match every piece of luggage with a passenger even though they no longer have to because federal screeners have taken over.
One of those that does is JetBlue Airways, the discount carrier based in New York, which placed at the top of the latest federal baggage claim report.
In addition to using bar codes that scan information into computers when passengers check in, JetBlue has begun color-coding the baggage tags to match flight numbers. JetBlue then processes bags in the order of flights.
In the event passengers arrive at their destination before their luggage - the most common complaint, according to airlines - JetBlue makes its own claims and sends an attendant to the gate to tell the passengers.
"That eliminates the situation where there are no more bags on the belt and people are still standing there," said Chris Collins, vice president of system operations. "It defuses what could be a really bad situation."
Other airlines, wary of decreasing customer service, have sought new means to care for luggage.
Despite a decade of improvements in baggage handling, Delta Air Lines said it plans to invest in radio frequency identification tags, similar to the EZ- Pass toll collection system. A tiny chip is attached to luggage that can be used to track bags from multiple locations.
The carrier expects to unveil the system by 2007 at a cost of $15 million to $25 million. In turn, the airline expects to save much of the $100 million it spends annually on mishandled baggage, said a spokesman, Reid Davis.
The technology has been used in only a handful of pilot programs, according to airlines and the Transportation Security Administration.
Southwest Airlines, which also gets good marks in government reports for baggage claims, said the radio-frequency technology is still too expensive - costing 17 cents a bag, compared with less than a penny per bag for the traditional bar codes.
"It's an expensive option for an airline that's trying to keep costs down," said Don Ostler, a Southwest project manager at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "The bar code technology is very proven."
But Southwest is working with airports to improve. At BWI, where a new terminal for the airline is under construction and expected to open next May, Southwest will be able to take bags at ticket counters or off the curb and send them down one continuous set of conveyors through federal screeners to their appropriate gates. Now, bags dropped at the curb have to be carried to ticket counters, and federal screeners have to physically remove luggage from conveyor belts for X-raying.
With so many steps for luggage before it is loaded onto airplanes, the system can break down. And federal officials and the airlines are still squabbling over how to divvy up responsibility for claims.
$400,000 paid out
Darrin Kayser, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman, said the agency has paid nearly $400,000 on 2,143 claims from March 2002 to March 2004. But it has gotten more than 29,000 claims in that time, and about half of them remain unresolved as it works with the airlines over liability.
Kayser said federal screeners have typically become liable for theft and damage to carry-on luggage at checkpoints because the airlines never touch those bags. The screeners also can be responsible for checked bags they search. (They are supposed to leave a note when they've opened a bag.)
But, Kayser said, the screeners should have limited liability because much of the screener's work is done in public view, so passengers can see if something goes wrong.
He said many travelers still falsely assume they can't use locks. He recommends using one of the agency-approved locks - listed on its Web site - which TSA can open. He also suggests that passengers carry on valuables because neither TSA nor the airlines will pay for items such as cameras, computers and other electronic equipment. Airline liability is limited to $2,500.
A spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airline trade group, said the industry would like to take the claims process out of the federal government's control because it does not have the same interest as airlines in resolving the complaints quickly and to customers' satisfaction.
But the airlines want the government to split the cost.
As they debate, Doug Wills, an association spokesman, said frustrated passengers have to wait.
That's a switch from the past, he said, when airlines generally addressed problems within a day or two and almost always within 60 days.
Wills said he believes more passengers are bypassing the system and carrying on their luggage or even shipping it through a freight service, hence the lower claims numbers.
But the industry will continue to look for ways to improve, he said. After passengers have had a good experience booking a ticket and flying safely to their destination, the last thing an airline wants to do is leave them with a sour taste because their bags are mishandled.
"To airlines, a traveler who has a million miles logged and has lost a bag is a problem," he said. "He's worth a lot of money to the airlines, and they will work hard to resolve the problem."