Separation anxiety: When your luggage goes astray

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SCOTTSBORO, ALA. / / For John Marshall, president and general manager of the Unclaimed Baggage Center here, opening trailers of goods he buys sight unseen from airlines is "like Christmas every day." He never knows what he'll find.

The center is a block-long discount store that resells the suitcases -- and their contents -- that U.S. carriers have been unable to reunite with passengers.

As such, it represents the final failure of a system that damages, delays or loses thousands of checked bags each day.

On average, fewer than 1 percent of passengers officially file mishandled-baggage reports with major U.S. airlines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But the annual rate has been inching upward for the past three years.

Most customers separated from their bags get them back within a day, industry experts say, and only a small percentage lose them forever. Airlines typically spend at least 90 days trying to find the owners before salvaging their possessions.

But with more than 700 million passengers boarding U.S. airlines each year, the losses add up.

Each day, the Unclaimed Baggage Center in this rural town, about 50 miles southwest of Chattanooga, Tenn., puts out about 7,000 new items culled from 21,000 arrivals, most of which are discarded or donated, Marshall said. The store deals with "all the major U.S. airlines," he said. The goods, also sold at unclaimedbaggage.com, include clothes, books, baby strollers, cameras, sports equipment and such finery as mink coats and jewelry. As I surveyed more than a thousand pairs of men's jeans, hundreds of shoes and such baubles as a $3,600 pair of Tahitian pearls, I began to wonder: How does baggage go astray, and how often?

To find out, I worked my way backward through the process, monitoring Los Angeles International Airport baggage carousels and interviewing airline staff. After talking with dozens of passengers, airline employees and other experts, and getting some behind-the-scenes looks, I learned about the secret life of luggage, which wends its way through a system that mostly works. When it doesn't, it's not usually for the reasons you think.

Your bag's journey begins with an airline agent attaching a tag to it at the check-in counter. The tag contains a bar code that has a unique bag number plus other data that may identify you, the airport and the flight. This information is also printed on the tag. The bag then goes to the Transportation Security Administration station for screening.

Details of the process then begin to vary by airline and location. Typically, at big airports, the bag is placed on a network of conveyor belts. Built-in scanners use the tag's bar code to route the bag to the right loading pier.

Reading tags visually, ramp workers pile the bags onto tractors and drive them to the plane. On bigger jets, bags may go into containers for loading. On a nonstop flight, workers load bags aft to forward. On a connecting flight, they separate them into bins by stop.

A report, sent by computer to the flight's next destination, tells workers there how many bags to unload and which bins they are in. These bags then go to baggage claim or get routed onward. But sometimes the system doesn't work just right, resulting in what passengers call "lost luggage."

"Lost" is actually a misnomer, said John Meenan, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group based in Washington.

Most of the time "we know where it is," Meenan told a congressional hearing on mishandled baggage in May. "It just isn't where it's supposed to be."

The biggest trouble spot, causing nearly two-thirds of mishandling incidents, is transferring bags from one flight to another, according to SITA, a Geneva-based technology company largely owned by major airlines. More than 350 carriers and ground-handling companies use SITA's WorldTracer software to match errant bags with passengers.

During transfers, bags may be routed several times, multiplying risks inherent in luggage handling. Among them:

Failure to load

When fliers check in late, connections are too tight, arriving aircraft are delayed or conveyor belts break down, baggage handlers and TSA staff may not have enough time to do their work. So bags languish on loading piers.

Misrouting

"You've got human error involved," said Mark Nelson, president of Local 513 of the Transport Workers Union of America, which represents baggage handlers in Texas. "Sometimes you go too fast and make a mistake."

Routers rely on three-letter airport codes, many of which are similar. Glancing at a bag tag, it's easy to mistake PHX (Phoenix) for PDX (Portland, Ore.) or LAS (Las Vegas) for LAX (Los Angeles).

Security delays

Mark Mitchell, who oversees American's day-to-day operations at LAX, blamed TSA security staff backups for a fifth of American's mishandled luggage at the airport, where passengers carry their bags from check-in counters to screening stations. That figure may be lower, he said, in terminals where bags are moved by conveyor belt.

Forwarded bags

Your luggage may arrive at the airport before you do if you're bumped from a flight and your bags get on anyway.

Switches and theft

Someone may accidentally grab your bag from the carousel; it's usually returned soon after, but not always.

It's hard to say just how often luggage is delayed or lost. Still, the losses on U.S. airlines alone are enough to support what Marshall of the Unclaimed Baggage Center calls "a good solid business in a small town."

Jane Engle writes for the Los Angeles Times.

BAGGAGE TROUBLESHOOTING

Whether your checked bag gets mishandled is, of course, mostly out of your control. But you can take steps to improve your bag's chances of arriving when you do. Start by avoiding air travel during holidays and bad weather, which can overload baggage systems. Here are other possible problems and some strategies to counter them, from industry experts:

Problem -- Your bag gets left behind.

Strategies -- Check in early. Many airlines won't accept bags later than 30 or 45 minutes before flight time. (Southwest is one exception.) A rule of thumb: If you have to run to catch your flight, your checked bag may not make it. Don't pack prohibited items and don't lock your bag, unless you use locks approved by the Transportation Security Administration. If your bag requires extra screening, it may not make your flight. For rules, go to tsa.gov.

Problem -- Your bag is misrouted.

Strategies -- Fly nonstop. There's less chance for error.

Avoid tight connections. Allow at least an hour between domestic flights and two hours between international flights, especially at large hub airports. Don't switch flights at the last minute. If you do, your bags may wind up on your original flight.

Problem -- The bag's identification tag falls off.

Strategies -- Put your name and a phone number inside your bag as well as outside. If you'll be away for a while, put your itinerary inside in an envelope, with contacts, to help the airline find you. Carry a record of your bag's size, brand and unique features and make a mental note of its contents. The more details, the better.

Problem -- Someone mistakes your bag for theirs at the luggage carousel.

Strategies -- Buy a unique bag. Avoid upright black bags with wheels and a handle. These are the most common models. Put a brightly colored ribbon, luggage tag, adhesive tape or other distinctive marking on your bag.

Problem -- You need to file a mishandled-bag report.

Strategies -- Know your rights. By law, carriers are liable for up to $2,800 per passenger for delayed, lost or damaged bags on domestic flights. For details, go to airconsumer.ost.dot.gov and choose "Travel Tips & Publications," then "Fly Rights." If your bag is delayed overnight, ask for vouchers to pay for toiletries, clothing and other expenses.

Act promptly. Some airlines may disavow liability unless you file a report within 24 hours, or as little as four hours after the flight arrives.

[JANE ENGLE]

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