May 30, 2010

May 30, 2010
5 Things Baggage Handlers Will Not Say

Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Sunday and I hope you are having a safe and great Memorial Day weekend. I know many of you are traveling this holiday season since airfare and gas prices have slightly fallen so I wish you safe travels.

Speaking of airfare and traveling, most of you know Dab the AIDS Bear and I spend a lot of time traveling around the country making appearances and speaking at HIV and AIDS events. We also spend a lot of time going to Washington, DC. Now like a lot of people, I have had my luggage lost a few times. That is why I prefer only taking carry on luggage. But did you wonder what baggage handlers would say if you talk to them?

1. “Do not pack light — we need the money.”

These are turbulent times for the aviation industry. According to the Air Transport Association of America, passenger revenue fell 18 percent in 2009, the largest drop on record. In the past decade airlines have also been hit with extra costs related to fuel prices, security and unionization: 40 percent of air transportation workers were unionized in 2009, compared with 12 percent of the general workforce. “It is a tough, tough industry to achieve any success,” says Daniel Ortwerth, transportation analyst at Edward Jones.

So it is no surprise carriers are cutting corners. Passengers have kissed hot meals goodbye while paying for itinerary changes, frequent flier bookings and even blankets and pillows. Another hit: luggage fees. In January most major domestic carriers bumped these to $25 for the first checked bag, $35 for the second (but amounts can vary), which could generate $117 million in new revenue, according to consultancy IdeaWorks. It is a mixed bag for handlers like Shae Flores of American Airlines: Sure, fliers are checking fewer bags, but they are cramming more into them, requiring “more upper body strength,” she says.

2. “We are losing fewer bags because there are fewer to lose.”

It is true, fewer bags are getting lost in transit these days: There were 3.91 “mishandled” (lost, stolen, damaged or delayed) bags per 1,000 passengers in 2009, compared with 5.26 in 2008 and 7.05 in 2007, according to the Department of Transportation. But baggage handlers should not pat themselves on the back. Catherine Mayer, VP at travel tech firm SITA, says the DOT undercounts errors by excluding reports from passengers with an international leg in their flight. (The DOT agrees, saying airlines are required to file mishandled baggage reports only for domestic trips.) What is more, industry experts attribute the downward trend to the fact that there is less luggage to lose; US Airways, for one, says it has seen a 20 percent drop in first checked bag volume.

Mayer says the vast majority of lost bags are reunited with owners within 48 hours. But when they are not, airlines sell off unidentifiable bags to defray the cost of insuring lost luggage claims. Final stop: the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala., a 40,000 square foot store that peddles their contents as “lost treasures from around the world.”

3. “Some of us have sticky fingers.”

Last June, Sekita Ekrek, a New York based entertainment consultant, flew to Chicago to visit family. Upon arrival at her sister’s place, she says, she went for her camera, which she would put in a checked bag before the flight, but it was gone. Upset, she decided to file a claim against the carrier, American Airlines. But by the time she got home and found the original model number, it was too late; the airline’s 30 day window had passed. “They said, ‘That is our policy, end of story,’” says Ekrek. (A spokesperson for American Airlines says that camera equipment is excluded from the policy because of liability limitations.)

To be fair, 30 days seems generous compared with the limits set by other airlines. Brandon Macsata, executive director for the Association of Airline Passenger Rights, says some airlines require that you report stolen goods before leaving the airport. Alexander Anolik, a San Francisco attorney specializing in travel law, says that while courts will probably not sympathize if you miss a 30 day window, same day reporting rules are unreasonable. Airlines likely owe you money even if it takes a few days to notice that something is gone, he says.

4. “Sure, we can handle your pet but can your pet handle us?”

Intending to fly with your pet? Though some airlines, like Southwest, do not allow animals in their cargo hold, others will let you “check” Fido. But be prepared: When flying as cargo, animals can be exposed to loud noises and extreme temperatures. Even the mere separation from owners can be difficult. Wilmington, Delaware, attorney Lou Hering once checked his cat Zeb on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. Zeb did not make it onto the same flight and arrived several hours after Hering did. “He walked out of his carrier and did not even look at me, he was so mad,” recalls Hering.

First and foremost, experts suggest reading your airline’s pet policy. Pamela Martin, assistant professor of small animal internal medicine at Tuskegee University, says young puppies and kittens should accompany you in the cabin, since they can not regulate their body temperature as well as adults can. If you must check your pet, she suggests writing your telephone number on the crate and taping a picture of the animal to it, in case your pet escapes from its carrier. Traveling internationally? Web sites like list important entry requirements and information.

5. “We do not actually do that much.”

From the moment you surrender your luggage at check in, most of the heavy lifting is done by machines. Bags travel by conveyor belt, then get routed to the right gate, says Rick Stoess, of Mason, Ohio based Intelligrated, which has manufactured conveyor and sortation systems used at airports. In small airports, the sorting is done by hand, but in larger ones, scanners read the bag’s bar code, and a device sweeps it into the correct lane. Often, automatic security screening gets integrated into this labyrinth. The primary task for handlers: transferring bags onto the plane, either by cart or aluminum container.

Radio frequency identification could reduce human involvement even further. According to Pankaj Shukla, director of RFID business development for Motorola, which acquired a company that helped pioneer the technology, RFID works by inlaying a microchip and an antenna inside a tag, increasing the system’s accuracy to nearly 100 percent. But, says Shukla, while paper tags cost around 4 cents each, RFID tags run in the midteens. So do not expect the industry to make the expensive upgrade soon. McCarran International in Las Vegas is the only American airport using RFID fully.

Well there are the 5 things they will not say. If you are interested in what else they have to say check out my blog on Tuesday.

Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.

big bear hug,

Daddy Dab