Why Do 26 Million Checked Bags
Go Missing Every Year?
Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Saturday and I hope you have had a beary safe and great week. It is a busy weekend for Dab the AIDS Bear and me at the Positive Living Conference this weekend.
Because of doing so many events, Dab the AIDS Bear and I fly a lot. Luckily, my luggage has only been lost or damaged several times. (Knock on wood.) But did you know 26 million checked bags go missing every year?
It is 12:27 p.m. at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and Delta flight 1826 to Fort Lauderdale is three minutes from push-back. Ramp workers in regulation orange vests close the cargo door and yank back the conveyor belt that moments earlier was flinging suitcases, bulging duffels, and strollers into the 757’s narrow hold. A walkie-talkie crackles with good news: 11 passengers connecting from a delayed flight out of New York have just boarded. Their holiday in the sun has been salvaged.
Or maybe not. As the ramp retracts, Delta’s luggage operations chief, Hussein Berry, scowls at the update broadcast over his radio: The fliers made it, but their bags did not. The pilot, who’s been apprised of these developments, must now make the crucial call of whether to wait for the errant valises and risk a late departure, or to have the bags put on the next flight out. The latter option is sure to inconvenience passengers, especially those boarding a cruise ship this afternoon, as well as lose the airline goodwill and money: It costs a carrier an average of $100 to reunite each delayed bag with its owner, and the airlines must also refund the fees they pocket for checked bags.
It’s those fees, more than anything, that are pushing the topic of airline baggage to the fore. This year, consumers will fork over more than $3 billion to check their luggage in the United States alone, a 700 percent increase from five years ago. The mounting baggage fees and passenger battles over bin space have not escaped the attention of some members of Congress, who are threatening a crackdown on the industry. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.), among others, has sponsored legislation that would force carriers to permit customers to check at least one bag free of charge. “Air travel can be a stressful experience for many reasons, but unfair fees for basic amenities should not be one of them,” Landrieu said as she introduced the bill late last year.
The fees have led to a precipitous drop in the number of checked bags, yet domestic airlines still lose or damage nearly two million pieces of luggage annually. While that is admittedly a fraction of the roughly 400 million bags entrusted to U.S. carriers each year, mishandled baggage is the number two source of complaints to the Department of Transportation, after flight delays and cancellations. Overall, the airlines do a respectable job—the industry claims that more than 99 percent of checked bags arrive with their owners, and most late bags turn up within two days. But that’s of little consolation to the millions of fliers affected by lost and delayed luggage each year; few experienced travelers have escaped the dread induced by watching a carousel disgorge its last bag—with theirs nowhere in sight.
Worldwide, the problem is far worse: Some 26 million pieces of checked luggage went astray on international flights in 2011: It’s as though an airport the size of Philadelphia International had misplaced one bag for every passenger during an entire year. And in 2010, an astonishing one million suitcases were never recovered at all, vanishing into a sort of baggage black hole because they were either stolen or lost their identifying tags somewhere along the way. “The lost bags don’t really get much attention,” says Lucian Ilie, a former baggage supervisor at JFK. “They just get kicked around.”
There will be no such misfortune for the luggage belonging to the passengers on flight 1826. Within minutes, a cart pulls up with the missing baggage; it’s quickly hoisted into the hold and the plane is on its way.
Just how do the airlines handle hundreds of millions of bags a year in the United States alone? There’s no better place to find the answer than Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, which is not only the busiest airport in the world but also the one that doubles as Delta’s test kitchen for new methods of tracking and scanning bags with greater accuracy than ever before.
At the center of the airport’s baggage operations, well hidden from the view of passengers, is a vast sorting system consisting of 20 miles of high-speed conveyor belts, laser scanners, and pinball machine–style arms that shuffle bags and shoot them to their gate area. About 6,500 bags per hour travel along this hidden labyrinth, usually for about ten minutes at a time. And you won’t find just the usual assortment of duffels and crammed valises: Our travel togs share the luggage hold with an alarming array of cargo, dead and alive. I spot an unadorned white rectangular box on a cart that I’m quickly informed contains a human body. “That’s big business for us,” Berry interjects. Side by side with the corpses are surfboards and crates with live birds, snakes, and pets of all sizes. Baggage handlers tell wild tales of what fliers have attempted to check as baggage, ranging from a 150-pound pig to a full-size Christmas tree. Understandably, there are many rules on where checked items can and cannot go: On wide-body planes the cargo is usually loaded in containers, but on smaller single-aisle planes it has to be carefully stacked. “We have to keep the dry ice away from the pets—otherwise, we could have a problem.” Indeed, dead pet stories are the bane of an airline’s PR department. “Nothing gets a TV crew out here faster,” says Berry.
If baggage fees have had one salutary effect, it’s been to ramp up the pressure on the airlines to provide better service and more transparency on this largely hidden part of their operation. “It’s a key part of customer satisfaction,” says Bob Kupbens, Delta’s vice president of e-commerce. Indeed, Delta had one of the worst records among major airlines for baggage handling in 2007; by 2011, the company had cut its lost-bag tally by 47 percent, rising to the second-best spot among the majors after JetBlue, which flies far fewer passengers and routes. Delta also launched a new smartphone app this year that lets passengers track their bags at every stage of the journey.
In truth, a modern baggage operation is a mashup of high-tech innovation and old-fashioned grunt work. Nowhere is this more critical than in the task of transferring bags from one flight to another—which is where most bag snafus occur. Atlanta, the ultimate fortress hub for Delta, has long been the country’s top connecting depot. Of the 100,000-odd checked bags that are handled here by Delta every day, 70,000 are tossed from plane to plane. The bags making the tightest connections are called “hot bags” and have less than 60 minutes to transit the tarmac. These make the “tail to tail” trip ferried in carts by drivers relying on wireless tablets that direct them to specific flights and automatically update them when gates or departure times change.
One of these drivers, Dexter Greene, has a typically brutal schedule the morning I visit: In one 31-minute shift, he must fetch 20 bags from an incoming flight from Jacksonville and shuttle them to seven other planes in two different terminals. The less urgent bags are trucked by another driver to the cavernous luggage depot, where they’re either sent up chutes to the carousel at baggage claim or, for those on long layovers, land in a holding area until they’re ready to reenter the system.
And while it might seem logical to assume your bag is most at risk in a tight transfer, more leisurely layovers have a downside too, since luggage can be left in the open in intense heat or in the rain. Don’t check your bags too far in advance, cautions Don Harris, senior director of ground operations for Southwest Airlines, which carries more luggage per person than its rivals due to its generous two-bags-free policy. “If bags are coming in for a flight that departs in three hours, we might have to set them aside. It could become a case of out of sight, out of mind.”
Judging from complaints received by Condé Nast Traveler’s Ombudsman, bags can be subjected to all manner of abuse. One flier reported that when he retrieved his “indestructible” suitcase from the carousel, it was soaked in oil and had been punctured, with two large holes clear through the bag. “It looked like it had been impaled on a forklift,” he wrote. One reader who flew to Paris recalled that when she collected her luggage at Charles de Gaulle Airport, “every article inside was soaking wet” and colors had run and destroyed nearly $1,000 worth of recent purchases. (The problem had begun when the bags were left beside the plane during loading in a heavy downpour.) She spent several days in a fruitless attempt to get the airline’s Paris office to reimburse her. “My entire trip was spoiled,” she said, with her sole souvenir a bag of smelly and discolored togs.
The industry responds that such anecdotal tales, while colorful, don’t fairly represent the progress it has made in getting bags to their destination on time and intact. “The airlines had their best-ever year for baggage handling” in 2011, says Francesco Volante, CEO of airline data provider SITA, which issues annual worldwide baggage reports. He points out that the rate of mishandled bags has been cut in half worldwide in the last five year
Lost in Translation
Compared with those in the United States, the baggage-handling records of some of the world’s largest foreign airports and carriers can appear dismal. About five years ago, the airline trade group IATA became concerned that the rate of mishandled bags was rising faster than the increase in passengers, and it initiated a series of audits by teams of baggage experts who would swoop in and suggest fixes. At sprawling Charles de Gaulle, for example, transferring bags is a daunting task—the airport requires fully 62 miles of track to carry the luggage of the more than 165,000 fliers who pass through the airport each day. Among the chronic problems: Bags were arriving at the plane too close to flight time, and some were inexplicably being flagged as “unknown” by the automated handling system, which spit them out for manual reading—causing more delays. In the two years since IATA’s intervention, the airport has reduced its lost-bag rate by 40 percent.
In Athens, a large number of bags were missing connecting flights. One problem was that those on a tight schedule didn’t stand out from the pack; another was that luggage was backing up on the conveyor belts, causing delays. The solution to these snafus was surprisingly low-tech: Airlines simply started using different colored tags for the high-priority bags, and the airport painted dots and stripes on the belts to show where bags should be placed for better spacing.
Paul Behan, head of IATA’s Passenger Experience program and a former manager at Heathrow, says the industry’s rate of lost bags improved noticeably during the first few years of the project. The volcanic ash cloud in 2010, though, was a setback, sending hundreds of thousands of bags to the lost and found in the mass confusion. “It is such a fine-tuned business that any unforeseen issue can dramatically affect it,” he says.
But it’s what goes wrong day to day that is under the most scrutiny, says Behan, because these are the problems that can be solved. “It could be something as basic as a tag getting wet and becoming unreadable,” he says. Or a tag might be damaged or lost, so the bag enters that netherworld of the permanently orphaned. “That’s one of the worst things—we know the bag is out there somewhere, but we can’t connect it back to the passenger,” Behan says. “I can’t say it enough: You should always put your name and contact information on the inside and the outside of the bag.”
Even the most advanced systems aren’t foolproof, though. Despite Delta’s improved showing, it still mishandled nearly 700 bags every day last year.
“Airlines don’t have total control of the luggage chain,” says Michael Boyd, of Colorado’s Boyd Group International, an aviation analyst who got his start years ago as a ramp agent in Dallas. Most airlines farm out the baggage handling to subcontractors, except at their busiest hubs. And the conditions at these jobs can be trying. “Some workers are making $8 to $10 an hour, and it’s grueling work, with a high rate of injury.” High turnover is directly related to bag mishaps. At one major airport, IATA found that temp workers were making an inordinate number of mistakes by mixing up airport codes. “You either have to do a better job of training—which isn’t going to happen in today’s economic climate—or you have to make up for it with better technology,” says Boyd.
Outsourcing has other risks. In 2009, several bag handlers working for Huntleigh, the contractor providing Delta’s baggage handling in St. Louis, were arrested and charged with stealing 900 items from passengers’ bags during a one-year period—laptops, iPods, and even cologne and cigarettes.
Statistics on baggage theft are hard to come by; the airlines don’t compile them, and if a journey involves multiple legs, it can be difficult to prove where the theft occurred. The TSA, which collects information on lost property, reports that between 7,000 and 14,000 claims are filed with the agency each year. Just how many of those missing items were stolen by screeners, versus baggage handlers, will never be known. Unless, of course, a crime ring is busted—which has happened with increased frequency in recent years. At least 32 instances of luggage-theft operations—involving both baggage handlers and TSA screeners—have been exposed at U.S. airports in the last three years. Some security experts have called for more surveillance cameras in baggage areas, but IATA’s Paul Behan says that would be impractical: “A good part of the baggage process is in a part of the airport that is physically quite complex and, in many areas, dark.” He adds: “Your bag may be traveling for several miles” in this maze, and watching it at every step along the way just isn’t feasible.
And the cameras would probably be useless anyway, according to Scott Mueller, who has spent more than 25 years running baggage operations for U.S. airlines. “Many of those cameras concealed in ceilings at airports do not work or are not monitored on a daily basis,” he says.
Baggage theft “happens far more than the traveling public knows,” Mueller says. If anything, it has gotten worse in the past decade. The arrival of the TSA, which should have heightened security throughout airports, actually created an opportunity for petty thievery, he says. “When you have the TSA and local law enforcement watching for terrorists, this takes the priority off of thieves stealing luggage from the carousel.” And in a cost-saving move, carriers have stopped checking fliers’ bag claim checks at the airport exit, meaning “anyone can walk in off the street and walk out with a bag.”
Mueller confirms that airlines see the TSA as a big part of the problem: “After the TSA took over back in 2001, my pilferage claims quadrupled,” he says. Before the TSA came into the game, passengers’ bags could be opened by another party only if a law-enforcement officer was present. His counterparts at other carriers have reported similar findings, he says, and in a 2002 meeting in Washington, D.C., they demanded that the TSA crack down on rogue employees. It is not clear what the agency has done since that time to solve the problem, but it has agreed to investigate and settle any claims that arise.
But crime rings involving bag handlers are also a serious problem. In one of the more brazen cases, a ring led by a baggage handler for American Airlines at JFK engaged in everything from drug smuggling to stealing luxury items like watches, laptops, and expensive clothing. During the trial, one of the handlers testified that “everybody did it,” according to one of the jurors. Even when a crime operation is suspected—Mueller recalls times when a spike in baggage complaints at a certain location set off an investigation—it’s still a struggle to get the local police involved. “Their priorities may not be the same as mine,” he says. Mueller, who has drawn on some of his experiences for his book, The Empty Carousel, says that his advice to fliers is simple: “Don’t pack anything you cannot afford to lose.”
Hope this helps you avoid having this hassle happen to you when you travel and you have a beary safe and great Friday!
Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.
big bear hug,