You can help airlines prevent mishandled bags
By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY
Frequent-flier Bob Schneider doesn't want to be in the same shoes as passengers who filed 1.8 million reports of mishandled bags with airlines during the first 10 months of this year.
To avoid checked-baggage problems, Schneider of Medford, Mass., leaves a suit, shirts and pants at a dry cleaner in Indianapolis, where he flies to each week on business.
Schneider's actions may seem extreme to many fliers, because most checked bags aren't lost, delayed, damaged or stolen.
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More bags, though, are mishandled in December than in any other month, so travelers may wish to take steps to minimize the chance of a bag going astray or being damaged during the peak holiday travel season.
Last December, 19 U.S. airlines carried 45.9 million passengers and received nearly 320,000 reports of mishandled bags. That's about double the amount of bags that were mishandled during the previous month.
The following tips, provided by airport-technology expert Lukas Loeffler, may help fliers avoid the hassle of a delayed or lost bag. Loeffler is a vice president at Siemens, an electrical engineering conglomerate that provides baggage-handling equipment at 435 U.S. airports.
•Connecting flights. Not allowing enough time between connecting flights and flying on more than one airline increases the probability of losing a bag. Make sure to schedule at least 30 minutes between connecting flights.
•Packing gifts. Don't wrap them, because the metalized foil in wrapping paper appears solid during security screening. A manual bag search is required and may delay the bag.
•Bag's size and weight. Oversize and heavy bags increase the chance of falling off a conveyer belt or being rerouted for manual sorting or extra security screening. Small bags should be carried on.
•Access to a bag's contents. Make sure a bag is easy for security screeners to open, or use locks that the Transportation Security Administration can open with a master key. Bags that are difficult to open increase the likelihood of a delay or damage.
•Luggage straps. Loose straps or bulky belts around a bag may get caught in conveyer equipment. A bag could be damaged or delayed.
•Flight check-in. Checking in for a flight as early as possible eliminates the need to rush a bag through, when mistakes can be made. Find out an airline's deadline for checking a bag and meet it.
•Bag tag. Make sure the owner is identified inside and outside a bag, and check the destination and flight number on the tag before leaving the bag.
December presents the biggest challenge for airlines because they must handle a huge number of bags. In a single day this month, for example, a terminal at New York's JFK airport will handle about 27,000 bags, Loeffler says.
David Castelveter, a vice president for the Air Transport Association, says the main reason checked bags are mishandled is an "outdated" air traffic control system that causes flight delays and missed connections.
Loeffler disagrees, blaming bad weather in December and other months for delays and misconnections that result in mishandled bags.
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According to SITA, a technology company run by the world's airlines, about half of bags mishandled — "delayed, damaged or pilfered" — last year occurred during transfer from one plane to another.
The total number of mishandled bags worldwide dropped from 42.4 million in 2007 to 32.8 million last year, according to SITA's most recent baggage report.
Fewer bags were checked in last year, SITA says, because an increasing number of airlines began charging for checked bags, and some airlines relaxed their carry-on baggage restrictions.
Of the 32.8 million mishandled bags last year, a "great majority" were returned to their owners in less than 48 hours, SITA says. But 736,000 bags were never returned.
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