Mishandling of Luggage Worst for Big 3 Airlines

Posted on September 3, 2008 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

NEW YORK CITY – The Department of Transportation issues statistics each month on the rate at which airlines "mishandle" luggage – that is, don't deliver it to you with your flight.

Those statistics bounce up and down, but taking a much longer view reveals that some airlines have been significantly better than others at baggage service.

Over the past 10 years, UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and Delta Air Lines Inc. – the nation's three biggest carriers – have the worst baggage-handling records among major airlines. United's mishandled baggage rate between 1998 and 2007 was 29% higher than that of Continental Airlines Inc., which had the best 10-year track record among major air carriers.

Baggage handling has drawn a lot of attention lately from travelers who find they now have to pay for baggage service that used to be free. In general, it has gotten worse at airlines. The rate of mishandled bags for the eight major carriers who were flying 10 years ago was 28% higher in 2007 than it was in 1998.

One eye-popping number: 23 million. That is the number of passengers who have had bags delayed or lost over the past decade by major airlines.

That could turn around because of the baggage fees – travelers are checking fewer bags to save money, and airline executives say reduced volume should allow them to improve baggage reliability. Fewer bags checked means fewer instances of luggage being left behind because of aircraft weight issues or baggage handlers being overwhelmed with volume and botching flight connections or misrouting suitcases.

In July, for instance, the first full month of fees to check any baggage, American says its customers checked one million fewer bags than in July last year, and the number of mishandled bags dropped by 35%.

The Air Transport Association, a trade group representing airlines, blames the nation's clogged air-traffic-control system and growing air-travel delays for the increased rate of mishandled bags over the past decade. "Delays cause missed connections. Missed connections cause mishandled bags," says ATA spokesman David Castelveter. Airlines with better on-time records also have better baggage records, as delays can lead to luggage getting left behind.

As airlines rush to catch up with their schedules, ground time between flights shrinks, leading to more missed connections for baggage. American, for example, used to fare relatively well in baggage performance, with a baggage-handling rate close to average until 2001.

Since then, though, it has worsened every year, as the airline's on-time dependability has also declined. "There is a correlation," says Mark Dupont, American's vice president of airport services. From 2004 on, "there has been a consistent decline in each one – dependability and baggage."

But American, which has had the highest rate of mishandled bags among major airlines through the first six months of this year, has also lagged behind competitors in buying new technology to improve baggage handling.

Other airlines, for example, have been using hand-held bar-code scanners for several years to better track bags and make sure each bag is being loaded into the correct airplane. American is testing a mobile unit at 10 gates in Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The units, mounted in the cab of the tractors that drive bags between connecting flights, give bag runners more timely information on gate changes and other flight information than the sheets of paper they get handed now, which could be 30 minutes old or more and lack gate changes and other information.

Baggage problems are a major source of frustration to airline passengers. When bags turn up missing, airlines often tell passengers that they have no idea what happened to the bag. Worse, even though many passengers now pay baggage fees that can end up being hefty, airlines don't refund the fees if the bags don't arrive on the same flight as the passenger. Passengers who had to wait hours or even days for bags to be delivered often have to file complaints with airlines to get any compensation, and it often comes in the form of vouchers toward future trips, rather than a refund of baggage-service fees.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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