WASHINGTON -- The latest government figures show airplane luggage problems remain near their highest level in more than a decade despite new rules that encourage travelers to check fewer bags.
Transportation Department figures released Wednesday for the month of October put 2006 on track to be the worst year for lost, delayed, damaged or stolen baggage since 1991.
The figures show that in October, passengers reported 383,000 pieces of checked luggage were mishandled -- an average of 12,350 a day. That's the fourth-largest monthly total ever recorded.
The rate of luggage problems was 7.5 per 1,000 passengers. That's down from August and September but 51% higher than October 2005 and nearly double the rate for 2002, when problems hit an all-time low.
The problems persisted in October even though the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lifted a prohibition on carrying any liquids on board airplanes. The ban, imposed in August after British authorities foiled an alleged plot to bomb U.S.-bound airlines using liquid explosives, led passengers to check millions more bags and was widely blamed for the initial increase in lost luggage.
On Sept. 26, the TSA began allowing passengers to carry small bottles of liquids in carry-on bags. That was expected to reduce the amount of checked -- and lost -- luggage.
US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder said many passengers continued to check luggage because they were uncertain of the policy concerning liquids.
"The TSA policy is still a factor," she said.
The TSA said the amount of checked luggage remained above normal in October but provided no figures.
George Mason University transportation expert Kenneth Button said the lost baggage problem is fueled by outdated technology and baggage-handling systems that are taxed by record numbers of passengers.
"They haven't really made any technological advance since bar codes" were put on luggage tags, Button said. "They do need some new technology, but that involves quite big capital investments."
US Airways' financial problems restricted spending on new technology or more baggage handlers, Wunder said.
A steady increase in luggage problems since 2002 prompted a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing in May that looked at airline staffing shortages and other causes.
Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., who expects to become subcommittee chairman when a new Congress convenes in January, said he might hold another hearing to question airline officials. "If it continues ...we'll have to ask tough questions about what they intend to do," he said.
Every one of 18 airlines that reported baggage complaints to the government this year and last year saw problems increase from October 2005 to October 2006. Costello said many of the problems probably resulted from the liquids policy increasing checked baggage volume.
Business Travel Coalition chairman Kevin Mitchell said luggage problems may recede in light of an extensive pre-Thanksgiving campaign by the TSA, airlines and airports to inform travelers that they can pack small amounts of liquids in carry-on luggage. "It's difficult to get word out to millions of travelers that things have changed," Mitchell said. "But that (campaign) should help."
As passengers check more luggage, handlers work additional hours.
The onslaught of checked luggage threatens to overwhelm bomb detectors and create security gaps, the nation's aviation-security chief said Wednesday.
Some vow not to fly rather than check their luggage.
U.S. travelers are suffering on miserably crowded and late planes this summer, with record delays for domestic flights. Just be grateful you aren't flying through London's Heathrow Airport...