US Airways this month is installing additional technology to better sort luggage at Philadelphia International Airport, the airline's international gateway and notorious black hole for bags.
When a passenger checks a bag, it's tagged and placed on a conveyer belt, where scanners determine where it should go. The current technology at Philadelphia has only four scanners to read the bar code on a luggage tag, compared with 12 scanners used at Charlotte/Douglas International, the airline's largest hub.
The result is that in Philadelphia 35 percent of checked luggage isn't scanned and doesn't go to the right place, compared with a rate of less than 5 percent in Charlotte. Many of the un-scanned Philadelphia bags are sent to the wrong part of the airport, or to a "default" area where they must be sorted by hand.
The airline hopes to have a total of 12 scanners in Philadelphia operating by early November.
US Airways had the highest rate of mishandled luggage in August among major carriers, with 10.3 complaints per 1,000 passengers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. And the airline is still suffering from a 2004 Christmas sickout, which caused luggage to pile up at airports nationwide.
Much of the problem stems from snafus at Philadelphia, which has a lost-luggage rate four times the airline average, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week. The newspaper detailed a myriad of problems there, including a disgruntled work force and a lack of basic equipment for ramp workers.
"There is no one single fix," said Joe Tiberi, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents US Airways baggage handlers. "Scanners are only one part of the problem. You have old tugs and belt loaders. And low pay -- it's a revolving door in Philly."
Anthony Mule, US Airways vice president of customer service, said the airline is also working the Transportation Security Administration to increase screening capacity for luggage.
That, coupled with better luggage-tag technology, could reduce the airline's baggage problem in Philadelphia by 30 percent, he said. Overall, that could reduce the entire airline's lost baggage rate by 5 to 10 percent.
"It would be a big deal," Mule said. "We want this done before the Christmas travel season."
US Airways was acquired by America West Airlines last year, and the Tempe, Ariz., airline is trying to fully merge the two carriers.
The airline is spending about $20 million on new equipment at Philadelphia, including $2 million for the luggage-sorting technology.
The airline's ramp workers, including baggage handlers, are seeking wage increases after years of cutbacks during the old US Airways' two bankruptcies this decade.
US Airways Executive to Resign
US Airways announced Monday that Executive Vice President Al Crellin -- the only remaining top executive from the pre-merger US Airways -- will resign effective Nov. 15.
Crellin was in charge of operations when US Airways was paralyzed by a Christmas 2004 sickout that resulted in tens of thousands of luggage complaints. Some in the airline criticized the decision to bring him to the new airline.
Crellin has 35 years in the airline business, starting with Pacific Southwest Airlines, which was acquired by US Airways.
Scott Kirby, recently named president, will assume his duties.
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