Do Airlines Improve Bag Handling when Fees Rise?

Knowing few things irritate passengers more than having their bags misplaced, many airlines insist they are working to improve their delivery.


Too many times over the years, Ed Lozar says, he's flown cross-country only to discover when he lands that while he made it, his bag didn't.

That happens less often nowadays, he says, but the anxiety lingers. Every time he gets off a flight and takes his place in the crowd around the baggage carousel, he is prepared for the worst.

"(I'm) always nervous," says Lozar, 57, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee who lives in Orofino, Idaho. "There's a solid percentage of me that believes it's never going to show up, because it's happened to me so many times."

There's good reason for Lozar's anxiety. Airlines get nearly four reports for every 1,000 domestic passengers that luggage has been delayed, lost, pilfered or damaged, according to the Department of Transportation and about 1.7 million passengers are on domestic flights each day. At the same time, nearly every domestic airline is charging passengers to check their bags. Just last month, five major carriers raised the average price of checking a first bag to $25 at the airport, and a second to $35.

The new round of fee increases is prompting some passengers to ask: If the airlines are charging more to carry bags, shouldn't they do more to make sure they arrive when they're supposed to?

"I'd like to see the reason they're going to charge more ... (is) to update their baggage system or to do something to ensure more bags won't get lost," says Chris Byrd, 37, a research associate in the pharmaceutical industry, who lives in Phoenix. "But I would never actually expect it from them."

Delayed or misplaced bags are possibly travelers' biggest worries next to flights arriving late and the cost of a ticket, says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.

"Most people, obviously, don't suffer lost bags," Hobica says. "But when it does happen to you, it can be quite devastating, especially if you're heading off for a cruise and you're stuck with no clothes, or you're going to a business meeting."

The airlines say they are working to upgrade their baggage systems. But industry analysts, such as Vaughn Cordle of AirlineForecasts, say money from the extra fees is going largely to offset low ticket prices or to shore up the airlines' bottom lines during tough economic times. Airlines globally collected $2.47 billion in baggage fees in the 12 months ending in September, Cordle says, with little likely targeted to guarantee bags will arrive with passengers.

Bag fees "generate revenue that they need to operate and still keep base prices low enough to attract the consumers," says Anne Banas, executive editor of website SmarterTravel.com.

Most often, bags just delayed

Although thousands of checked bags are delayed, lost, damaged or pilfered each month, the rate of mishandled baggage is down. As of November, the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics says the rate of reports filed in 2009 by passengers for luggage that was mishandled on domestic flights had dropped to 3.80 per 1,000 passengers. A year earlier, the rate was 5.12.

Analysts give several reasons for the drop, including: Fewer people are traveling during the economic downturn, and fewer passengers are checking their bags because they want to avoid the escalating fees.

The airline industry attributes part of the drop to steps airlines say they're taking to get passengers' bags there with the passengers.

"With the drop in passengers, with the increase in checked baggage fees, we can't be sure if the number of mishandled bags is going down because of those two (factors) or truly because the industry is improving, or hopefully because of all three," says Catherine Mayer, a vice president at SITA, which provides information technology to the air travel industry.

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