Do Airlines Improve Bag Handling when Fees Rise?

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.

It's rare for bags to be lost, never to be seen again. More often, they're delayed. Often when they are, the airlines say, it's because of missed connections, when a bag's owner makes it to a connecting flight, but the bag doesn't. There are other reasons for bags to go astray: Sometimes equipment misreads the bar code on a bag's tag. And sometimes luggage handlers place bags in the wrong cart headed to the wrong flight.

Using technology

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

Delta, American and Southwest, for instance, have equipped employees with handheld devices that can scan the tag on a lone bag circling on a luggage carousel and speed the process to find its owner.

That's a piece of a $150 million commitment Delta Air Lines has made since 2008 to improve its overall baggage service, particularly in Atlanta, its largest hub, says spokesman Anthony Black.

"We've gone in and gutted the baggage system at the airport, put in wider bag lanes, new technologies and newer equipment and improved the processes we use to deliver bags to aircraft," he says.

Delta's rate of mishandled bags has fallen to 4.78 reports per 1,000 passengers for January through November compared with 5.69 during that period in 2008. Black calls that "the fruit of all those changes" the airline is making.

At American Airlines, drivers at several airports who ferry luggage between flights now have touch-screens that instantly alert them to gate changes. It's one of several innovations the airline says it has introduced to improve the baggage-handling process, from loading to transfers between flights to recovery.

"Right now we operate at about 40 per 10,000 in terms of bags that aren't immediately reconciled with the customer," says Andy Albert, the airline's managing director of baggage operations and special projects. "We don't find that acceptable at all. We strive for 100%, and that's what we're going to continue to strive for."

Alaska Airlines is one of the few airlines to directly tie extra fees to bag delivery. Alaska is offering passengers a $25 discount on a future trip or 2,500 frequent-flier bonus miles if their checked bags don't appear on the carousel within 25 minutes from the time their plane arrives at the gate. The guarantee, which also applies to Alaska's sister airline, Horizon Air, is good for travel through July 31.

"We're saying if we're going to charge you for this, you'll get something back -- our commitment to get your luggage to you on time," says spokeswoman Bobbie Egan.

Five years ago, delivery of a bag could sometimes take as long as 40 minutes, says Greg Latimer, the airline's managing director of marketing. It now takes 15 to 20 minutes for luggage to arrive.

Airlines may be taking these steps as much for their bottom lines as for their passengers. The industry spent $3.3 billion on mishandled luggage globally in 2008, says Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association. That figure includes paying claims for lost bags and delivery costs for delayed bags. "Airlines have a significant incentive to improve the mishandling rate as much as possible, because it's not only a customer service issue, it's a financial issue," he says.

Technology offers the prospect of improved baggage service down the line. Radio frequency identification bag tags, which have a higher accuracy rate than the current bar-code system, could usher in the next big dramatic shift. But industry watchers say that for now, they're too expensive to widely implement.

Shipping bags separately

In the meantime, there are simpler changes that can be made to ensure better service. The International Air Transport Association has a "baggage improvement program" that offers recommendations to airlines such as creating special teams whose task is to handle bags that have a short time to make their connections.

Travel experts, such as Hobica, say passengers can take steps, too, including simply checking the routing tags on their bags for the proper destination before a check-in clerk sends the bags on their way.

Traveler Susan Jacobsen says she has a better idea still. She began sending her luggage ahead of time to her travel destinations two years ago.

"When I land at my destination, I want to get going," says Jacobsen, who works in public relations and lives in Alexandria, Va. "I don't want to cushion in half an hour waiting for a bag."

UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg says more travelers are doing the same since airlines began imposing the extra fees for checking bags in 2008. Jeff Boyd, co-owner of Luggage Free, a New York-based luggage-shipping business, says he's seen a similar increase. His company ships bags for about 2,000 customers a month.

It can cost more to ship bags separately than the airlines charge in extra fees.

Jacobsen paid $200 to ship her bags to and from a destination last month. But the price was worth it, she says.

"I'm a big believer in paying a little extra for comfort and peace of mind," she says. "And I have a tracking number, so I can see exactly where my box is on the way back home to me."

Contributing: Barbara Hansen


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