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.
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."
A proposed federal rule would ensure passengers get back at least checked-bag fees for mishandled luggage.
Why do so many passengers get off the plane only to discover that their baggage did not make the trip with them?