Airlines Handle More Bags, Get 33% More Complaints

Airlines mishandled a lot more bags after the Transportation Security Administration began restricting what passengers could carry onto airplanes following a summer terrorist scare.

The number of complaints about late, damaged or lost baggage jumped by a third in August from a year earlier, even though the number of passengers increased only 5 percent. The rate of complaints increased 26 percent, to 8.08 per 1,000 passengers from 6.40 in August 2005, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Wednesday.

Travel analyst Terry Trippler said airlines were having problems handling bags promptly before the terrorist threat in London caused security officials to ban liquids, gels and other items from carry-on bags on Aug. 10.

Most airlines were reporting very full airplanes, putting additional stress on baggage handling at a time when many carriers had cut their number of employees. Then the new restrictions on carry-on items caused a lot more people to check their bags rather than tote them onto an airplane, he said.

"Quite frankly, I'm surprised it was up only that much," said Mr. Trippler, an airfare expert for MyVacationPassport.com. "In the first week to 10 days following the incident in London, it was not good. The crush of people was tremendous, and the airlines weren't ready for that."

Among major carriers, AirTran Airways showed the biggest percentage increase in the rate of mishandled baggage complaints, jumping 96 percent as it went from 3.56 complaints a year ago to 6.99 complaints per 1,000 passengers in August.

Short-haul carriers and regional airlines showed some of the larger increases, while full-service, long-haul carriers typically did better. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. saw its rate of complaints rise 38 percent, from 4.42 to 6.12 complaints per 1,000 passengers.

"All the carriers experienced a significant increase in checked bags due to the terrorist threat in London and the increased security procedures regarding carry-ons," Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said.

While some carriers reported that checked luggage jumped 30 percent to 50 percent, Ms. Harbin said Southwest saw increases of 20 percent to 30 percent at its airports.

"We overall were dealing with not only heavy summer travel, which tends to have a lot of checked baggage normally, but a significant increase in passengers who normally would be carrying on who are now checking their bags because of the security requirements," she said.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines Inc., the world's largest carrier, saw its rate of complaints go up less than 6 percent, from 6.50 in August 2005 to 6.87 per 1,000 passengers this year.

American spokesman Tim Smith said the carrier faced an increase in the number of checked bags following the change in carry-on rules, but not a large one and "far, far below the increases in checked bags that we were hearing about from other carriers."

"Our normal number of checked bags per person this summer was running in the range of 1.15 to 1.2 bags per customers," Mr. Smith said. "After this, it only jumped to about 1.3."

While the added security affected the situation, it didn't affect American very much, Mr. Smith said.

"The biggest impact particularly on misconnected and late bags remains weather in hubs and other large focus cities," he said. "Having said that, as a full-service, mainline carrier that had been easily handling 300,000 checked bags a day before this, we were geared up and staffed to handle this far better than many others."

Although AirTran had the biggest percentage increase in complaints, it was far from the worst in actual rate of problems.

AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver said the increased complaints were a direct result of the new security regulations and a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in the number of checked bags. The carrier is hiring more people to handle baggage, she said.

However, with new regulations that allow small quantities of toiletries in clear baggies, "we're already seeing a decrease in checked bags," she said.

Among larger carriers, AirTran's 6.99 complaints per 1,000 passengers trails that of US Airways Group Inc., which includes both America West Airlines Inc. and US Airways Inc., which had 10.33 complaints per 1,000 passengers.

Some regional carriers fared far worst than those larger carriers. Atlantic Southeast Airlines Inc. recorded a 21.56 complaint rate, followed by American Eagle Airlines with 16.77, Comair with 14.87 and SkyWest Airlines with 10.89.



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