Airline Group Says 30 Million Bags Failed to Arrive on Time Last Year

GENEVA_An estimated 30 million bags checked in at airports last year failed to arrive on time with their owners, a computer-tracking company said Tuesday.

The vast majority of mishandled baggage was eventually reunited with owners, but over 200,000 bags were either stolen or permanently lost in luggage limbo, said SITA Inc., a Geneva-based company owned by the international air transport industry.

The misdirected bags comprised only 1 percent of the 3 billion bags processed last year by airports, but "the problem of mishandled baggage is worsening on both sides of the Atlantic," SITA said in a report released before Tuesday's airline and airport passenger services exposition in Paris.

Last year, mishandled luggage cost world airlines US$2.5 billion (€2.0 billion), compared with US$1.6 billion in 2004, SITA said. The jump partly reflects improvements in data collection, but also the increasing costs resulting from inadequate baggage management.

Greater airport congestion, tight connection times, increased transfers among airlines and stricter security are all contributing to more late or missing bags, SITA said.

But the biggest problem is the growing number of passengers, whose additional bags cause delays and complicate handling, it said.

"Growth is welcome but it has to be better managed if airlines and airports want to improve the passenger experience by eliminating delays from the system," said Francesco Violante, SITA's managing director.

Mishandling during baggage transfer was the largest single cause last year of a bag failing to arrive with its owner at the intended destination. Other bags were temporarily lost because of airport personnel failing to properly load baggage, ticketing errors, problems with loading or unloading, and weight or size restrictions. Only 3 percent of all misdirection of baggage occurred due to tagging errors.

On average, bags are returned to their owners a little over 31 hours - or 1.3 days - after they are reported missing, SITA said.

There is no industry standard for permanently lost bags, and items in some countries are later sold at auction.

In the United States, the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, sells more than 1 million items each year. Most of the merchandise sold is clothing, but also includes cameras, electronics, sporting goods, jewelry and - of course - luggage.

To help the airline industry cope with more passengers and more bags, SITA is promoting use of a tiny computer-style chip on luggage tags that it says will reduce the number of misdirected bags. The luggage labels, known as RFID for radio frequency identification tags, allow for tracking of luggage at all times over wireless networks.

The RFID chips also allow for quick removal of baggage from airplanes when the passenger who checked them fails to show up for the flight, SITA said. But the chips are used at only a limited number of airports so far.

"The industry needs more sophisticated baggage reconciliation systems and greater use of self-service such as check-in through kiosks and on the Web," Violante said. "This will all help to simplify travel, reduce delays and baggage misconnections."

SITA also promotes new technologies aimed at allowing mobile phone use on flights and offers applications for air-to-ground communications and fares services. It had revenues in 2004 of US$1.58 billion.