"You'll make the connection, but I doubt very much that your bags will." That comment, from a British Airways steward to a Edinburgh-bound passenger on a delayed flight from Singapore to Heathrow, underlined the root problem facing Britain's biggest airline at the UK's busiest airport. "Self-loading cargo", as passengers are pejoratively referred to, can move from one plane to another much more quickly than their luggage.
The passenger in question was connecting between BA's main terminals, One and Four, which are geographically the farthest apart. The passenger train between the two takes just five minutes, allowing passengers to make quick changes between planes. But the business of identifying a single piece of luggage from a jumbo-load arriving at Heathrow at the same time as a dozen other flights, and transferring it to the imminent departure to Edinburgh, fails all too often.
It seems reasonably simple if you say it quickly. All you've got to do is take bags off one aircraft and load them on another. But as millions of Britons prepare to go on holiday this summer, they should be aware that, according to a British Airways' internal estimate, up to 10 per cent of luggage carried on all major airlines goes missing. Thousands of bags are "mislaid" every year at British airports, particularly at Heathrow and Gatwick, and particularly when luggage is being transferred from one aircraft to another.
With no sign of a government pronouncement on the controversial Terminal Five plans, BA faces a terminal problem at Heathrow. Faced with a chronic shortage of gates, the airline has been forced to spread its departures across all four terminals, greatly increasing the potential for losing travellers' property.
While the company refuses to divulge official figures, it is widely accepted within the organisation that one in 10 bags switched between flights goes walkabout. Some of the bags disappear forever; most turn up eventually. BA is currently promoting increased hand-luggage allowances on Club Europe flights, where passengers are allowed 18kg of carry-on bags helping to reduce the number of mishandled bags.
The oneworld alliance, of which British Airways is one of the leading members, make much of the "seamless transfers" between member airlines; so too does its arch-rival, the Star Alliance. But as more people pass through Heathrow and the world's other major airports, the luggage transfer systems are bursting at the seams.
Some seasoned travellers put the problem down to incompetent airport management or feckless baggage handlers. However industry insiders believe airlines are making the situation worse by allowing insufficient time for baggage to be unloaded from one flight and loaded on another. Airlines are in fierce competition with each other, and offer short connection times to attract passengers.
The travel trade adds to the problem, it is said, by booking passengers on unofficial connecting flights which allow passengers to make it by the skin of their teeth but not allowing enough time for baggage transfer. In theory, the passenger should be warned that these "illegal connections" are at their own risk, and some airlines including BA will try to weed out customers who have been sold tickets for a "mission impossible" connection advising them to book on a later flight.
Baggage can also go astray because of late flights. The airlines' record in this regard is probably worse than the much-maligned British rail network.
Simon Evans, chief executive of the UK Air Transport Users' Council, points out that the compensation on offer from airlines for lost luggage is pitiful. As with much of the legislation affecting travellers, the conditions were laid down by the 1929 Warsaw Convention. Under its termspassengers are entitled to a maximum of about £15 a kilo for lost luggage, irrespective of whether it contained expensive electronic equipment or soiled undies.
"If a passenger asks an airline what it is going to do for him while he waits for his luggage, they might say 'nothing'. Or they might tell him to go and buy a toothbrush or clean underwear and he will be reimbursed if he produces receipts," said Mr Evans. "My advice to passengers whose luggage has been lost is not to go out and buy expensive replacements and expect the airline to pay."
The recently introduced European passengers' charter has done nothing to help. It merely mutters that airlines should reunite travellers with their luggage "as quickly as possible".
It will come as something of a surprise to those who have lost their property to learn that there are relatively sophisticated systems at work for transferring luggage. In most large aircraft, luggage which will need to be switched is put in separate containers, some of which can weigh up to 1.5 tonnes. On smaller aeroplanes the luggage is set aside in a special part of the hold.
When it arrives at an airport such as Heathrow the container is off-loaded by a large elevator vehicle and placed on a "train". It is then taken to a conveyor belt which transfers it to the relevant terminal. There it is sorted by hand and carried on a motorised trolley to the correct "spur" where aircraft await their passengers.
The complexity of the system means there is considerable potential for delay. The rise in the number of passengers using the airport has also put the system under strain. In 1996-97 some 56 million people passed through Heathrow, but by 2000-01 the figure had risen to 64 million, a third of whom switched to other flights.
Steve Double, of British Airways, says that other airports such as Frankfurt, Schipol and Charles de Gaulle in Paris have far worse records than Heathrow even though the London airport has the tightest security in the world.
If a bag misses a flight it has to go through a tight security procedure to ensure it is "clean" a system tightened up after the Lockerbie bombing. At Heathrow bags are X-rayed to make sure they do not contain explosives. These security procedures inevitably add time to the process.
Airlines are not happy with the situation. It can cost a great deal to reunite passengers with their luggage. Besides the time spent in tracing bags, couriers have to be hired to deliver the luggage, when it appears, to the passenger's home or hotel.
However it seems that the cost of allowing passengers and luggage a more realistic transfer time, is even greater.
"It's difficult not to be somewhat cynical," said Mr Evans, " After all, if the airline loses 20 bags it might be liable for £6,000. If it lengthens journey times it could lose a lot more."
LUGGAGE HORROR STORIES
FROM THE bridesmaid's dress diverted 200 miles from its wedding to the Christmas presents languishing in Manchester rather than being opened in the Alps, lost luggage is no laughing matter.
Whether it is because of a mix-up between connecting airlines or light-fingered terminal workers, the net result is heartache and hours of airport rage before the wayward bags are all too often declared irretrievable.
Such was the experience of Tony Benn, the veteran former Labour MP, and his daughter Melissa, when they were grounded in Cincinatti because of overbooking on their Delta Airways flight to Britain.
While the pair, returning from a remembrance ceremony for Mr Benn's late wife, were diverted on to another flight via Paris, their bags were making their way to Orlando, Florida. Airline staff said the luggage would arrive the next day. Only Mr Benn's suitcase turned up while the rest, including irreplaceable photographs, was declared "not yet traceable".
A similarly flip explanation was offered to David Capper, from Belfast, whose three airlines on a trip to Florida, via Heathrow, achieved the unusual distinction of losing his bags twice.
The baggage, which was transported by British Midland, British Airways and US Air, arrived 24 hours after he touched down in Tampa, Florida, via Miami.
Upon his return to Northern Ireland, his luggage went astray again before being delivered to his home six hours later. A British Midland staff member said: "These things happen."
There was to be no such salvation for Mark Prouse, from Dublin, after he flew with his wife and six-year-old daughter to Glasgow's Prestwick airport by Ryanair to attend his sister's wedding.
After three hours of waiting for their luggage to turn up, the family had to rush to hire a replacement for Mr Prouse's suit and buy a new bridesmaid's dress for his daughter. The family was awarded £1,000 damages, in addition to the maximum £270 available for the loss of their luggage.
A final thought for the Beard family from Ilkley, West Yorkshire, who arrived at Lyons airport in the south of France to find their Christmas presents had not made the journey from Manchester.
Caroline Beard, who was en route to Meribel for a festive skiing holiday, spent a week on the phone to BA trying to locate the bag with the presents. It was never found. She said: "It does seem odd that from a total of 11 pieces of luggage, the only one to go missing was the one that just happened to be filled with Christmas presents."Reuse content