The plane truth: The secret life of luggage

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Ever wondered what happens to your bags after check-in? Or what the chances are that they will actually make it to your destination? Lost luggage is a big deal for travellers – and a major headache for airlines.

The taxi to the airport was on time, the queue for check-in was a paltry half-mile long, the girl at the desk smiled and you smiled back and got a window seat. You even remembered both passport and ticket this time. With a sigh of relief, you wave bye-bye to your suitcase as it jerks out of view on a conveyor belt, into the bowels of the airport, and go in search of a self-congratulatory cappuccino.

But what happens to your luggage next? Every year, tens of millions of air passengers willingly entrust their luggage to a tangled system of conveyor belts, sharp corners, wet floors, clumsy hands and trucks, without a clue what goes on behind the scenes, relying on blind faith that they will see their valuables again.

For the past week, the cancellation of 430 flights from Heathrow's new Terminal 5, and faults with the terminal's automated baggage-handling system have spelt disaster for travellers – and created a mammoth backlog of lost luggage. As the biggest airline public-relations disaster in living memory lurched from one surreal revelation to the next, it emerged yesterday that British Airways had been reduced to sending 20,000 cases by road to Milan, to be processed at a sorting facility and then, with any luck, reunited with their owners.

It may sound like a crazy plan but it makes sense to the airline. There is no glory in losing passengers' luggage. If a bag is mislaid on a short-haul flight, it can cost the airline more to find and return it than the fare the passenger paid in the first place. Back in the summer of 2007, BA got into the habit of sending luggage-only jumbos to the US in an effort to return passengers' belongings.

Although it takes 24 hours to transport luggage from Heathrow to Milan before being returned, bizarrely it's quicker than sending the bags all the way by air, due to the screening procedures, which are extra-tough when luggage is flying without an owner. Terminal 5, despite having the most hi-tech baggage-handling system available, still doesn't have the wherewithal to process delayed bags on site.

If nothing else, the T5 debacle has highlighted the surprisingly tricky business of getting air passengers' bags from A to B. You are never more likely than now to be separated, for longer than you'd like, from your bags while flying – and insurance claims on lost luggage are at a record high.

In theory, the procedure for handling checked-in luggage is straightforward. Departing Baggage Systems (ie when you fly out) will "input" your bag, attaching a tag with a barcode to it, before sending it along the conveyor belt, where it will be screened, sorted into the baggage cart that's been assigned to your flight, and then loaded on to the aircraft. Arriving Baggage Systems (ie when you land) will unload the aircraft, stack the luggage on to a cart and then unload it on to the designated carousel in the arrivals hall.

It all sounds straightforward, doesn't it? Yet airlines manage to send luggage to the wrong place, not send it at all, or lose it, with terrifying regularity.

YouTube is awash with videos of lost luggage: a single, ignored bag left on a sun-baked runway at Dallas airport with the caption "No one cares"; a holdall going round and round, endlessly, on a carousel; and one clip, called "Where does your luggage go?", of an American "customer service agent" gleefully "riding" a baggage conveyor belt in an unnamed US airport.

"Your luggage gets put on all sorts of different conveyors," says the star of the clip. "People often wonder, 'Why is my handle torn off? Why is my zipper missing?', and it's because they go down at 90-degree angles and there are different turns in the belt and they get hooked on other pieces of luggage." Chew on that, Mr Samsonite.

One in every 60 pieces of luggage checked in at one of Europe's airports will fail to arrive with its owner, according to the Association of European Airlines. British Airways, the largest carrier through Heathrow (accounting for almost half of all traffic) is perennially named among the worst offenders. Last year, the world's favourite airline mishandled 1.14 million bags, that's 26.5 bags per 1,000 passengers, which means that on any BA Boeing 747 flight with 350 passengers, around 10 can expect to arrive without their belongings. (Only Air Portugal was worse than BA last year, mishandling 27.8 bags per 1,000 passengers.)

So, why does it happen? Jamie Bowden, airline adviser, travel expert and a former manager of British Airways' customer service at Heathrow, believes that there are multiple causes. "When I started working at Heathrow in 1979," he says, "the airport managed 27 million passengers a year. In 2007, there were 68 million, and with that increased traffic comes extra pressure on old systems. Second, the security demands on baggage globally – not just at Heathrow – have increased. You used to put a tag on luggage with just the three letters indicating where the bag was going. If the bag missed the flight for whatever reason, a handler could simply put it on the next one. Now, with increased security, the bags have to be checked all over again before being allowed aboard, all of which takes time. Third, over the last 20 years there has been huge growth in transfer traffic. This is where most bags get lost because a passenger may fly into one terminal and out of another, and they might be anything up to three miles apart. It's almost designed to fail."

Indeed, Heathrow's transfer systems were built to cope with 18,000 transfer bags per day, but at peak times they handle 23,000.

Furthermore, recent restrictions on the number of bags you can take on board haven't helped, putting even more pressure on the volume of luggage going into the hold, all of which needs to be checked, screened and sorted.

Responsibility (ie blame) for the care of luggage is divided between the airport, the airline and the company handling baggage, such as Servisair or Swissport, which adds yet more potential for things to go wrong. The airline and its baggage-handling agent are responsible for bags during check-in, for removing bags from chutes to aircraft, and then getting bags from planes to terminal. The airport manager, such as BAA, is responsible for providing and operating the mechanical baggage systems, which screen and sort the bags.

When things go wrong, they don't hesitate to blame each other.

According to BAA's own figures, 36 per cent of misplaced bags are the fault of delayed flights; 32 per cent are caused by delays in unloading luggage; and 23 per cent by delays in loading luggage. BAA claims that only 6 per cent of misplaced bags are down to the handling equipment.

"Baggage handling is all about logistics," says aviation expert Colin Higgins. "The most common problem is when flights arrive off-schedule, whether they're early or late. Baggage-handling teams organise themselves to the schedule, and in very busy airports those schedules are tight. Because everyone is trying to drive down aviation costs, it isn't possible to have spare teams. If a plane is late, the team assigned to unload that plane may have moved on to another flight that has come in on time. They can't have spare teams hanging around just in case. You only need to have two flights 20 or 30 minutes off-schedule for things to get really backed up."

But despite what BAA's statistics might imply, mishandled bags aren't always the airline's fault; things can and do go wrong with the mechanised systems, as happened at Terminal 5. The barcodes on luggage labels, for example, meant to help bags find their way to the right airport, can be misread by automated systems – most often, the cases flip over on the conveyor belt, so the tags are hidden from the scanners. This is such a problem that Emirates is performing trials on a new bag-tracking system that uses radio-frequency identification (RFID); the system is costing the airline £150,000.

But last week's teething troubles at Terminal 5 are as nothing compared with the early days at Denver International. Almost twice the size of Manhattan and costing $5bn, America's largest airport was due to open for business in 1993 but was delayed by two years. Chief among its problems were a series of spectacular hitches with the new, automated baggage-handling system. When the operators revealed the system in action in 1994, there were scenes of clothes and other belongings strewn across conveyor belts; the machinery designed to move items from belt to belt also had a tendency to toss luggage off belts and on to the floor. The airport stuck with the system for an entire year, haemorrhaging $1m per day in extra costs, before the system was eventually jettisoned in favour of a manual alternative.

Behind the scenes, getting lost or being mishandled aren't the only perils faced by your luggage. Have you ever seen those suitcases wrapped tightly in clear plastic and thought the owners a touch paranoid? Think again. Last year, Operation Bruno, an investigation led by Essex CID, led to the arrest of a staggering 22 baggage handlers at Stansted airport for stealing from luggage. A former employee of Swissport recounted how one colleague routinely went through every bag on every flight, removing any valuables.

Last year, Heathrow alone reported 1,145 incidents of items missing from luggage. Bags are more likely to be rifled through if they look expensive, so it's best to save your Louis Vuitton steamer trunk for a car trip. Wrapping your luggage in plastic won't stop a determined thief, but it's a deterrent, and you can at least take the mangled wrapping to the airline as proof of tampering.

If your luggage is mishandled, and your holiday is not quite as jolly for it, you will almost certainly be reunited with it eventually; only one in every 2,000 mishandled bags is lost forever – they usually end up being auctioned off by airlines, who give the proceeds to charity.

"There's not much that passengers can do about mishandled baggage, except take as little as possible and take it into the cabin with them," says Colin Higgins. "We're all guilty of going on holiday and taking clothes with us that we never wear. My wife takes about three pairs of shoes on holiday, then wears her trainers constantly for two weeks."

So, next time you fly, ask yourself: do I really need to take my cowboy boots? Can I get through a fortnight with one pair of jeans? Travelling light may be the only sure way that both you and your bags will go on the same holiday.

Case notes

* An estimated 20 million bags are lost by airlines each year.

* Figures published in February by the Association of European Airlines revealed an average 16.6 bags per 1,000 passengers were delayed on flights by major European airlines in 2007. The average for 2006 was 15.7.

* The worst performer was TAP Air Portugal, with 27.8 bags while Air Malta came in top, losing just 4.5 bags per 1,000 passengers. BA was worst in Britain, and second worst in Europe, with 26.5 bags. And that was before the T5 fiasco.

* Less than 1 per cent of luggage remains lost for more than 60 days.

* In 2005, US funeral directors were criticised for starting a "frequent dier programme" in which undertakers were rewarded with air miles for loyalty to certain airlines. Sending coffins by air is lucrative thanks to high fees – in 2005 these ranged from $250 to $600 per coffin. Delta Airline ships about 50,000 corpses a year, while JetBlue says coffins account for 18 per cent of its cargo revenue. (Funeral directors who ship 1,000 coffins a year can get enough air miles to pay for a trip for two to Hawaii.)

* An average of 120 laptops are handed in to lost property at Heathrow every month. Fifteen of those are auctioned off after 3 months.

* Heathrow's Terminal 5 has 11 miles of baggage conveyor belt and is designed to deal with 12,000 bags an hour – almost double the capacity at Terminals 1 and 4.

* At the latest count, there was a backlog of 19,000 bags at T5, down from a peak of 28,000. Last night, an estimated 10 per cent of them were being shipped to Milan to be sorted and returned by an Italian courier company.

* The Air Transport Users Council (AUC) claims that 61 per cent of mishandled baggage complaints are related to connecting passengers.

Trips from hell: 'it happened to us'

"They just didn't care"

Raj Chande, 26, London, works in the city

I was flying from London to Rio in Brazil via Paris. The flight to Paris was delayed and I had to sprint through the airport to get the Rio flight. My bag didn't make it. It arrived at my hotel later that day so it wasn't too bad, but then on the way back, I got to London and my bag didn't turn up again. I couldn't believe it.

This time, I was in Paris for three hours and all they had to do was take my bag of one plane and stick it on another. I was tired and irritable, so I thought I'd go and shout at somebody for 10 minutes to feel better. But they were French and were very good at letting me know they didn't care.

I was on the edge of my sofa waiting to hear and it turned up the next day. I've flown round the world and have been on some pretty ropey domestic airlines in India and have never had a problem. How hard can it be?!

"Decided to risk it"

Tom Elkins, 23, Reading, trainee accountant

I was flying back from a business trip to Edinburgh and was quite excited to be flying into T5 on opening day. But we were delayed in Edinburgh because the plane coming up was late, so we were watching the chaos on the news on the TV. I phoned my sister to ask if I should check in my bags. She said no, but I decided to risk it.

That was a week ago and I still haven't got my bag. I've been tracking it online and it says the bag is due to be returned but there's no indication when that will be, or where my bag is now. It's probably in Milan.

"Treated like dirt"

Martin Ginzel, 33, Berlin, music TV producer

Two years ago, a friend and I were flying from Berlin to Agadir, via Geneva, on Royal Air Maroc. My bag didn't arrive. The guys there didn't really care. We spent the next four days until it turned up commuting from our hotel back to the airport, which was way out of town. Agadir's really ugly and we wanted to move on but we couldn't. It was hot and all I had was jeans and a jumper.

My friend, Susie, gave me some of her more masculine clothes, but they still had little bows and things, and were two sizes too small. Suddenly I had a midriff! And I had to go to the bazaar and buy old man's polyester pants. It was difficult to claim money and they treated me like dirt. Maybe it was because I looked so ridiculous.

"Bag still AWOL"

Deborah Kennedy, 38, north London, social worker

I flew to Parma, Majorca, on EasyJet with a couple of friends last December. My bag was checked in as belonging to Emily Kennedy and sent to Belfast. The girls both got theirs and the EasyJet staff said they couldn't contact Gatwick because their e-mail was down, and said they couldn't phone.

After three days, I got so pissed off trying to contact them and shop for new things that I decided to get an early flight back. But they said I'd have to pay, so I stayed.

My bag is still missing. I filled in all the forms and last month EasyJet offered £400 to compensate for £1,000 worth of goods, all the inconvenience, and the £75 I was supposed to spend out there. I said no, and that's the last I've heard. I don't think I'll ever get my bag back, unless there's an Emily Kennedy in Belfast who has it.

"Handlers just shrugged"

Jim Waller, 31, civil engineer

I flew from Vancouver to Fiji, via Los Angeles, on a round-the-world ticket a few years ago. I had to pick up and re-check my rucksack when I switched airlines. Even so, my rucksack didn't make it on to the right plane. I was in Fiji with just my passport, the clothes on my back, and a Clive Cussler novel. The baggage handlers just shrugged in my general direction when they saw everyone else had their bags but me.

The airline gave me £10 to spend on swimming shorts and flip-flops as I waited for the next flight, two days later. In the end, it was all I needed – I think I wore the same flip-flops and shorts even when my bag did arrive.

"A day spent traipsing"

Juliet Perry, 25, TV executive

I was flying with Iberia to a music festival in Spain last summer. They lost my bag and my tent, an eight-man tepee by Cath Kidston with little cowboys printed on it. We waited for ages while the Iberia employee kept muttering that he needed a drink. In the end, we went to a hotel and the next day I had to go to the festival wearing my friend's clothes, which were too small.

A festival is the worst place not to have essentials. Luckily, one of the boys I was with lent us a spare tent, but it wasn't a patch on mine.

In the end, Iberia sent my bag to the local town, so we spent a day traipsing round the town hall, the tourist office and the police station. Eventually we found it, but when I opened it, some cheeky baggage handler had left a crushed beer can in the top of it.

"Some berk took my case"

Susan Halpern, 64, retired lecturer

Last December, my husband and I flew to South Africa with Air France. We arrived in Johannesburg to discover that some berk had mistakenly taken my suitcase off the carousel instead of his own.

The Air France staff were pretty unhelpful and we had to rush to catch a connecting flight to a safari lodge. I disappeared into the heat and dirt of the bush with nothing apart from the clothes I was wearing, a lipstick, my iPod and a pack of Orbit gum. It was pretty grim. A couple of days later the airline sent the case on; to say I was relieved would be putting it mildly.

When we arrived back in Manchester I discovered that my suitcase hadn't made the change of planes in Paris. What are the odds on losing your luggage in both directions?

It took three months for Air France to reimburse the money I'd had to shell out on replacement clothes and cosmetics. But the fact that they'd ruined my holiday didn't figure in their financial calculations.

What to do if you lose your luggage

* So you're left leaning glumly on your airport trolley, watching that empty baggage carousel wind down. Your bag is bound for Bora Bora while you're waiting patiently for it in Pisa. You've no sunglasses, no swimming trunks, not even a toothbrush. What do you do next?

* First things first: make sure the schmucks who lost your bag know so. Inform the carrier or its agents of the loss. Take the receipt you were given when you checked in to the lost luggage desk, who ought to give you a Property Irregularity Report (PIR) to fill out. Keep a copy of all the documentation for later, when you'll be photocopying it and stuffing it into an envelope to accompany your letter of complaint.

* Some airlines will give you a meagre amount of cash immediately – enough for a replacement toothbrush, at least. But if you want compensation for the inconvenience, get typing tout de suite: you need to make your claim in writing within 21 days for delayed baggage. For luggage that is lost altogether you'll have to wait until 21 days have passed before writing again.

* Don't expect the airline to be over generous. Most will cover your loss to the tune of £14 per kilogram, to a maximum of £240. If you have travel insurance, the insurer should cover the rest. Check your agreement with the insurer before you travel, however; if the delay is due to, say, a terrorism scare, you may not be covered.

* If your bag has been swiped from the carousel by a third party, the airline is not officially responsible for it, but it's worth making it known to the ground agent anyway. In most cases, the passenger that picked it up will return it and it will then be sent on to you. Don't pick up someone else's bag deliberately as ransom – there's no telling what humiliating items you may then have to explain to curious customs officials at some later point.

* There are ways to minimise the risk of lost or delayed luggage. One is to check in early, giving your bag plenty of time to make it from the check-in desk to the aircraft. Another is to buy yourself a brightly coloured bag that avoids... a case of mistaken identity. Don't forget your name and address – that won't hurt, either.

Tim Walker

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