Why are UK airports struggling so much with lost luggage?

Passengers at airports across the UK have been experiencing long delays for their luggage or bags going missing altogether – but who’s to blame?

Chaos at Heathrow Airport as a baggage system malfunction causes pile-up

As the summer holiday season ramps up, passengers travelling through airports up and down the country have been beset by luggage issues, from long delays at baggage reclaim, to being asked to drop bags off the day before a flight, to luggage going missing altogether. With tensions already running high as a result of flight delays and cancellations, these problems only compound the stress currently being suffered by holidaymakers.

The problems are likely to get worse with as UK schools break up for their summer holidays at the end of July, and a huge wave of families sets off on trips abroad. In the more immediate term, there’s the threat of strike action by British Airways ground handling staff at Heathrow Airport.

So why it is happening and how are airline and airport executives going to address these challenges?

Here’s everything you need to know.

Which airports are struggling with lost and delayed luggage?

Over the past few weeks, passengers arriving on some flights to Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow, London Gatwick and London Heathrow airports have had to wait longer than usual for their luggage. Passengers have been seen sleeping at baggage reclaim while others have gone home empty handed on the advice of airlines and wait to be contacted.

At the end of May, some British Airways passengers travelling from Gatwick and Heathrow were asked by the airline to come to the airport the evening before their flight to check in their luggage ahead of time. And earlier this month, a malfunction in Heathrow’s baggage handling system caused huge pile ups of luggage around the airport and significant delays to passengers.

How long are passengers having to wait?

Waits of around two hours are common in the event of delayed baggage, though there have been reports of passengers waiting up six hours for their cases - or even being sent home and being told not to expect to receive them for up to two weeks.

Why are so many bags going missing?

The main issue is a lack of ground handling staff, with airports having failed to replace workers made redundant during the pandemic. This is partly down to having underestimated the demand for foreign travel this summer - the first uninterrupted summer season since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic - and partly an effect of wider labour shortages caused by Brexit.

Some airlines and airports have found it difficult to recruit new staff now European workers need a British visa in order to be employed here. Other industry sources have said some travel industry workers made redundant during the pandemic have sought other work, such as in hospitality in the UK, and are unlikely return to working in airports.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary told Sky News: “A lot of these pinch points would be solved very quickly if we could bring in European workers. “We are hide-bound and hamstrung by a government so desperate to show Brexit has been a success, when it’s been an abject failure. It won’t allow us to bring in EU workers to do these jobs.”

A baggage handler working at Heathrow told The Times earlier this month that they had seen pilots helping load and unload suitcases and a cleaner driving a luggage trolley on the tarmac.

IATA, the trade association for the world’s airlines, has called for security clearance of ground handling staff to be expedited in order to help fill recruitment gaps caused by the pandemic.

What do the airports and airlines say?

A spokesperson for Heathrow Airport acknowledged that a systems malfunction had caused delays over a limited period last week, but said that issue was now resolved and that any ongoing problems with baggage are the “responsibility of the airlines”.

Regarding the prospect of striking British Airways ground staff this summer, the spokesperson said: “We are in conversation with BA and as soon as we know more about the timing and scale of that action, we can say more to reinforce any guidance that passengers might need.

“As the largest airline operating out of Heathrow, we very much do have a stake in making sure that the plans that BA come up with are something that we can support as best as possible.”

Following baggage delays to some easyJet passengers earlier this month, Glasgow Airport confirmed that passengers were "waiting longer than they should have". They said that they had contacted easyJet and their luggage handling company to understand the cause.

Bristol Airport was unable to provide an update on the status of the internal investigation taking place in the wake of baggage delays in June, but commented that, “on latest data, the average time to get the last bag off an arriving aircraft is 30 minutes”.

What compensation am I entitled to if my luggage is delayed or missing?

Your airline should cover the cost of the bare essentials (such as toiletries and underwear) you need if your luggage is delayed, as well as part of the cost of replacing or repairing cases and contents if lost or damaged. You may be able to get the airline to pay for transport costs if you need to return to claim your luggage yourself following a delay.

Report your missing bag as soon as possible, within the baggage reclaim hall if possible, and make sure you’re aware of the deadlines for claiming compensation. Keep all documentation and receipts ready to show the airline.

The Independent has contacted British Airways, Manchester Airport and Birmingham Airport for comment.

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