The end of lost luggage?

It used to be the bane of travellers’ lives and the butt of our jokes: bags we waved goodbye to at the airport and never saw again.  But the great strides in technology seem to be making the horror stories a thing of the past.

According to SITA, the airline-owned technology company, the industry has halved the rate of lost or mishandled bags per 1000 passenger trips in the past five years.

The 2012 SITA Baggage Report shows that 99.1 per cent of checked baggage was delivered on time to the passenger during 2011 –  the highest rate of successful delivery since the report was first produced and represents a saving of $US650 million to the air transport industry over 2010.

But lost or mishandled baggage still costs the industry an estimated $US2.58 billion a year, according to SITA, which reckons it costs about $US100 per mislaid piece of luggage.

“SITA's report shows that the mishandled rate has more than halved since 2007, down 52.4 per cent from 18.88 bags per thousand passengers in 2007 to 8.99 bags per thousand last year,” the report says.

“During 2011, even though we saw a rise in the number of passengers travelling to 2.87 billion passengers, the industry achieved a reduction in mishandled bags to 25.8 million. This is 6.5 million fewer bags mishandled than 2010's figure of 32.3 million,” says SITA chief executive Francesco Violante.

“Of course, 2011 was less challenging than 2010 when adverse weather and volcanic ash clouds caused major disruption but the fact that the industry has halved the mishandled rate over the past five years is an enormous achievement which has benefited millions of passengers and directly delivered improvements to airline earnings.”

In its rush to congratulate itself, however, SITA glosses over the fact that many major airlines are now charging for baggage that used to be in the ticket price, which has had a huge impact on the number of bags the airlines are carrying below the cabin floor.

Part of the problem has simply been transferred upstairs as passengers are encouraged to stuff the overhead carry-on bins with small suitcases and large items of gear like baby pushers.

The net effect of all of this has been to free up more of the cargo holds for paid freight, which now includes a tariff on passenger bags.

“Despite the great strides made by the air transport industry to improve mishandling over the last few years, the main - and growing - contributor to the problem is transfer bags,” the SITA report says. “Typically, these bags go astray when passengers and their luggage are moving from one aircraft to another, and often from one carrier to another, en route to their final destination.

“In total, transfer bags account for 53 per cent of all delayed luggage and costs the industry at least $US1.36 billion per annum.”

“If this trend continues, by 2020 transfer bags will represent over 60 per cent of all delayed bags. This is an issue that point-to-point carriers (the majority of low cost carriers) tend not to have, and is perhaps one reason why they can boast lower losses than the hub-and-spoke network carriers.”

Yet SITA is upbeat about the technology now in the works. “In the future, as part of the online check-in process, passengers will be able to print their own bag tags off-airport,” the report says. “Or they may use radio frequency identification (RFID) bag tags for example, frequent flyers of carriers like Qantas offers Q Bag Tags.

“At the airport, a self-service bag drop machine will scan the printed tags or read the RFID tags to match bags with the passenger’s flight details, weigh the luggage and process any charges for overweight or oversized items.

“It may even take a picture of the bags and send it to the passengers’ mobile phone as a receipt of acceptance. In the near future, if a bag is mishandled and is not on the same plane as the passenger, the system will alert the ground handlers at the originating airport, who will then initiate the bag recovery and process it in the (SITA) WorldTracer system.

“On the other hand the baggage handling system may automatically route the bag onto the next available flight to the destination airport, and generate an advisory message to the airline.

“Or the airline cabin crew may be updated via air-ground communication links so they can inform the passenger and perhaps offer an in-flight travel voucher or frequent flyer miles as compensation.”

Are bags still the bane of your life? We know that people now forgo checked baggage on domestic flights but what about international flights? Are there repeat offenders among the airlines in your experience? Which airlines are the best on dealing with luggage?