Your bags will never be lost again (hopefully)

Despite more people flying, airlines are losing less luggage than ever.
Despite more people flying, airlines are losing less luggage than ever. Photo: AFP

If you're a glass-half-full sort of person, you'd recognise that airlines are losing fewer bags than they used to.

If you're a half-empty type, you'd note that 25.8 million bags a year are still being "mishandled".

And if you're a cynic, you might say that with the amount airlines now earn from baggage fees, there's no excuse for losing any at all.

Figures from air transport technology provider SITA show airlines' mishandling of bags has fallen 45 per cent over the past five years, while passenger numbers have risen 15 per cent.

There are now just under nine mishandled bags per 1000 passengers, a huge improvement on previous years but small consolation if one of those bags belongs to you.

With technology constantly improving tracking methods and baggage fees discouraging passengers from checking in any more bags than they have to, the numbers of lost bags should continue to fall.

Of course, lost baggage is already rare.

Of the less than 1 per cent of bags that are mishandled, only about 14 per cent are damaged or lost; in other words, a fraction of one percentage point.

Baggage that cannot be identified and returned eventually finds its way to auction houses or outlets such as the huge Unclaimed Baggage Centre in Alabama, USA, but the vast majority of mishandled baggage is returned to its owner within a couple of days.

Meanwhile, baggage has become a huge source of ancillary revenue for airlines, which are increasingly "unbundling" their prices to keep base fares down.

The 10 largest US airlines alone collected nearly $3.3 billion in baggage fees last year, a report by IdeaWorksCompany found.

This represents a 650 per cent increase in five years, with some airlines now charging for carry-on bags too.

And while airlines are happily charging fees for checked baggage, they are not always keen to refund those fees when bags go walkabout.

Some offer a refund, partial refund, voucher or frequent flyer points if your bag does not arrive within a specified time but many travellers report battles in getting the compensation paid.

Other airlines clearly state that baggage fees are not refundable, regardless of what happens to your bags after you check them in.

You might get compensation for the contents of the bag if it's genuinely lost, but the airline will keep the fee you paid to put the bag on the plane.

Perhaps our smartphones will become our greatest weapons when finding ourselves on the other side of the world without a change of undies.

Airbus recently unveiled a prototype suitcase with a chip that can be traced via an iPhone app, putting the technology in the hands of the traveller rather than the airline.

The bags are not yet available to consumers but it is surely a matter of time before we can choose from a range of trackable bags.

Baggage handling is already highly automated, with baggage tracked at nearly all stages of its journey, and it is not a big step to provide that information to passengers.

In the meantime, the main cause of baggage problems is clearly identified by the SITA report: mishandling during transfers accounts for more than 50 per cent of wayward bags.

Airlines and airports are working on technology to reduce the mishandling but it pays to avoid really tight connections.

I have rarely (touch wood) lost a bag in my travels, but each time I have it has been due to a tight connection, where I have sprinted to catch a plane and my bag has trailed behind.

"Failure to load" is the second biggest cause of mishandled baggage, along with ticketing and tagging errors – none of which you can do much about.

One of the most important things you can do to improve your chances of being reunited with your luggage is one of the oldest and simplest: ensuring you have a really tough baggage tag with your name, email address and mobile phone number including the international code.

Don't rely on the freebie tags given away by airlines and don't assume the airline barcode will be sufficient; once the barcode is torn off, your bag is just another black suitcase in a dark and lonely luggage room.

jane.fraser@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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