If you have experienced air travel in the last decade, you have probably had a few good and bad experiences. Many of the bad experiences probably had something to do with missing or lost luggage once you arrived at your destination.
For a period of time through around 2011 – 2012, I had checked luggage left on the tarmac three out of four times on flights to Brazil. It got so bad, I just assumed before I arrived that I would be waiting in vain for my luggage to roll around on the carousel for an hour, then having to wait to fill out a lost luggage claim.
Part of that issue had to do with the fact that I was flying stand-by on a buddy pass with Delta. Once you are cleared for the flight at the gate, the ramp agents are supposed to be given the all-clear to place your luggage on the plane. However, something was obviously wrong in the procedure.
The worst part about that experience is that because I was on a buddy pass, I had no real rights, and there is no such thing as lost luggage delivery, so I would have to go back to the airport in Rio the next day to pick my luggage up myself.
They eventually worked it out and it has been a couple of years since I had lost luggage. But you do not have to fly stand-by to have these issues. There are a lot of things that can go wrong from the check-in counter to the gate.
A friend of mine used to “throw baggage” for a carrier at the Atlanta airport when we were younger and he explained to me what happens behind the scenes.
What Happens When You Check Your Bag?
When you first arrive at the airport, if you check any bags, they are placed on a conveyor belt behind the agent desk and proceed through a series of belts sometimes as long as a mile or more before it arrives to its destination based on the gate for your flight.
As the luggage rides the conveyor belt system, optical scanners constantly scan the tags the agent placed on your luggage, sometimes altering its direction by kicking it onto another conveyor belt in the same way a train can be altered by a switch on the track.
During that time on those belts, it passes through a TSA screening area where it is x-rayed and may or may not be physically searched by an agent. Often times, they randomly select luggage for inspection by an agent. Otherwise, they will only open your luggage if something appears suspicious on the x-ray. You will always know that your luggage has been physically inspected because they leave a TSA flyer inside.
Eventually it will make it through a series of belts to your gate destination.
At this point, what happens next depends on the type of airplane you are about to board.
If you are on a longer flight, then you are probably taking a larger plane like a 767 or 777 in which case, your checked luggage is stored in large containers on the tarmac, then the containers are loaded by a lift onto the plane and slid on rollers to the back. Under this scenario, you are less likely to incur damage to your luggage or anything in it.
Small and Mid-Size Airplanes
If it is one of the smaller types that fly domestically from city to city in the USA, such as an MD-88, 737 or an Airbus A319, your bags ride a belt up to the plane and are stored individually in the belly by “bag throwers” where they are stacked and sorted by size like a puzzle. It is under this scenario where you can experience damage to your luggage, or anything in it. The bag handlers physically sling the bag down the belly of the plane to save time.
Before you start to get angry at the bag handlers, try to understand what it is like to work in that environment. There is a lot of pressure to turn planes around in a hurry. Many of the domestic flights make multiple runs between major US cities on a daily basis with as little as a 45 minute turn-around time.
It is very stressful, very physically demanding and a potentially dangerous working environment. The only real training these people receive is about safety. Imagine doing nothing on a work shift except picking up luggage, some weighing as much as 70 lbs on international flights, and putting them in a cart or plane.
And don’t forget, when the plane arrives, they have to go inside the plane and physically remove each bag if they have not been placed in one of the large containers.
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How You Can Avoid Damaged Luggage
As I stated, you are more at risk on domestic flights in the small to mid-sized planes since they do not load the luggage into containers on the ground.
Under this scenario, the best option for a checked bag is the newer versions with four wheels, not the two wheel “leaners”. These four wheelers are typically referred to as “spinners” for carry-on bags, however, they are also available in larger 28 inch luggage.
Why does this matter? Well, the baggage handlers simply push those down the belly of the plane because they will roll, hence no need to throw it. This prevents everything from broken wheels to torn handles.
If you are only packing clothing or soft items, you might want to consider a duffle bag. Yes, it will be slung down the belly of the plane, however, there are no wheels or hard plastic to break.
Finally, if you are concerned about scuff marks on your brand new luggage, there is always the option of wrapping it in plastic at the airport. They have vendors that will wrap your entire bag in tight plastic. This is a popular thing to do in other countries because they don’t have the scrutiny that we do.
However, if the TSA decides to physically inspect your bag, they may not replace your wrap. In fact, my best guess is that they would not, but I am not certain. I, nor anyone that I know, have ever had our luggage pre-wrapped like that.
If you have anything fragile in your checked luggage, be sure to pack it well with plenty of padding. However, never put anything liquid in a bag because you might arrive with wet or stained clothing.
Understand, even though they stamp “Fragile” on the luggage, it is usually ignored by handlers due to the pressure of the job. In fact, sometimes they don’t even notice the big orange tag.
If you have anything that is breakable and need to transport it, the best thing you can do is use a hard sided suitcase with plenty of clothing for padding.
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How to Avoid Lost LuggageCredit: mjpyro
Lost luggage is usually due to a serious of mishaps that happen from the check-in counter to the gate. Sometimes it is human error, such as the agent inputting the wrong code on the printout tag they stick on your luggage. That code generates a bar code with the destination information, and if that information is wrong, the bar code scanners on the conveyor belts will kick-it in the wrong direction.
Let’s face it, once it leaves your hands, there is not a lot you can do with the behind-the-scenes process. Whether it is the routing process or FAA rules regarding plane weight, your luggage may be accidentally or intentionally left behind, especially if you are flying stand-by.
Then there are scanning issues. Most bags are hand scanned before they go on the plane, but those rely on wireless connections which sometimes go out. If your luggage isn’t scanned, it may take them days to find it if you arrive at your destination and it does not.
However, there are some things you can do to minimize the risk.
- When checking bags, always look at the baggage receipt they hand you with your boarding pass. Make sure it has the right airport code on it. That is a clue whether or not they got it right.
- Make sure you have your contact information on a secure tag outside the bag. However, also include your contact information inside the bag in case the outer tag is torn off.
- Buy quality bags if you fly frequently. The cheaper bags usually have flimsy metal frames inside, and handles that are sown in rather than riveted into the frame. Obviously, the most durable type of bag are the hard sided bags, but a lot of people shy away from them because they are not stretchy allowing for more storage. Quality bags also have sturdy wheels, with a “fender” around the wheel to protect it. Again, go for the four wheel design even for larger checked bags.
- Arrive at the airport with at least an hour to spare before boarding, especially for the huge airports in Atlanta or Chicago. Your bags have to travel through miles of conveyor belts undergoing scans and checks, and the earlier you send your checked bag through that process, the better.
If you are really concerned with losing expensive luggage or having it or its contents damaged during transit, you might want to look into lost luggage insurance.
Another option might be to ship luggage ahead to your location or hotel in the USA using Fed Ex or UPS. While they are not immune to throwing packages either, there is more accountability when dealing with those companies rather than an airline. Airlines do not offer to pay for damaged luggage because if they did, they would be paying out too many claims. They will only offer you compensation if they lose it.
If you want to minimize your risk of lost or damaged luggage, pick up a four wheel spinner to use as your checked bag. Finally, try to get to the airport as early as possible so your baggage has time to travel through the myriad of belts and check points.
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