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 The Brancatelli File

joe HOW TO HANDLE
'MISHANDLED' LUGGAGE


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

June 3, 2004 -- Contrary to popular belief, the airlines don't lose very much of our checked luggage. They may bash in the edges, break the wheels and soil the fabric. They may force us to wait an hour to check it and another hour to reclaim it. They may occasionally send it to Osaka while we're en route to Oshkosh.

But lose it? In fairness, almost never.

According to the Department of Transportation's latest Air Travel Consumer Report, the 19 reporting domestic airlines carried more than 130 million passengers during the first three months of the year. At the same time, there were slightly less than 700,000 reports of "mishandled" baggage. That's about five reports for every 1,000 passengers. And most of those bags aren't really lost, simply delayed. In fact, the Transportation Department claims that about 98 percent of mishandled bags are reunited with exasperated owners within 24 hours.

Of course, if you're one of those unlucky five in a thousand whose bags are lost or mislaid, those statistics are cold comfort. But, that said, it's time to grow up. Once in a great while, you're gonna have to check your bags. When you do, here's my best strategy for lessening the chances an airline will "mishandle" them--and what to do if they screw up.

STEP ONE: KNOW THE ODDS
If you really want to reduce the chances of losing your checked bags, book a nonstop flight whenever possible. Airlines rarely lose bags on a nonstop itinerary. Which partially explains why the largest low-fare carriers--which generally fly point-to-point and eschew connecting itineraries through gigantic hubs--claim three of the four top spots when it comes to baggage handling. AirTran had the fewest mishandled bags in the first three months of the year, racking up just 3.05 reports per 1,000 travelers. JetBlue (3.15) was in the third spot and Southwest was a close fourth (3.16). It also explains why the commuter carriers--which specialize in hauling travelers to and from Big Six connecting flights--have such a miserable lost-baggage rating. In fact, commuters fill the five lowest positions in the Air Travel Consumer Report. Atlantic Southeast reported a startling 15.72 reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, more than three times the industry average of 4.92. Only marginally better were Atlantic Coast (14.70), Skywest (13.13), Comair (11.41) and American Eagle (9.68).

STEP TWO: DON'T USE BUSINESS CARDS
Put your name and phone number on tags on the outside of your checked bags, of course, but do not use your business cards. In labor skirmishes, baggage handlers target bags with business cards, then cut off the cards and the airport routing tags. Why? Baggage handlers logically figure bags with business cards belong to business travelers, the airline's most profitable and most vocal customers. Making the bags of good customers disappear is a quick way to send a message to management. Another reason for not using your business cards: Baggage thieves assume bags tagged with business cards contain the best booty.

STEP THREE: WHAT'S INSIDE DOES COUNT
Inside each bag you intend to check, place a sheet of paper with your name, address, home telephone number, mobile-phone number--and the locations and phone numbers of where you are staying on your trip. If the exterior tag is removed, the airline can track you down from the contact information you wisely stowed inside the bag.

STEP FOUR: KNOW YOUR BAG
Pay attention to the bags you're checking. Note the brand name, size, color and style of each piece. If you're headed overseas to a country where you don't speak the language, take photos of the bags and carry them with you. A picture goes a long way toward breaking down the language barrier at a lost-luggage counter in an overseas airport.

STEP FIVE: PACK THE RIGHT STUFF
You know this one: Never pack valuables in checked bags. Laptops, PDAs, jewelry, mobile telephones, medicines and other expensive goods or irreplaceable items should be stowed in your carry-on bag. Domestic airlines cap their liability for lost luggage at $2,500 per passenger and they specifically decline liability for costly or exotic merchandise. (The limit per passenger is about $680 on international flights.) And do yourself a favor: Stick a shirt, some socks and fresh underwear in your carry-on bag. If the airline does lose your checked bags for a day or so, at least you'll have a change of clothes while you wait.

STEP SIX: KNOW THE CODES
Learn the three-letter code for your destination airport. (Airlines of the Web has a good list.) Make sure the airline affixes the proper routing tag on your bags. Luggage tagged IAH is going to Houston/Intercontinental, but a bag marked IAD is going to Washington/Dulles. Similarly, LGA is New York/LaGuardia, but LGW is London/Gatwick. You'd be surprised how many bags are misdirected from the start because they were mistagged at check-in.

STEP SEVEN: DON'T LEAVE THE AIRPORT
If your luggage doesn't arrive with your flight, do not leave the airport until you've filed a report. Go to the baggage service counter and fill out a missing bag form. Be as specific and detailed about your luggage as you can. Make sure the report includes a phone number of where you can be reached within the next 48 hours.

STEP EIGHT: GET THE FORMS
Before you leave the baggage counter, obtain the proper forms and understand the airline's procedures for filing a lost-baggage claim. If your bags aren't recovered in a few days, file for compensation and then be prepared for a fight. The airline will often demand receipts for items you claim are lost, try to deduct an obscene amount for depreciation and play a host of bureaucratic games. And while you can contest the $2,500 cap on lost luggage if you choose to take the airline to court, the obvious question is this: Why did you trust the airline with so much of your worldly goods in the first place?

STEP NINE: GET COMPENSATION
If your bags are simply delayed, the airlines don't legally owe you any compensation. But an airline may reimburse you if you need to purchase certain items in the interim. That includes toiletries and a reasonably priced change of clothes and undergarments. Keep all your receipts. When you return home, write a short, rational letter to the airline's customer-service department. Explain what happened, how long your bags were delayed and enclose photocopies of the receipts.

STEP TEN: CIRCUMVENT THE ENTIRE PROCESS
On short trips, it is obviously to your benefit to pack light and carry on. But as trips get longer or if you're bringing along sporting gear, you may find that you have more luggage than you want to schlep to check-in counters and lift off baggage carousels. In that case, consider shipping your luggage by FedEx, UPS or one of the specialty companies such as SportsExpress.com that have sprung up in recent years. These firms will pick up your bags at your home or office and ship them directly to your hotel.

Three final points: Want the Transportation Department's take on lost luggage? Surf to its Fly Rights guide. Want to see where lost luggage goes to die? Surf to the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Got questions about damaged luggage or items pilfered from your checked bags? Stick with me. I'll cover those issues in a future column.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.