The Brancatelli File



September 21, 2006 -- This has not been a good year for us business travelers who prefer to pack light and carry on our bags.

Record load factors has meant more passengers per aircraft and thus less carry-on space per flyer. Add the fact that more than a third of the major carriers' flights are now operated with those carry-on-space-deprived regional jets. Throw in last month's new restrictions on liquids and gels in carry-ons and you can understand why even the most determined carry-on flyer might consider checking a bag.

But, as usual, when we need the airlines the most, they're missing in action. Or more accurately, more of the checked luggage we've entrusted to them has gone missing in action.

In 2004, the big airlines carried 575.3 million flyers and "mishandled luggage"--the industry term of art for a checked bag that has temporarily or permanently gone astray--at a rate of slightly less than five reports per 1,000 passengers. Last year, the passenger count jumped by less than three percent, to 589.6 million, but the mishandled baggage rate jumped by a distressing 25 percent, to about six reports per 1,000 passengers. And by this past July, the mishandled bag rate has spiked almost 10 percent more, to 6.5 reports per 1,000 flyers.

(Heaven only knows what August's numbers will be. The Department of Transportation won't release those statistics for a few more weeks, but you can expect a gigantic spike in lost bags thanks to that overnight change in carry-on rules on August 10.)

So, as usual, we're between the rocks and the hard places that the airlines have created for us. We can slim down our carry-on loads yet again or check our luggage into a system that is increasingly unreliable. Since it's impossible for most of us to offload any more of our carry-on load, the only option seems to be to submit even more of our luggage to the checked-baggage lottery.

By now I know you're looking for a silver lining to this sad tale. Unfortunately, I don't have one. But I do have some useful tips to improve your chances of getting your checked bag through the system--and some precautions to take if the airlines screw up and "mishandle" the luggage you do check.

A mishandled-bag rate of 6.5 reports per 1,000 passengers is alarming when you consider that it is roughly the equivalent of one inconvenienced traveler on each and every Boeing 737 or Airbus A319 or A320 flight. So it pays to know which airline is screwing up and which carrier isn't doing quite as badly. As a group, the five largest alternate carriers (AirTran, ATA, Frontier, JetBlue and Southwest) and the two primary Hawaiian airlines (Aloha and Hawaiian) all have lower-than-average mishandled baggage rates. Alaska Airlines is right about at the industry average. Four of the Big Six (Northwest, Continental, United and American) are better than average, too. At 6.61 reports per 1,000 passengers, Delta is just below the industry average and US Airways is the Big Six laggard at 8.53. (US Airways' performance surely reflects the luggage-handling black hole that is its Philadelphia hub.)

The Big Six' performance is skewed because their largest commuter affiliates (Skywest, ExpressJet, Mesa, Comair, American Eagle and Atlantic Southeast) report their numbers separately. And their performance is heinous. From Skywest's 8.75 reports per 1,000 passengers to Atlantic Southeast's astonishingly bad 16.90 reports, the commuters routinely occupy the last five slots in the Transportation Department's 20-carrier monthly averages. Executives at the commuter carriers privately grumble that they are often blamed whenever a commuter-to-mainline baggage handoff goes awry. But does it really matter who's to blame? The lesson to learn from the numbers is to avoid checking bags whenever your itinerary includes a connection between a Big Six airline and one of their commuter airlines.

Put your name and phone numbers on tags on the outside of your checked bags, of course, but do not use your business card. 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 that 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 card: Baggage thieves assume bags tagged with business cards contain the best booty.

Inside each bag you intend to check, place a sheet of paper with your name, home phone number, mobile 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. One caveat: Many travelers refuse to put their home addresses on tags or the information sheet. They feel it tips off people about their unoccupied home, making the home a target for thieves.

Pay attention to the bags that you're checking. Note the brand, size, color and style of each piece. If you are headed overseas to a country where you do not speak the language, take photos of the bags and carry the photos with you. A picture goes a long way toward breaking down the language barrier at a lost-luggage counter in an overseas airport. One newfangled tip: Take the photos with your phone or PDA's camera so you'll always have them at your fingertips.

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 $2,800 per passenger and they specifically decline liability for costly or exotic merchandise. (The limit per passenger is currently about $1,475 on international flights.) And do yourself a favor: Make room in your carry-on for a change of clothes. If an airline does lose your checked bags for a day or so, at least you'll have a change of clothes while you wait.

Learn the three-letter code for your destination airport. 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's LaGuardia Airport, but LGW is London's Gatwick Airport. You'd be surprised how many bags are misdirected from the start because they were mistagged at check-in.

You probably know that most domestic carriers and most major international airlines have capped their free checked-baggage limit at 50 pounds per bag. That's not a cumulative 100-pound limit for your two-checked-bag allowance, however. Each bag must be under the 50-pound limit. If you're traveling overseas, and especially if you are connecting from a traditional international carrier to a low-fare airline in Europe or Asia, make sure to check each carrier's limits. Overseas low-fare lines often have total checked-baggage allowances of less than 40 pounds. Some, like Ryanair, now charge for any piece of checked luggage. And some international airlines now have separate baggage rules for your transoceanic flight and your onward connection.

Lost-baggage compensation hasn't kept up with the price of high-quality clothing or the cost of good luggage. If you're checking expensive clothes, shoes and accessories and/or own costly luggage, make sure you keep the purchase receipts. You're going to need them to get anything close to full value back from the airline. By the way, the domestic compensation limit imposed by airlines ($2,800) is not a law. It's actually the Transportation Department minimum compensation guideline. You can fight a domestic airline in small-claims or other courts for more compensation and you can beat them if you have your receipts for what has been lost. The international limits are trickier to fight because they are generally governed by a pan-national device called the Montreal Convention. But good receipts and persistence can help you get fairer compensation than the appalling low international ceiling.

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 where you can be reached within the next 48 hours. 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 over deprecation, the airline's obscure rules and a lawyer-load of red tape and bureaucracy.

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 of 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.

Three final points: Want the Transportation Department's official 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. Want to avoid the whole checked-baggage game? Consider shipping your luggage via one of the new breed of luggage-shipping specialists. Look for the "luggage shipping" link on the JoeSentMe home page.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.