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When Your Bags See More of the World Than You Do

Airlines: Blame it on sorting machines, mislabled tags or weather, but 98% of mishandled luggage is returned.


The Fates must have been against us.

Last June, my wife and I left on a two-week business and vacation trip that involved four nonstop flights. We carried three pieces of luggage, which we checked. Over the duration of the trip, each bag--one by one--failed to arrive at our destination with us.

One bag, I later learned, actually spent a couple of days overseas, at the airport in Zurich. It flew much farther than I did.

What was going on here?

Sandy and I both travel a lot, always checking luggage, and it rarely turns up missing. But suddenly, we find we have struck out on three out of four flights in just two weeks. We had arrived at each airport early, so there was plenty of time for our bags to be loaded properly. Bad weather and missed connections were not a factor, and all four flights departed and arrived on schedule.

"You really must have set some sort of world's record for mishandled baggage," observes John Van Bramer, manager of baggage operations for United Airlines. All our flights had been aboard United.

Van Bramer accepts the blame on United's behalf, pointing out that an average of four bags per 1,000 passengers is "mishandled"--either by an automatic sorting machine or a human sorter--but most are quickly located.

Here's what happened to our bags:

On June 15, we flew from Washington-Dulles to San Francisco, where my wife's suitcase failed to appear on the baggage carousel. It contained the clothing she planned to wear for an important business meeting the following Monday. This made her understandably anxious about its whereabouts. We reported the bag missing at United's baggage desk in San Francisco, and about 12 hours later (after midnight) it was delivered to our weekend bed-and-breakfast inn near Point Reyes National Seashore. We probably will never know what exactly caused the delay.

On June 22, we flew United to Monterey for a week's stay on the Big Sur coast, and all our bags landed with us. Hooray. But on the return flight to San Francisco, where we were going to spend another night, my wife's second bag turned up missing.

We again reported the loss, but we wouldn't see this bag again for three days. We had checked it curbside; and when it finally showed up, we noted that the agent had written the flight number as "285" on the baggage tag. The correct number for our flight was 582. For her troubles, my wife was issued a $50 certificate to be used when buying her next United ticket.

On June 29, we checked our remaining two pieces of luggage for the flight from San Francisco back to Washington-Dulles. This time my bag didn't show. Again, we reported the loss, and another sympathetic baggage agent awarded us each a $25 certificate. Our flight from San Francisco continued on from Dulles to Zurich, and my bag went along for the ride.

U.S. airlines maintain baggage retrieval departments, and most bags do turn up--often on the next flight, or at least in a day or two. About 97% to 98% of mishandled bags are returned to their owners within five days, according to industry statistics, and most of the rest are found within 30 days. But why do bags go astray in the first place, and is there anything a passenger can do to reduce the possibility of loss? United's Van Bramer offers some answers.

Bad weather, which causes flight delays and cancellations, is a major culprit, he says. You may make a last-minute connection between flights, but your luggage doesn't and gets placed on a later plane.

But bad weather wasn't a factor on our trip. Van Bramer doesn't know what exactly happened to delay my wife's bag on our Dulles to San Francisco flight, but he can cite possibilities. At check-in, the agent placed a laser tag on each of our bags listing our name, flight number and destination. No matter which way a bag is placed on the conveyor belt--on its side, top or bottom--the laser should be able to read its destination and send it to the right plane.

But sometimes a bag gets snagged in the machinery, says Van Bramer, and it slips out of its proper place on the belt. So the machine programmed to push or pull it onto a connecting belt headed for the San Francisco flight simply finds empty air. Instead, the errant bag may have bumped up against a suitcase bound for Des Moines. Then the machine may push or pull both bags onto the Des Moines belt.

"So, if the person who puts the bag into the cart or puts it into the plane is not paying attention," says Van Bramer, "the bag goes to Des Moines."

Check-in agents, whether curbside or within the terminal, may sometimes tag luggage to the wrong destination. It is always wise to check the baggage receipt you are handed for mistakes.

On wide-bodied aircraft, such as the one we flew on from San Francisco to Dulles, baggage is loaded into giant containers. My bag obviously made it through the laser-sorting process to the Dulles flight. But presumably an inattentive baggage handler placed my bag in the plane's Zurich container rather than the Dulles container, and my bag was not unloaded at Dulles.

For years, I've been stuffing basic toiletries and a change of socks and underwear in my carry-on briefcase--although, until now, I've seldom needed them. As I've learned, it can happen to anybody.

Christopher Reynolds is on assignment.

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