By just about any measure, air travelers this summer are likely to find themselves in not-so-friendly skies.
More travelers will be on planes than perhaps at any time since 2000, experts predict. And those jets will be packed to the last middle seat.
U.S. airlines have cut back on domestic flights in an effort to fill more seats and improve profitability. A strike threat looms for at least one of the nation's largest airlines. And Mother Nature always holds surprises.
It's also peak season for lost luggage. For business travelers, it adds up to one long summer.
Though little can be done about the weather, crowds and labor strife, travelers can take steps to limit the likelihood of a lost bag.
Last year was the worst on record for mishandled bags, according to data from the U.S. Transportation Department. More than 3.5 million bags were lost, stolen, delayed or damaged in 2005, an increase of more than 700,000 over 2004. That adds up to nearly 10,000 bags a day.
The regional airlines that carry travelers from and to smaller airports for the major carriers -- Comair, SkyWest, American Eagle and Atlantic Southeast -- consistently rank as the worst when it comes to mishandled bags.
Experts say poor weather, shorter connection times, greater use of smaller jets, increased scrutiny of bags for security reasons, and more crowded planes all contribute to the growing problem.
"Baggage handling has gotten worse by the day," said industry analyst Mike Boyd, president of Evergreen, Colo.-based Boyd Group. Though he questions the accuracy of the Transportation Department data, he acknowledges that there is a problem and places some of the blame on the fact that airlines lose control of bags when they undergo security inspection.
The mess gets worse in the summer. More than 400,000 bags were mishandled in July 2005; that contrasts with 250,000 in April 2005. That is partly because more people travel in July, but the percentage of mishandled bags also increased by one-third. Boyd attributes the summer increase in part to the "amateurs" who are flying.
"The demographic mix is different," he said. "More people who aren't used to flying are flying, and more bags are likely to get checked."
Business travelers who don't arrive early enough at the gate or who don't have priority boarding may be in for a surprise. They won't find just laptops and roll-aways in the overhead bins. More likely, they will find the bins jam-packed with all the accouterments of summer family travel -- diaper bags, Hello Kitty backpacks and overstuffed suitcases-cum-closets-on-wheels.
This can mean that carry-ons end up being checked.
"It used to be that not as many people were going carry-on," said Judith Guilford, author of "Packing Light: Secrets of the Carry-On Traveler," now in its fourth edition.
For this we can thank changing traveler habits, the airlines' record for losing bags and the advent of the wheeled carry-on bag.
The vast majority of misplaced bags are eventually reunited with their owners. But the small percentage of bags that go unclaimed for more than 90 days end up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala.
It's where lost luggage goes to die.
There the contents of hopelessly waylaid bags are sorted, cleaned and stocked in a 40,000-square-foot retail store for resale. There are sections for men's and women's clothing, electronics and jewelry.
The most expensive item ever found was a 5.8-carat diamond ring appraised at $35,000, said spokeswoman Brenda Cantrell. Wedding bands are a common item.
"I've got one," Cantrell said. Her husband gave her a diamond engagement ring, but for her wedding band she bought a platinum one from the store.
"I can get it here a whole lot cheaper than anywhere," she said.
Jewelry sells for half its appraised value, and other items at a 20% to 80% discount to retail, depending on what kind of shape the item is in.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center, with nearly 1 million visitors annually, claims to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Alabama.
Here are some tips to keep your bags close at hand (and off the shelves of an Alabama tourist attraction):
* Arrive at the airport early and board as early as possible. Carry-on space will be at a premium this summer. "They tend to run out of space earlier now," Guilford said.
* Make sure your bag contains identifying information inside. Many of the bags that end up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center have simply lost the tags from their handles, Cantrell said. I keep a photocopy of my passport in a side pouch, useful for identifying the bag and me in case my passport is lost or stolen.
* Avoid connecting flights, especially onto regional airlines. You'll know you're on one if your ticket says something like "Operated for Delta by Atlantic Southeast." If you can't avoid them, make sure you allow plenty of time between connections for your luggage to find its way to your next flight. Sometimes there simply isn't enough room for all the bags on these planes and they may end up on a different flight, Boyd said. If that happens, it could take a while for your luggage to find you again.
* Pack any valuables on top of your clothes in your carry-on. That way if you have to check it at the gate, you can step aside, easily remove your valuables and place them in a purse or a laptop case. Or pack a small nylon bag that you can remove and use to carry your valuables on the plane, Guilford suggests.
* Never check valuables. Especially not 5.8-carat diamond rings.
You can reach James Gilden at firstname.lastname@example.org.