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When you and your bags part ways

More airline luggage is going astray, and the reasons vary. Some unclaimed items end up being sold or donated.

October 29, 2006|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Scottsboro, Ala. — FOR John Marshall, president and general manager of the Unclaimed Baggage Center here, opening trailers of goods he buys sight unseen from airlines is "like Christmas every day." He never knows what he'll find.

The center is a block-long discount store that resells the suitcases -- and their contents -- that U.S. carriers have been unable to reunite with passengers.

As such, it represents the final failure of a system that damages, delays or loses thousands of checked bags each day.

On average, fewer than 1% of passengers officially file mishandled-baggage reports with major U.S. airlines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But that rate has been inching upward for the last three years.

Most customers separated from their bags get them back within a day, industry experts say, and only a small percentage lose them forever. Airlines typically spend at least 90 days trying to find the owners before salvaging their possessions.

But with more than 700 million passengers boarding U.S. airlines each year, the losses add up.

Each day, the Unclaimed Baggage Center in this rural town, about 50 miles southwest of Chattanooga, Tenn., puts out about 7,000 new items culled from 21,000 arrivals, most of which are discarded or donated, Marshall said. The store deals with "all the major U.S. airlines," he said. The goods, also sold at, include clothes, books, baby strollers, cameras, sports equipment and such finery as mink coats and jewelry. As I surveyed more than a thousand pairs of men's jeans, hundreds of shoes and such baubles as a $3,600 pair of Tahitian pearls, I began to wonder: How does baggage go astray, and how often?

To find out, I worked my way backward through the process, monitoring LAX baggage carousels and interviewing airline staff. After interviewing dozens of passengers, airline employees and other experts, and getting some behind-the-scenes looks, I learned about the secret life of luggage, which wends its way through a system that mostly works. When it doesn't, it's not usually for the reasons you think.

Your bag's journey begins with an airline agent attaching a tag to it at the check-in counter. The tag contains a bar code that has a unique bag number plus other data that may identify you, the airport and the flight. This information is also printed on the tag. The bag then goes to the Transportation Security Administration station for screening.

Details of the process then begin to vary by airline and location. Typically, at big airports, the bag is placed on a network of conveyor belts. Built-in scanners use the tag's bar code to route the bag to the right loading pier.

Reading tags visually, ramp workers pile the bags onto tractors and drive them to the plane. (On bigger jets, bags may go into containers for loading.) On a nonstop flight, workers load bags aft to forward. On a connecting flight, they separate them into bins by stop.

A report, sent by computer to the flight's next destination, tells workers there how many bags to unload and which bins they're in. These bags then go to baggage claim or get routed onward. But sometimes the system doesn't work just right, resulting in what passengers call "lost luggage."

"Lost" is actually a misnomer, said John Meenan, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Air Transport Assn., an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C.

Most of the time "we know where it is," Meenan told a congressional hearing on mishandled baggage in May. "It just isn't where it's supposed to be."

The biggest trouble spot, causing nearly two-thirds of mishandling incidents, is transferring bags from one flight to another, according to SITA, a Geneva-based technology company largely owned by major airlines. More than 350 carriers and ground-handling companies use SITA's WorldTracer software to match errant bags with passengers.

During transfers, bags may be routed several times, multiplying risks inherent in luggage handling. Among them:

Failure to load: When fliers check in late, connections are too tight, arriving aircraft are delayed or conveyor belts break down, baggage handlers and TSA staff may not have enough time to do their work. So bags languish on loading piers.

The time crunch can be tough on handlers. Southwest jets, for instance, may spend only 25 minutes on the ground between flights, said Chris Johnson, station manager at LAX. Crews get five to 10 minutes to unload and 10 to 15 minutes to load scores of bags.

Misrouting: "You've got human error involved," said Mark Nelson, president of Local 513 of the Transport Workers Union of America, which represents baggage handlers in Texas. "Sometimes you go too fast and make a mistake."

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