A few months ago, I was checking in at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York for a flight to Buenos Aires. Next to me, at the ticket counter, a couple were checking in for a flight to California. Our separate airline representatives, who shared counter space and a luggage-tag printer, were very efficient, asking all the requisite questions and checking and rechecking our tickets and identification. They were so efficient that our luggage tags printed in tandem. I happened to be watching as my representative put the California couple's tag on my bag. I pointed it out and she corrected the mistake, but had I been looking elsewhere, I would have been in Buenos Aires, where my language skills are poor, without a change of undergarments.
For anyone who has been forced to wear shorts and tennis shoes to a business meeting because his luggage has been lost, it's easy to be angry and assume incompetence on the part of the airline. But as my tale illustrates, mistakes happen, especially when the check-in counter is busy and airline reps have so many other things to pay attention to in the post-September 11 world. While many of us fear losing our luggage or having it mishandled, that only happens to less than 1 percent of baggage, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Of the nearly 3 million bags checked in each day at the nation's airports, 99.5 percent of them reach their final destination with their owner. Of the bags that are lost, delayed, stolen or damaged, the majority have been sent to the wrong destination or placed on a later flight and, according to the DOT, about 80 percent are returned within 24 hours, and 99 percent within five days. The DOT reports that only 1 percent of such bags (.005 percent of all luggage) is irretrievably lost or pilfered.
So, how did your bag wind up in Bora Bora while you were in Boston? "There are no specifics, but we know that flight delays and baggage problems flow together," says Bill Mosley, a public affairs specialist for the DOT. The Air Transport Association, a trade organization for the principal U.S. airlines, also cites checking in late as a factor in baggage not being put on its intended flight. And then there's the dreaded connecting flight.
"Over several years the rate of [lost, mishandled and stolen] luggage is down a little," Mosley explains, and new security procedures implemented after September 11 may lower that rate even further. Bag match requirements, in which airlines must match each piece of luggage to each passenger on a flight, became mandatory on January 18. The DOT releases a report for lost and damaged baggage every month, and the numbers for February 2002 were down from the year before and from the month before. The department doesn't have enough information yet to know if the new security regulations contributed to the decrease, Mosley says.
OK, your bag is lost, what do you do? The DOT suggests the following steps: Report any and all problems to your airline before you leave the airport. Even if the airline is sure your bag is on the next flight, insist that a representative fill out a form and give you a copy with the agent's name and a telephone number to which you can follow up (make sure it's not the reservations number)\. The airline will probably take your claim checks; just make sure that is noted on your form. Also, most airlines will deliver your bags free of charge and give you at least a partial reimbursement for essentials, but not all do so make sure you ask before you leave the airport. When your bag is returned, check it thoroughly and report any damaged or stolen items immediately. The DOT also accepts complaints about lost or mishandled baggage at the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, although it doesn't follow up on individual claims.
If you are unlucky enough to own that .005 percent of all luggage that is truly lost, the process is a bit more arduous. You have 21 to 45 days to file a second claim, but the dates are different for each airline so it is important to check when you file your initial claim. You will be required to give the airline a list of contents in your baggage and their cost, so have receipts handy. There is a $2,500 payment cap per bag on domestic flights and a $9.07 per pound cap, as per the Geneva Convention, on international flights. The airlines generally negotiate a settlement based on the depreciated value of your belongings. Most reimbursements take anywhere from six weeks to three months. An interesting side note is that someone may be buying the contents of your luggage long after you have been reimbursed for it. The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, auctions unclaimed luggage at bargain prices and, for those who can't get to Alabama, you can peruse the lost items at www.unclaimedbaggage.com.
While you can't stop fate, there are some things you can do to prevent lost luggage. Check in early so your baggage has plenty of time to make the flight. Make sure your bags are clearly labeled with your contact information inside and out and don't pack valuables such as cameras, medication and jewelry. If you must pack these things, most airlines offer extra luggage insurance at a cost. Also, avoid checking luggage on connecting flights if possible. The DOT also suggests carrying a day's worth of essentials in your carry-on.
And don't let your mind wander when checking in. Paying attention just might be your best defense.