A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

 September 2011   



Sometimes I wonder if there’s anyone who hasn’t lost their luggage while flying.  It’s happened to me just once, but then I don’t have much opportunity to fly commercially.  Having been at airports so much, I’ve heard countless stories about lost bags.  I like to travel light, keeping all I need in a small carry-on backpack.  That way, I know where it is. 

The reality is, airlines use sophisticated global tracing systems to track your luggage, and over 99.9% of all bags checked are returned.  But there are far more people traveling and billions of bags are checked with the airlines every year. Despite those large numbers, the airlines have dramatically reduced the problem of lost luggage.

Also, many items like cameras, eye glasses and electronics are simply lost or left behind without identification, which adds to the unclaimed baggage.

When all the tracing systems fail, and that .1% of luggage that still has not been reunited with an owner, what happens to it?  One place it can end up is at a giant clearing house that specializes in purchasing it from the airlines, and then sells to the public.  It’s called the Unclaimed Baggage Center, and is in Scottsboro, Alabama.  Their website touts the merchandise as “lost treasures from around the world”. 

The center has an exclusive contract with the airlines that allows it to purchase any bags left unclaimed after 90 days, and it's legal to sell the items inside at a discounted price.  There isn’t much you won’t find at the UBC. Diamond jewelry, electronics, computers, personal keepsakes and a whole lot more end up with all the underwear and clothing.

The UBC has a store the size of a city block, with thousands of new items added daily.  Shoppers buy it at bargain prices. 

In Canada, the two major airlines, Westjet and Air Canada, say they do their best to find owners by going through the bags searching for clues.  They seek business cards, receipts, wallets, identification of any kind.  At Air Canada, unclaimed items are held for one year at the lost & found center in Montreal.  After that, they’re donated to charities.  According to officials from both airlines, it is very rare that an owner can’t be located, and consequently there would appear to be no need for a giant clearing center in Canada. 

So how does luggage get lost in the first place?  Over half (about 65%) goes missing during transfers.  It’s when you make your connection but your bags don’t.

About fifteen percent doesn’t get on the plane with you at the original departure point because you’ve not arrived early enough at the airport for it to clear security and be loaded.  They’re not kidding when they say show up one to two hours early. 

Twelve percent of delayed luggage can be blamed on a ticketing error or security delays that keeps your luggage from getting to your plane in time.

Plain and simple “human error” results in about seven percent of the bags lost being loaded or unloaded in the wrong places.  Five percent of lost bags are bumped from the airplane because of weight restrictions.

To be fair to the airlines, the amount of luggage that’s permanently lost is less than one half of one percent of everything people bring along.  That is because there’s no identification on it.  The majority of delayed bags are returned within 48 hours. 

Here are some suggestions which may help you avoid losing your luggage.

Place tags with your name, address, e-mail address and phone number on and inside your luggage.  Make sure the luggage ID bears your current address, not where you were living when you bought that suitcase. Include the number of the cell phone you'll be carrying on this trip, and a hotel number if you have it. 

If your travel agent tries to assign you an itinerary with a very short connection, think twice--anything less than an hour connecting time may not be enough for both you and the checked luggage to make the next flight.  Think closer to 90 minutes.

Know your bag.  Most bags look very similar. Mark yours with a scarf, unique tag or some other identifying trait so others won't mistake it for their own at baggage claim.  And also, remove the old tags that may be on the bag.  

The stories we’ve all heard about someone’s luggage going around the world may have been true in years past.  But nowadays, we’re more likely to hear about how the bags made it back to you after the delay.  Searching for and paying for lost items, simply costs the airlines too much in the way of money and public relations to ignore the problem.   


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