When it comes to flying, people usually worry about two things -- arriving on time and not losing their bags. Simply, travelers want to get where they’re going with the stuff they had when they left.
And while Mother Nature and engineering can make you late, lost luggage often comes down to more human factors. According to the industry consultants at SITA (specialists in air transport communications and IT solutions), airlines lost almost 22 million passenger bags in 2014 -- about .06% lost per 1,000 bags checked. Which, to be honest, isn't too shabby. But they still do get lost, even when everything else runs on schedule.
How come? Here are eight reasons, and what you can to do keep your bags from ending up here.
You’re cutting it too close
While folks love to bitch about the airlines, the primary reason your luggage gets lost is probably your fault. It's always user error, right? You needed to get to the airport earlier.
Depending on that airport and your destination, airlines shut down flight check-in anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes prior to a scheduled departure. And in order to keep flights on time, it’s common now for airlines to begin boarding flights BEFORE the check-in cutoffs take effect.
According to American and American Eagle pilot Todd Simoneau, flight crews are on strict schedules and the long hours pilots work mean they don’t want to wait around any longer than they must. “For many airlines, pilots don’t get paid until the aircraft’s door is closed and they’re away from the gate,” Simoneau said. So, while pilots might wait for a passenger making connections, they won’t wait for bags.
Obviously, if you check in for your flight too late, you flat out won’t get on the plane. But check in too close to that drop deadline, and your luggage risks not flying with you. Airlines have the right to refuse to check your bags, forcing you to take them through security. Otherwise, if they’re checked and don’t make their intended flight, your bags will fly on the next scheduled aircraft to your destination. The airline must offer you the choice to pick it up later or have it delivered to you at the airline’s expense.
You’re traveling heavy
No, this isn’t a cheap shot at your weight. We’ve never met you. But, the combination of multiple or larger bags and a small plane (such as those used on shorter commuter routes) can cause space or weight problems in the jet’s belly. If you’re toting golf clubs or your collection of Hawaiian long boards, they could get left behind for the next flight in the hope that there's more room.
Your travel plans changed
Weather, mechanical failure, or over/underbooking can force you to a different flight than you planned. Sudden changes in travel schedules can force baggage to change planes and even airlines. If there’s not enough time or attention to detail involved, bags can go astray. Just make sure the luggage tags from the airlines are correct and properly attached, and that your name and address bag tags are updated.
You’re flying on multiple airlines
Some routes to far-flung locales involve flying different carriers on the same journey. For example, a major airline might get you to the big island of Hawaii, while a puddle jumper drops you at the smaller resorts on Lānaʻi. It’s on you to make sure the airlines are communicating with each other before you fly -- routing your bags all the way to your final destination. Always keep the sticker bag tags the agent hands you after you check in as the bar codes on them make tracing your luggage a matter of a quick laser scanning. And it doesn't hurt to take a few quick pics of the bags with your cellphone, so you can show airline agents should they go missing.
Your luggage wasn’t up to the trip
Drop some money on some decent luggage, especially if you’re a frequent traveler. If your luggage disintegrates on the luggage cart, while being loaded onto the plane, or on its way to the carousel, it’s not the airline’s fault or responsibility to repair it or recover the underpants scattered over the tarmac.
You forgot to control the weather
A plane can fly in the rain. It can take off in a minor snow storm. But, lightning will not only keep a plane on the ground, it’ll also shut down the ground crew activity. A thunderstorm will keep the baggage cart idle, increasing the chances that luggage isn't loaded on time once scheduled flights resume.
You’re dangerous... or at least they think you are
By now, you know you can’t travel with liquids in excess of 3oz. So, perhaps you check that bottle of schnapps or Thermos of your mom’s Irish stew in your checked luggage. Unfortunately, those checked bags get X-ray’d, too. If TSA sees a container that makes them nervous, they’ll pull the bag off the line and sort through it until they’re satisfied. Who knows if the bag makes it back into the mix on time.
You’re dealing with humans
If there’s one factor in travel that you have no control over -- other than the weather -- it’s the actions of other people. (Queue that Paul Giamatti Liberty Mutual Insurance ad now.) Even in an age of barcodes and computer tracking, a well-meaning person can toss a bag in the wrong pile or load it onto the wrong flight.
In most cases, lost luggage makes it to its owner within 24 hours of arrival. According to the Department of Transportation, all fees incurred in finding and delivering your bags to you are on the airline. However, if you have documentation that you needed something in that lost luggage before it got back to you, the DOT allows you to claim up to $3,300 in replacement fees.
No matter why your bags wander off, be sure to keep notes, photos, receipts, and whatever else will protect you from lost money and property. It may well be one of those rare occasions when you have a big corporation on the hook.