Now Arriving At Carousel 1, Far Fewer Of Your Bags
July 29, 2009
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  • By Jonathan Mummolo and Del Quentin Wilber

    Washington Post Staff Writers

    Monday, October 1, 2007; A01

    After the crammed parking lot, the amusement-park-length check-in lines, security procedures that require all but a striptease, flights that are jampacked, if they’re not delayed or canceled — after all that comes baggage claim, where the maddening odyssey of modern air travel is supposed to end but often just gets worse.

    More than 1 million pieces of luggage were lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered by U.S. airlines from May to July, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. June and July ranked among the 20 worst months for mishandled baggage in 20 years.

    The shoddy service is the crest of five years of steady deterioration in the ability of major airlines to deliver a checked bag. In 2002, 3.84 reports of mishandled bags were filed per 1,000 passengers. In July, the figure was 7.93.

    Frustration has mounted to the point that even a well-traveled congressman, Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), is alleged to have barged, screaming, into a United Airlines baggage claim office at Dulles International Airport and shoved a clerk, leading to a misdemeanor assault charge. Filner disputes the charge and is due in court tomorrow.

    His explanation summed up the feelings of many fliers: “I was tired after a delayed flight and frustrated by the subsequent further delay of the entire flight’s baggage,” he said in a written statement after the August incident.

    How did it come to this?

    Airline representatives and analysts cite a variety of factors. Restrictions on gels and liquids in August 2006 have led to a surge in the number of checked bags. Airlines aggressively slashed jobs after the industry’s historic downturn several years ago, leaving fewer employees to handle baggage and customer service issues.

    An underlying problem is the major carriers’ reliance on hubs, which are transfer points for connecting flights, increasing the probability of luggage getting misplaced or not making the next flight in time. During summer thunderstorms, connecting bags and travelers only gets tougher.

    Even the size of airplanes is being blamed. Carriers have increased the number of regional jets in their fleets, and the smaller planes have weight restrictions that limit the amount of luggage they can carry.

    The airline industry, which notes that most bags are not mishandled, attributes the baggage problem in large part to delays caused by weather and an antiquated air traffic control system. The system limits the number of planes controllers can safely move through the sky.

    “The primary reason behind mishandled bags is delayed and misconnected flights,” said David A. Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major U.S. airlines. “And we’re seeing record delays this summer. . . . No airline tries to [lose bags] . . . The carriers are trying the best they can given the existing situation.”

    Analysts say the industry’s problems are not likely to be resolved soon, setting the stage for more aggravation, especially during the holiday travel season.

    “The customer is going to keep taking it on the chin,” said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University professor and co-author of the 2007 Airline Quality Rating.

    John Gurley took it on the chin last month at Reagan National Airport. After a full day of travel that started in Mexico, one of his bags arrived mangled — apparently slashed open and then shoddily mended with tape bearing the airline’s name — and the other had not arrived. “Congratulations,” the D.C. lawyer told an American Airlines baggage claim agent. “You’ve accomplished the rare daily double of destroying one bag and losing the other.”

    The situation has become so frustrating that some people no longer check bags. They ship them.

    Gary Cohen, who owns an organic food company in California, shipped his clothes ahead of him for at least 25 trips in the past year, he said. He packed up his family’s wardrobe and sent it via UPS to his hotel in Baltimore, where he attended a food expo last week.

    “We don’t have to worry about baggage being misdirected or lost this way,” said Cohen, 57. “We have had our share of bags that were lost. But this way, you also save time. When you get off the plane with checked bags, you have to wait 20, 25, 30 minutes at the airport. I just want to get out of the airport after that, having been on the road for three, four, five days.”

    Representatives of the airlines said they are doing their best to get bags to their destinations. Some carriers recently have added staff members, beefed up tracking technology and altered some flight schedules to ensure that there is enough time to transfer luggage when passengers have connecting flights.

    United, for example, has studied its operations to find the best way to get bags to flights at each of its hubs, including Dulles. The airline said the operational review and improved technology helped it record the lowest percentage of lost bags among the major airlines in July.

    Representatives of a half-dozen airlines noted that though the rate of lost bags is at a historic high, they represent only a fraction of luggage flowing through the system. More than 99 percent of bags are handled properly, statistics show.

    “In the great scheme of things, the rate of misplaced luggage is very low and the vast majority of customers arrive with their bags,” said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines.

    But that is little solace to travelers such as Laurie Bertoncini, an event planner from Leesburg, who flew home on United from a business trip to Las Vegas recently to find that two of her bags, which contained about $18,000 in jewelry, had been sent in a different direction — to Canada. They arrived at her house, separately, a week later.

    She said she was puzzled that such a mistake could occur.

    “My itinerary in no way had Ottawa, Canada, on it,” she said. “I will never put my jewelry in checked bags again.”

    A few weeks ago at Dulles, Hajar Kolahdouzan found herself peering through the glass window of a locked Virgin Atlantic baggage office before picking up her husband from an international flight.

    Inside were suitcases, gym bags and cardboard boxes stacked high, but her bag — missing since her 24-hour, multi-leg return trip from Iran in August — was nowhere to be seen.

    “It’s frustrating,” said Kolahdouzan, 24, who lives in Bethesda. “They just told me last week it’s going to be here by the end of the week or the end of the next week. . . . I didn’t see it.”

    Few have worse baggage karma than Joshua Marcuse. His bad luck started in June 2006, on his way to a wedding. US Airways lost his bag, forcing him to scavenge mom-and-pop shops in Maine for clothes. Then came a trip home to the District from Idaho. His suitcase didn’t show up for a week.

    In August, a bag filled with expensive camping gear failed to emerge from the carousel at National Airport after a long day of overseas travel, forcing him to spend two hours talking to baggage claim attendants before heading home. Continental Airlines returned the bag the next day.

    “It’s just a disaster,” said Marcuse, a 25-year-old management consultant. “They never lose my bags in other countries. Seriously, I could be in the jungle in Latin America, on safari in Africa, in India or Nepal. The airlines in Nepal didn’t lose my bag. Other countries do this well, but not here.”

    Date: 2007-10-01