The Apple AirTag tracking device that Lily Datta placed in her luggage before leaving Cleveland on June 27 showed that the suitcase had arrived in Paris the next day. This confused Mrs. Datta because she and her family had no plans to go to Paris. Their destination was Vienna, with stops in Washington, DC and Barcelona to get there, but not Paris. It was the family’s first foray abroad since the start of the pandemic, a trip to celebrate her son Dev’s high school graduation.
Ms Datta filed a lost baggage claim at the airport, but when the suitcase was not delivered to their hotel in Vienna the next morning as promised, she began emailing the airline, sharing the bag’s location (according to AirTag ) every day. She received no response. Even more frustrating, she said, was that when she called the customer service number she was given, she “just got a recording — no one ever picked up and there was no way to leave a message.”
Rising demand for air travel and airport staff shortages have made this a terrible summer when it comes to lost and delayed checked bags. Incidents such as the recent baggage system malfunction at London’s Heathrow Airport, which caused such huge back-ups that flights were canceled to give workers a chance to sort out the mess, have only added to the misery.
While the number of mishandled bags was on the decline over the past decade, in part due to new technology, recent years have reversed that trajectory. The number of delayed or lost bags rose to 6 in 1,000 bags this February, up from 5 in 1,000 in February 2020, according to the latest report from the Department for Transport.
The system is now operating beyond its capacity, said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Freedom Project, a nonpartisan organization that promotes equal access to economic markets. “This is the worst summer meltdown for airline customer service in the 37 years I’ve spent working, writing and advocating for airlines,” he said.
After days without word from the airline, Ms. Datta and her husband, Alan Peyrat, began emailing various executives at United Airlines and Austrian Airlines, both of which had handled the luggage. They also reached out through social media and enlisted the help of their hotel concierge. Seven days after they arrived in Europe, Ms Datta received an email reply from Austrian Airlines. A representative wrote, apologetically, that her bag was one of thousands that were missing and “reality at the moment does not allow me to give you any concrete information.”
Lost baggage problems have been exacerbated by a reduction in airline investment in baggage handling during the pandemic, said Danny Cox, vice president of guest experience at Breeze Airways, a new airline that launched last year. “Airlines have been in survival mode,” he said, “There hasn’t been a glut of funds to upgrade baggage systems.” Current staffing shortages are having a ripple effect, he added. “If you’re looking for a mechanic to fix something, you’re pulling from the same people who are servicing other ground operations.”
To improve the chances that your luggage won’t get lost—and that you and your bag will be reunited if it does—follow these tips. Most troubles are beyond your control, so a Zen mindset of patience can help, too.
Identify your luggage. The most important thing you can do to help the airline reunite you with your lost luggage is to label the outside of it with your initials and phone number, and put more complete contact information like a business card inside. Take photos of the luggage and note the brand name and dimensions. Keep track of your baggage claim and know your ticket and flight number.
To reduce misuse, include loose straps that can get tangled with machinery or another bag and out of the way. Remove any barcode stickers or checked baggage tags from previous trips.
Baggage that may appear lost may have been accidentally picked up by someone with a similar bag, especially if it’s a black wheeled bag, the most common bag, said Kevin Larson, Alaska Airlines’ manager of central baggage services. Baggage can also only be on another carousel. Mr. Larson advises passengers to put something unique, like a colorful ribbon, on the outside of their bag. A bright luggage tag, sticker or reflective tape can also make a suitcase stand out.
Act immediately. If your luggage does not arrive when you arrive, notify the airline before you leave the airport. Getting in touch by phone has been challenging. The recorded announcement on a June 30 phone call with Delta Air Lines predicted a wait time of 80 minutes and offered no option to leave a number to get a call back instead of sitting on hold.
Pack smart. The Department of Transportation recommends that passengers avoid packing items in their checked bags that are valuable, fragile, perishable or irreplaceable and allows airlines to specify the types of items they will not cover if lost such as money, jewelry, computers, art, antiques and collectibles. Take them with you or leave them at home. Pack important medications in your luggage.
Keep a virtual eye on it. Placing a small tracking device such as a tag or Apple AirTag inside your luggage allows you to monitor the bag’s location through a phone app. “It’s about the same cost as checking a bag,” said Mr. Cox at Breeze Airways. The trackers are especially useful for finding out if someone has mistakenly taken your bag off the carousel instead of their bag.
Some airlines, including United, American and Delta Air Lines, offer baggage tracking capabilities to passengers via the carrier’s website or mobile app.
Know the rules for compensation. The Department of Transportation lists the rules airlines must follow when luggage is delayed or lost. The amount an airline can charge a passenger is $3,800 per bag. International leg flights fall under different rules and the maximum a passenger will receive is around $1,800.
Each airline has its own policies within government regulations, so passengers should check their carrier’s website for details. United Airlines passengers, for example, must have receipts for lost items if they claim the contents of their luggage are worth more than $1,500. United will consider luggage “lost” after five days, but other airlines may specify a longer time before declaring a bag “lost.”
Repair it while a bag is missing. When luggage goes missing, airlines will reimburse passengers for toiletries, clothing and other incidentals they buy to carry while the company tries to find their bag. Airline websites can be vague about what will be covered, and the United States government does not allow airlines to set a daily spending limit, so travelers may feel unsure about what is allowed. Travelers must fill out a claim form available at the customer service desk or the airline’s website and submit receipts for the items they purchase. They should also have an explanation for anything unusual as to why the purchase was necessary.
Use protection. Premium credit cards may offer lost baggage coverage, but they can make passengers jump through a few hoops to get it. More than 25 types of Chase credit cards offer up to $3,000 in lost baggage allowance to make up the difference between the refund from the airline and the value of the baggage and items in their luggage, according to Pablo Rodriguez, a spokesman for JP Morgan. Following. Customers must provide copies of receipts for any item valued at $25 or more that they seek to replace, and the payment they receive may be reduced depending on the age of the items.
Travel insurance purchased separately may include compensation for lost or delayed luggage, but as always with travel insurance, read the fine print.
Do not check the bag. The most obvious tip, but still the best way to make sure your bags don’t get lost by airlines, is to travel carry-on only. Pack ruthlessly – what do you really need? What can you buy at the destination? Can you wash your socks in the sink? If you check your luggage, try to book a non-stop flight. A transfer is one more opportunity for something to go wrong.