The Trip from Heck: Part 2–Woes of the Wandering bags

You know a problem is common when a routine is invented to deal with it. You know it’s endemic when companies are formed just to solve it. When my sister’s bag got lost on the way to Mexico, we learned about the routine. When both of mine went astray on the way back, I found out about the company too. And since I learned a bit from these experiences, I figure now is a good time to share with you some facts and some thoughts about lost luggage.

But keep in mind that the airlines would object to my term “lost.” As far as they are concerned, most of the bags that don’t show up when you do aren’t really lost; they are merely delayed. This is small comfort when you’ve traveled thousands of miles for a special event or a short but precious vacation and have to spend most of your first couple of days wrestling with bureaucracy over the phone and/or running back and forth to the airport again, at great expense, while having nothing suitable to wear when you’re doing anything else. But okay, the luggage wasn’t lost; it was delayed.

In my sister’s case, the missing bag, entrusted to an airline I will refer to as “D,” went AWOL somewhere between Atlanta and Mexico City. She and her husband were already dealing with a missed connection, re-routing, and a very very late arrival at the final destination airport in Puerto Vallarta – an hour by expensive car from their actual final destination. The bag contained most of her clothes for a week’s vacation and her husband’s outfit for the event that brought us all to Mexico. My brother-in-law’s golf clubs did arrive at the same time they did, but you can’t wear those to a wedding. When their final flight arrived in PV after midnight, the airport seemed deserted and there was no one to whom they could report the missing bag, so they got into their bespoke car and headed for their short-term rental condo up north.

Zip forward three days, and you see me, barely recovered from the worst ravages of food poisoning (see Trip from Heck, Part 1) and tottering onto my flight to Newark, on an airline I will refer to as “U,” with a further flight connection northwards. Lacking strength to fight for space in the overhead bins, I checked both my large and my small bag at a cost of $65, and embarked toting only the minimum needed for the day of travel. Arrived in Newark, I cleared passport control in a flash, and then stood with everyone else watching the carousel go round for 45 minutes hoping our bags would come out. Everyone else’s eventually did. Mine did not. I finally located a U employee in the baggage carousel area, who said to report the problem after clearing Customs. Out I went, stood and waited in line while worrying about missing my connection, the last flight of the evening, only to be informed by a pleasant U staff member that I’d have to report the delayed bags at my final destination. But since I later arrived at that destination exhausted and with only about three minutes to spare to catch the 11:30 pm shuttle van home, I skipped the reporting.

By the next morning, when I tried calling U to report the missing bag, it felt like being trapped in a bad movie. But rather than drag you, dear reader, through the horrid process of getting ahold of all those lost bags, let me give you some tips based on what I learned from the D and U experiences and from online research:

  1. Airlines are claiming that the percentage of “mishandled” bags (figures reported to the federal Department of Transportation monthly) has declined considerably since 2007. In that year, 7.03 out of every thousand passengers on domestic flights filed a report on “lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered” luggage. In 2013, that number had declined to 3.22 reports per thousand passengers; in 2014 it rose to 3.62. Those numbers reflect proportions per passenger, not per checked bag. Since many of us stopped checking bags whenever feasible, after airlines started charging for what used to be a free service, it’s impossible to tell just how much more likely it is now than in 2007 that your checked bag will arrive intact and with you. Probably a bit better odds, but DOT isn’t reporting the data that way. In any case, the numbers sound not-too-bad until you realize that the 2014 figure added up to over 2,100,000 mishandled bags. And that’s just for the domestic flights.
  2. Make sure all checked bags—and for that matter, your carry-on bag—are clearly labeled with both your home address and phone number, and the address and phone number of your destination (including dates, perhaps) on your outgoing leg/s. Put your e-mail address clearly on both of these. Since address tags on bags do get torn off, two such address tags on each checked bag give you added assurance. Or you can put a second copy of all the information inside a pocket that you consider an obvious place for baggage office staff to look for identification if the bag has gone astray. In my experience, address tags that are too pretty or striking tend to disappear en route, so I now skip the aesthetics and just use funky but durable tags.
  3. If it is at all possible to report your missing bag in person, do so when you arrive at your final destination (as tagged on the baggage claim check), and with the airline that is responsible for the final leg of your trip. You won’t find anyone willing to register the claim until you get to that final airport. If you don’t make the report in person at the airport baggage office upon arrival, you will have to return to the airport to do so; neither D nor U would accept a report over the phone. Nope, doesn’t matter if you are calling them from the number they have on record for you and asking that they deliver the bag to the address they have on record for you. They crave human contact, poor things, and will force you to drive an hour back to the airport so they can get it.
  4. If you want to know the last recorded location of your bag, you can ask the airline employee to look in the system to find out exactly what it says about your bag. Now that so much is digitized, your bag is scanned even more than you are: when it is originally tagged, when it is loaded onto the baggage truck, when it goes into the aircraft’s hold, when it comes out, etc., etc. For some airlines, you too can see all this info online by putting in your baggage claim number—D is one of those. (Which suggests a whole new type of travel fun: you can amuse yourself during layovers or at the baggage carousel by checking your smartphone to see what your bags have been up to.) For some other airlines, you’ll have to rely on an airline employee to do the investigating—which is what I had to do to get the information out of U. Less fun.
  5. If you’re traveling internationally, and you need to deal with online or telephone communications with a foreign carrier or with any carrier’s baggage department in the destination country, try to have someone with you who can speak the local language. Local websites don’t necessarily provide English language versions (I’m talking about you, Aero Mexico!) and phone menus may well not offer English options (ditto!). And although all of the staff at ticket counters will probably have a reasonable degree of English, don’t bet on the people who are handling baggage.
  6. You may or may not be able to get a refund of your checked baggage fees if the airline “delays” your bags’ arrival. Different airlines have different policies on this. One article in one of the better travel magazines states categorically that you can get your fees back if your bag is delayed. That is not my experience. In any case, though, you might want to ask; it’s unlikely that any airline is going to volunteer to give your money back. If the airline really loses your bag, it is required to refund your baggage fee.
  7. Your bag won’t be declared really lost, not just delayed, for a considerable time –weeks!–after it goes astray. Fortunately, this happens to only a tiny percentage of bags, but a small but still daunting portion (about one in six) of the bags mishandled arrive damaged or with items missing. Hence, the next two points:
  8. When your bag does show up and is delivered, don’t sign anything renouncing all claims until you’ve made sure that nothing is missing. Unless you are so punch-drunk you no longer care. (see below)
  9. You are legally entitled to compensation for lost checked bags, up to $3300 per passenger for domestic flights and $1131 per passenger for international flights. The tricky part comes in if you’ve already asked the airline to reimburse you for items you needed when your bag doesn’t arrive with you. See the link below for the Travel Insider articles that give you many useful pointers on how to deal with that issue—but keep in mind that reimbursements you get for things you buy while waiting to see whether your bag will be found will be subtracted from the maximum entitlement if it is finally deemed lost.
  10. When it comes to telling you where your bag is and when you’re likely to get it, you’re more likely to get that information from the on-the-spot baggage managers than from some national phone line. I was told categorically over the phone that delayed bags are never delivered to your doorstep after 10 pm. The airport baggage manager told me they usually deliver in the wee hours. She was right; the guy on the phone was way off base.
  11. Finally: save all documentation until the problem is satisfactorily resolved. That means: boarding passes or boarding pass stubs, baggage claim stickers or stubs, copies of any reports you file with the airline, and any correspondence (including e-mail) concerning the missing bag/s. Written logs of any phone calls or conversations with airline personnel might also be a good idea, and you should make sure in all cases that you get the names of the people you deal with, in person or by phone.

As for the conclusion to my sister’s and my tales of baggage woe, things came out pretty well, although only after time-consuming hassles:

  • Sister and brother-in-law had to make an expensive hired car ride back to the PV airport to report the missing bag, and found it there already in the tender care of the D baggage office. (So why did D’s Atlanta headquarters insist they had to deal with Aero Mexico, which flew them on the final leg after they were rerouted? Ours is not to question why….)
  • When I drove the 50 minutes back to my final-destination airport and managed to track down the U baggage person, one of my bags had already arrived; the second, for inscrutable reasons, had taken a side excursion to Houston and was due to arrive that evening.
  • Hence the intervention of the delivery company, wheresmysuitcase.com, which sent me e-mail bulletins announcing a) that they would be receiving my bag to arrange delivery, and I could waive signature on their website if I didn’t want to be wakened; b) that they had received my waiver of signature online; c) that my bag was out for delivery and the driver’s name was Wheels (do we believe that??) and I could see his/her photo by clicking a link in the e-mail; and d) that my bag had been delivered on Tuesday, March 10 at 3:01 a.m. And sure enough, there it was right outside my door exactly where I’d asked them to leave it. I found that the main zipper was broken, but by then, all the caring had been thumped out of me. I had meanwhile had time to discover that 15 major airlines, both domestic and international, have resorted to turning their delayed-bag deliveries to that one specialized company. For whom, no doubt, the figure of 2.1 million mishandled bags sounds like music.

How about you? If you have a good baggage story or some useful tips to share, please add a reply using the Comment link below.

For more information:

♦ “Delayed, Damaged, or Lost Bags” is a short article on USA.gov that summarizes policies and steps you can take if/when you encounter a problem.

♦ The site Travel Insider has two useful articles, “Your Rights if Your Bags Are Delayed” and “Your Rights if Your Bags Are Lost.” The first of those provides plenty of useful advice on more than just your rights, and you’d probably be wise to read it before the next trip on which you plan to check any bag.

♦ The US Department of Transportation publishes a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, which provides statistics not just on mishandled luggage but also on flight delays, overbooking, and various consumer complaints. The February issue gives you calendar year as well as monthly summaries. The link above gets you to the page where you can access reports for the most recent months and (as of the time of writing this) the two most recent years. Data geeks might also be inclined to rummage around on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics web site.

♦ Scott McCartney, “Baggage Claim: Airlines Are Winning the War on Lost Luggage,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 June 2014 online.

♦ Barbara Peterson, “The Problem with Airlines and Checked Baggage,” Condè Nast Traveler, 18 June 2012.

 

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