With the recent enforcement of carry-on limits, and an overall trend of travelers demanding more from their airlines, expectations for error-free baggage handling are rising.
Tags Get Smarter And Smarter
Several years ago, airlines embraced bar-coded baggage labels, a major efficiency break-through. Joe Hopkins, spokesperson ! for United Airlines, explains, "We're scanning information into our computer with the details of each trip." He says the computer then has a record that the bag started in Washington, goes through O'Hare and on to Des Moines, for example. The technology speeds up the process and assists when the bag does not arrive with the passenger. But the promise of ever-smarter labels is on the horizon.
The latest and greatest is radio frequency identification or RFID technology. An integrated circuit is sandwiched inside the luggage tag and programmed with detailed information such as the date and time the luggage checked in, the weight, a unique identification number, and the passenger's destination. A mini-antenna, also within the label, transmits the information to a scanner via radio signals.
RFID offers several key advantages over bar-coded tags: it does not require direct line-of-sight for transmission, signals can be read one meter away, and several tags can be! scanned simultaneously. While RFID technology may be exciting, it is still expensive and probably will not be used until it becomes affordable for airlines.
Lost And Found (Hopefully)
How commonly are bags lost? The Department of Transportation compiles statistics on "mishandled" (lost or delayed) baggage and issues monthly reports on domestic airlines' progress. Good news: mishandling is down, with 5.08 reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers in 1999, as compared with 6.73 in 1990. Southwest boasts the best record for 1999 with 4.22 reports per 1,000 passengers. United holds the worst record with 7.01.
More good news: most bags eventually reach their owners. According to Air Transport Association spokesperson Diana Cronan, statistics compiled in 1998 show 99.5 percent of checked bags arrive on the same plane as their owners. Of those that don't, 80 percent get where th! ey are going within 24 hours. The number rises to 99 percent within five days. Unfortunately, one percent of that half-percent are gone forever.
Compensation-- Read The Fine Print
In January, the Department of Transportation raised to $2,500 the maximum amount airlines must pay passengers whose luggage is lost--up from $1,250. A handful of airlines like American and Midwest Express had even embraced the higher reimbursement levels voluntarily several months earlier. (These rates apply to domestic flights only. Baggage lost on international flights is compensated at about $9 a pound.)
Compensation rates, however, may be immaterial because most airlines do not reimburse for computers, cameras, jewelry or money. (Check the fine print in the contract of carriage.) So, unless your bag is filled with very expensive clothing, you may have a hard time proving your right to t! he maximum compensation. (Also, most airlines are not responsible for personal items or carry-on luggage left on board the aircraft .)
Experts recommend writing down the contents of your bag, pre-trip. When making a claim, the more detailed information you can give about the date each item was purchased and price paid, the better. The bag itself can be part of the claim, too, so it makes sense to hold onto the purchase receipt when you buy luggage.
Insurance May Be Good Investment
Baggage insurance may be the way to go when carrying valuable items--or those not covered by the airline. A travel insurance policy is typically 6% to 8% of the trip cost. Comprehensive coverage from tour operators ranges from $39 to $99, and baggage insurance may often be purchased separately. Or buy additional liability directly from the airline--you can expect to pay from $1 to $2 for each $100 of declared value, up to $5,000. Finally, your homeowner's policy may cover lost or damaged luggage. In! any case, check the fine print of any insurance policy first to see if it covers specific valuables you'll carry, like computers or jewelry.
What happens to luggage irretrievably lost? Airlines generally work for 90 to 120 days to match the piece of luggage with an owner. This may be impossible if luggage tags are lost and there is no identification inside the case. Most airlines eventually sell the contents to salvage companies such as retailer Unclaimed Baggage in Scottsboro, Ala., where most of the store's inventory comes from unclaimed baggage.
Some passengers eliminate baggage altogether, sauntering through the airport with just a light carry-on, even on baggage-intensive trips such as ski jaunts. Shipping company TraveLite boasts a program called Virtual Bellhop (www.virtualbellhop.com or 87! 7-BELLHOP). The company will pick up your baggage at your home, box it, and have it waiting at your destination for as little as $65. (Service levels range from economy to overnight, and the company services anywhere in the continental U.S.) UPS and FedEx also ship baggage, though you must box it prior to pick-up.
Most important: check that your destination is equipped to receive a shipment before you arrive. Some aren't. Many ski areas have special locations near lifts where skis and poles may be delivered, stored and retrieved (for a fee).
While technology and experience have improved baggage handling performance, increasing passenger volume, carry-on restrictions, and high expectations make this an area to watch."Statistics compiled in 1998 show 99.5 percent of checked bags arrive on the same plane as their owners."