The real problem with airlines and checked luggage


A favorite joke of many of us in the travel industry goes something like this: A traveler goes to the airline check-in counter and tells the agent, “I’m going to Houston, but I want you to send one of my suitcases to Dallas and the other one to Washington, D.C.”

The agent shakes her head and says, “I’m sorry, we can’t do that.”

The passenger says, “Why not? You did it last week!”

In actuality, most people’s baggage does end up traveling on the same plane with them. The Department of Transportation says there were just over three reports of mishandled luggage per 1,000 travelers in 2012.

That’s not, however, what drives my clients and me the craziest on a regular basis. It’s not the fees, either. It’s the absolute random nature of luggage delivery times.

For example, my last four flights had random problems when, for a variety of reasons, I needed to check bags for relatively short trips.

A trip to Maui, with a completely full 757, had a longish walk to baggage claim. United Airlines had luggage on the belt within about five minutes of our arrival at the carousel.

But with the return flight to San Francisco, not only did United decide to put luggage from seven different flights at one of their six carousels, it took about 50 minutes after arrival until most of the Maui bags started showing up.

To add to the frustration, as many people were making cellphone calls to friends and family picking them up — “Keep driving around,” “Go to the cellphone lot,” etc. — because so many flights were put on the same carousel, there was a constant sense of hope and disappointment as new bags kept arriving. Plus, the general zooiness was made worse because multiple flights were compounding the “that looks like my bag” confusion.

My most recent trip was to Orlando. Things didn’t start off too well with a two-hour delay that meant an arrival after 2:30 a.m. A few of us were joking that at least there would be nothing else for baggage handlers to do so we should get our bags fast.

Usually, Orlando is pretty good. For the uninitiated, it’s one of those airports where you have to take a train in from the gates, and while I’ve had a few waits, luggage will often arrive at baggage claim at about the same time you do.

That was not the case on this trip.

As we all stood, or rather slumped, in the quiet baggage claim area, absolutely nothing happened. It was pretty clear that  in many cases dreams of Mickey were being replaced by dreams of bed. A woman who said she still lived in the area said, “Welcome to Orlando after midnight.” She added, “For whatever reason it was always really bad late at night.”

Even with a priority tag and being one of the first bags off this time, it took about 45 minutes to get my bag, meaning a 3:15 a.m. crawl to my rental car. While the hotel hadn’t given my room away, it showed on my final bill as a “no-show charge” (because, as the gal at the front desk said, the computer shows arrivals that late as not being in the room).

With the return, after a missed connection due to problems loading bags in Orlando, I had nothing but low expectations. My husband, who had to kill time driving around the last trip, waited a little longer at home before heading to the airport. And, you guessed it, despite a full flight and a busy night, bags arrived about 15 minutes after landing.

No doubt, readers have similar stories, for better or worse. Bags can beat you to the carousel or make you wait well over an hour.

I believe this sort of thing is, as much as the fees, why many travelers will do almost anything to avoid checking luggage. No one loves lugging bags through the airport or worrying about getting overhead space and, depending on your size, lifting stuff in and out of the bins.

But when checking bags — beyond the vague unease that your bags COULD be one of those unlikely three out of a thousand — you just don’t know when they will show up. And, particularly when the plane itself could be delayed, it can make a long trip that much longer.

Maybe this isn’t realistic. If airlines had a commitment, say, to deliver bags in 20-30 minutes or less and could live up to it, my sense is that more people would go ahead and check their bags. It would not only improve customer satisfaction, it would probably improve airlines’ on-time performance, cut down on the overhead bin stuffing game and the resulting delays in the boarding process.

What do you think, Consumer Traveler readers?

  • Dean Starovasnik

    I check bags almost exclusively only when traveling for pleasure with my family. When I have done so with upgraded seats the “Priority” tag is applied religiously. However, the arrival of my bags is even more inconsistent. I’ve had them show up in the first dozen bags on the carousel. I’ve also had them arrive 30 minutes after the rest of my family’s bags which were not marked similarly. It is “a puzzlement!”

  • Bill

    AK Air does guarantee bags will be delivered in 20 minutes or less from the plane parking at the gate – or you are entitled to a voucher for $20 off your next flight or 2000 bonus miles. of course you have to ask a baggage agent to get the cert, but it is their guarantee. and guess what – AK Air gets those bags there and delivered within 20 minutes. now i always connect through AK Air hubs (rarely is my destination SEA), but bags are consistently there. AS has made a commitment – and they have kept it. It makes waiting for bags for 45 minutes with other airlines very annoying

  • BobChi

    It seems it has a lot to do with how many flights arrive about the same time, and that can vary a lot by the vagaries of weather, scheduling, whether it’s a hub or spoke airport and any number of things. A baggage staff that’s adequate much of the time won’t be as fast at peak arrival times. At my regional airport there’s always a wave of flights coming in about the same time late in the evening, since each airline parks a jet overnight here. So I know that if I’m on one of those flights I need to avoid checking bags if at all possible. If I’m arriving another time in the day, I’ll get my bag quite promptly if I do choose to check it.

  • MeanMeosh

    I’d take it a step further. Even if the airlines could guarantee that I would get my bag in 20-25 minutes, I still wouldn’t want to check a bag. Why? If I’ve been in 3 days of business meetings, or been traveling all day after a few days of vacation and arriving back home at 9 P.M., the last thing I want to do is stand around at baggage claim for another 20 minutes. I just want to get in my car, go home, and go to bed. That’s why I’ve hardly ever checked bags, even before the days of bag fees.

  • sue

    My husband and I pretty much always fly for pleasure and as such we always check our bags because we don’t want to spend our vacation schlepping bags through the airport. We’ve never had any serious bag delays, perhaps because we always fly direct and we always fly off-peak. However, weirdly, on 8 out of 10 of our flights, our bags are searched by the TSA. Most of the time, our bags contain only clothes and toiletries, so it is really weird. I think it is because we always get to the airport early (at my husband’s insistence) and I think we are always among the first 10 or so checked bags.

  • janice

    Dean, I’ve had the same thing….and had a client miss a connecting flight from Sydney, Australia to New Orleans in Los Angeles because his priority tagged bag was LAST off the plane.

  • Dean Starovasnik

    Sue, as I mentioned we almost always check bags when we travel for pleasure (lengthy trips, SCUBA equipment, kids, etc.). However, a couple years ago, on a direct flight to SFO from ATL, three of our four bags arrived right about when we got to the carousel. The fourth? Didn’t show up till later in the day (and was delivered to my sister’s house where we were staying). Again, this was a direct flight for which we arrived nearly two hours early. If three made it, why not all four? Oh, and by the way, Janice, it had a “Priority” tag on it! SMH

  • TonyA_says

    Maybe too much work at the ramp and baggage areas.
    It’s one of the largest hubs.

  • dcta

    i try to only check bags on non-stop flights – that’s my first rule. But I also understand that bags coming out of a tropical or more “foreign” than Europe (like anywhere in Africa or South America) are probably going to take longer to get to the carousel – not certain why, but it always seems that way.

    When I am traveling for business – I’m making a presentation or going to formal meetings, I try to ship my business attire ahead of me so I can do carry on with my casual clothes and toiletries…