The Apple AirTag tracking device that Lily Datta had put in her luggage before she left Cleveland on June 27 showed that the suitcase had arrived in Paris the next day. That stunned 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 trip abroad since the start of the pandemic, a trip to celebrate her son Dev’s graduation.
Ms. Datta filed a claim for lost luggage 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 and the location of the bag (according to the AirTag) to share daily. She got no response. Even more frustrating, she said, when she called the customer service number she’d been 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 staff shortages at airports have made this an unpleasant summer when it comes to lost and delayed checked baggage. Incidents such as the recent outage of the London Baggage System Heathrow Airportcausing such a massive backup that flights were canceled to give workers a chance to clean up the mess have only added to the misery.
While the number of mishandled bags has declined over the past decade, partly due to new technology, that trajectory has changed in recent years. The number of delayed or lost luggage rose to 6 out of 1,000 bags in February, from 5 out of 1,000 in February 2020, according to the most recent report of the Ministry of Transport.
The system is now operating beyond its capacity, said William McGee, a senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonpartisan organization that promotes equal access to economic markets. “This is the worst summer airline customer service crisis in the 37 years I’ve spent working, writing about and advocating for airlines,” he said.
After a few days with no word from the airline, Ms. Datta and her husband, Alan Peyrat, began emailing several executives at United Airlines and Austrian Airlines, both of which had handled the baggage. They also reached out on social media and enlisted the help of their hotel concierge. Seven days after arriving in Europe, Ms. Datta received an email response from Austrian Airlines. A representative wrote, with apologies, that her bag was one of many thousands missing and “reality does not allow me to give you concrete information at this time.”
Problems with lost baggage have been exacerbated by a reduction in airline investment in baggage handling during the pandemic, said Danny Cox, the vice president of guest experience at Breeze Airways, a new airline that launched last year† “The airlines have been in survival mode,” he said, “there is not an abundance of resources to improve baggage systems.” Current staff shortages are having a ripple effect, he added. “If you’re looking for a mechanic to fix something, you’re attracting the same people who maintain other ground operations.”
Follow these tips to increase the odds that your luggage won’t get lost — and that you and your bag will be reunited when it does. Many of the problems are beyond your control, so a zen mindset of patience can also help.
Please identify your luggage. The most important thing you can do to help the airline reunite you with lost luggage is to label the outside with your initials and phone number, and include more complete contact information such as a business card. Take photos of the luggage and note the brand name and dimensions. Keep your baggage claim and know your ticket and flight number.
To reduce misuse, tuck in loose straps that could become entangled in machinery or another bag and drift off course. Remove any barcode stickers or checked baggage labels from previous trips.
Baggage that may seem lost may have been accidentally taken by someone with a similar bag, especially if it’s a black wheeled carry-on, the most common bag, said Kevin Larson, Alaska Airlines’ manager of central baggage services. The luggage can also simply be on another carousel. mr. Larson recommends that passengers stick something unique, such as a colorful ribbon, to the outside of their bag. A brightly colored luggage tag, stickers or reflective tape can also make a suitcase stand out.
Act immediately. If your baggage does not arrive when you do, you must notify the airline before leaving the airport. Contact by phone has been a challenge† The recorded message of a June 30 phone call with Delta Air Lines predicted an 80-minute wait and offered no option to leave a number for a call back rather than be put on hold.
Pack smart. The Department of Transportation advises passengers not to pack items in their checked bags that are valuable, fragile, perishable or irreplaceable, and allows airlines to specify types of items that they will not cover if lost, such as cash, jewelry , computers, artifacts, antiques and collectibles. Keep them with you or leave them at home. Put important medicines in your hand luggage.
Keep an eye on it virtually. Place a small tracking device like a Tile or Apple AirTag in your luggage you can track the whereabouts of the bag via a phone app. “It costs about the same as checking in one piece of luggage,” says Mr. Cox of Breeze Airways. Trackers are especially useful for discovering if someone accidentally took your bag off the carousel instead of their own.
Some airlines, including United, American and Delta Air Lines, offer baggage tracking for passengers through the carrier’s website or mobile app.
Know the rules for compensation. The Ministry of Transport lists the rules that airlines must follow when baggage is delayed or lost. The highest amount an airline can owe a passenger is $3,800 per piece of baggage. International flights are subject to different rules and the highest amount a passenger will receive is approximately $1,800.
Each airline has its own policy within government regulations, so passengers should check their carrier’s website for details. United Airlines for example, passengers must have lost property receipts if they claim the contents of their luggage are worth more than $1,500. United considers the bag ‘lost’ after five days, but other airlines can specify a longer time before declaring a bag ‘lost’.
Topping up while a bag is missing. When luggage is lost, airlines reimburse passengers for toiletries, clothing and other incidental items they purchase to bridge them while the company tries to locate their bag. Airlines websites can be vague about what is covered and the United States government does not allow airlines to impose a daily spending limit, so travelers may feel unsure about what is allowed. Travelers must complete a claim form available from customer service or on the airline’s website and submit the receipts for the items purchased. They must also have an explanation for something unusual why the purchase was necessary.
Use protection. Premium credit cards may provide coverage for lost luggage, but can make passengers jump through some hoops to get it. According to Pablo Rodriguez, a spokesperson for JP Morgan, more than 25 types of Chase credit cards offer up to $3,000 in lost baggage compensation to make up for the difference between the airline’s refund and the value of the baggage and items in their baggage. Pursuit. Customers must provide copies of receipts for any item valued at $25 or more that they request to be replaced, and the payout they receive may be reduced depending on the age of the items.
Travel insurance purchased separately may include compensation for lost or delayed baggage, but as always with travel insurance, read the fine print.
Do not check the bag. The most obvious advice, but still the best way to ensure that your bags are not lost by the airlines, is to travel with hand luggage only. Relentless packing – what do you really need? What can you buy at the destination? Can you wash your socks in the sink? If you do check in your luggage, try to book a non-stop flight. A transfer is another chance that something will go wrong.