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Where's Your Luggage? Airline Lose Your Bags? You've Got Lots Of Company, But Options Too

By Diane C. Lade Staff writer
Talk about a bad trip: New airport security measures that limit carry-on items, and force travelers to pack more into checked bags, are coming at the same time the airlines are logging the largest number of lost luggage reports in 16 years.

Last year was the worst for lost, mishandled and stolen bags since 1990, with 6.04 reports per 1,000 passengers, or a total of 30 million bags, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics. The worst offenders were the smaller short-hop airlines, with Atlantic Southeast at the bottom, averaging 16 reports per 1,000 passengers for the first six months of this year.

Among the major carriers, US Airways had the worst record for the same time period, followed by Delta. Hawaiian Airlines had the best rate, with about three reports per 1,000, but it flies limited routes with few connections. Tops among the large carriers in the first six months of this year was JetBlue, followed by Northwest.

The numbers, coupled with a recent DOT report to Congress, hint at two things frequent fliers might do to ensure they're left holding the bag: Pick carriers offering more nonstop or direct flights. And stay away from small commuter airlines, which often depend on their major carrier affiliates for baggage handling and the on-time arrivals of large connecting flights.
Hollywood travel agent Miggy Hunt suggested that regardless of which airline you fly, the skies aren't going to be so friendly in the next few years. "There are battles with staff and pay cuts. When you go to the luggage counter to file for a lost bag, one person is there," said Hunt, corporate manager of Identity Travel, which handles bookings for events in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Federal statistics included in testimony to the House Subcommittee on Aviation in May showed Delta and US Airways, which had the second and third best mishandled baggage rates among the major carriers in 2000, had dropped to the bottom by 2005, as both airlines struggled financially. US Airways' numbers also were affected by short staffing over the 2004 holidays and a conveyor belt breakdown in Philadelphia, industry officials said.

The airline industry, however, denies any connection between cash flow and baggage problems, and DOT Assistant General Council Samuel Podberesky told committee members he didn't think the statistics pointed to a "systemic problem." David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association that represents major carriers, blamed the rising rates on an increase in flights routed through an antiquated air traffic control system and more bad weather than usual -- factors likely to continue this year.

No matter how long the lines may be at airport luggage offices, Hunt urges customers to report missing bags immediately. Most airlines have a limited time for acting on a claim. Southwest Airlines, for example, requires claims to be filed within two hours of flight arrival.

Passengers without a lost bag report may be unable to recover their baggage if it's found, even if they have the original claim check. Hunt has been trying for two weeks to get luggage now in Singapore returned to two Miami businessmen, who missed their connecting flight in New York ut decided not to deal with the paperwork at the airport.

Hunt said she is concerned luggage problems will get worse now that one common solution for lost bags -- packing a well-stocked carry-on -- is harder to do than ever. New airline security rules instituted after an alleged terrorist plot was uncovered in Britain this month requires most liquid toiletries, including shampoo and toothpaste, and many other items to go in checked luggage. Some foreign countries have banned all suitcases on board.

Travelers still are allowed to take their medications with them, as long as they are in containers clearly labeled with their names. That's something Steve Inglese, of Boca Raton, intends to do next time he takes a trip.

He and his girlfriend, Susan Meredith, of Plantation, spent the first day of their dream cruise up Alaska's Inward Passage in June at a drugstore in Seattle before their ship left, trying to replace Meredith's prescriptions after Delta Air Lines lost their luggage.

Inglese also discovered he probably won't be reimbursed for what he spent to replace the medications. While passengers now can claim up to $2,800 compensation for items lost, most airlines have a long list of exclusions.

Prescriptions are among them. Typically, so are electronics, jewelry, eyeglasses, business items and heirlooms such as old family photos, according to Al Anolik, a San Francisco attorney specializing in travel law.

Exclusions are listed on airlines' Web sites, "but they don't tell you about them and then consumers get burned when they file a claim," said Anolik, whose www.travellaw.com site details traveler's rights.

Airlines eventually sell all unclaimed luggage by the pound to an Arkansas company that holds periodic auctions. Anolik has sent clients there who have lost irreplaceable mementos, with hopes of reclaiming them.

Anolik also attributed the rising number of mishandled bags to the fact that airlines increasingly are outsourcing their curbside check-in and luggage-handling "ramp" personnel.

Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin said the company does use contract baggage employees at some airports, but that the airline was working to improve its service. Staffing was increased after the new security regulations, she said, as the amount of checked baggage went up about 30 to 40 percent.

Diane Lade can be reached at dlade@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6618 .