LAX: Getting Out : Where’s the Bag? : Keeping track when luggage disappears into thin air

<i> Smith is a Pasadena-based free-lance writer who contributes frequently to The Times' Business section</i>

Lost bags may represent only a tiny fraction of all the luggage that gets handled by airlines every day, but that’s small consolation for travelers when the bags that get lost belong to them.

In fact, lost baggage is a source of worry for many travelers, despite assurances by airlines that only about five bags per 1,000 passengers go astray.

There are actually fewer bags lost today than there were a few years ago, in part because of more disclosure about the problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) now publishes figures on lost baggage for each airline, said Chris Chiames, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. of America, a Washington-based trade group representing air carriers. “There has been a concentrated effort by the industry over the past few years with the publication of these figures to improve on their baggage handling,” he said.

According to the most recent statistics available from the DOT, for example, Southwest Airlines has the best baggage record of any U.S. airline, mishandling 4.1 bags per 1,000 passengers from January to September of this year. Of course, since Southwest flies shorter, more regional routes than many other airlines, many passengers have carry-on luggage only, a factor that might contribute to Southwest’s low baggage-loss record. Northwest had the most with 6.2 bags lost per 1,000 passengers.


In the event a bag does get separated from its owner, here is a rundown of what passengers can expect from airlines:

Airlines are only legally required to compensate passengers up to $1,250 per person (not per bag) when luggage gets lost on a domestic flight, said David Stempler, a Washington-based aviation attorney and passenger advocate. Airlines typically pay based on the depreciated value of the contents declared, not their replacement value. It helps to have receipts to back up claims. It’s also worth noting that certain items, including furs, jewelry, cameras, electronic equipment and cash are not covered under the standard airline liability policy.

For that reason, many travelers may want to consider buying “excess valuation” insurance. Such insurance, which is sold by the airlines, is available at the ticket counter and costs about $1 per additional $100 in insured value.

For overseas flights originating in the United States, travelers get even less for lost luggage. Weight determines the amount of payout; airlines pay $9.07 per pound of checked luggage. Since the maximum weight per bag is about 70 pounds, the maximum liability per bag is about $635.

When making a claim for lost luggage, veteran travelers advise passengers to read and get copies of any forms they sign, and to keep a copy of the baggage claim ticket, which is their proof that the bag was checked.

If a bag is lost for only a few days, a passenger may still be entitled to some compensation from the airline. Airlines are not required by federal regulations to give passengers anything for the inconvenience of a delayed bag, but in practice many do. Alaska, for example, will reimburse passengers for up to $100 worth of necessities on the first day the bag is gone, according to Alaska spokesman Lou Cancelmi.

The passenger is eligible to receive $50 per day for the next two days. If the bag still hasn’t shown up after three days, the airline will reimburse 50% of the cost of clothing purchased for the rest of the trip.

Other airlines will provide free “amenity kits” with toiletries to tide people over, or will approve expenditures on a case-by-case basis.

“Lost baggage is a big irritant to people, so the airlines want to resolve it,” Stempler said. “People remember that stuff.” And the airlines want their customers’ last memories of their trips to be as positive as possible. For that reason, most will deliver a bag free of charge to the passenger once it turns up.

Procedures and timelines for locating missing bags vary by airline. Alaska Airlines, for example, looks for a missing piece for five days at the destination airport before transferring the matter to a central claims section. From there, the search continues for 90 more days, but the airline settles with the passenger after 30 days. If the bag is found after a settlement is made, the passenger gets the bag back and gets to keep the settlement.

It takes most airlines between six weeks and three months to make a payment for a lost bag, Mosley said.

Sometimes lost bags do turn up but because of a lack of identification, can’t be returned to their owners. Most airlines will make a good-faith effort to find the owner before declaring a bag unclaimed for good. This often involves considerable detective work. An agent for American Airlines, for example, once found a picture of a person and a car inside a lost bag. The airline was able to trace the car’s license plate and thus reunite the bag with the owner. What happens to unclaimed bags?

After that, some unclaimed bags are sold by the airlines to wholesalers who purchase the bags and their contents for resale, Chiames said. “But the carriers don’t promote it.” Indeed, the Unclaimed Baggage Center store in Scottsboro, Ala., does not release any information about the source or nature of its merchandise. Published reports, however, indicate that the store sells the contents of unclaimed bags for 50% or less of their retail value.

The Federal Aviation Administration also buys unclaimed bags and their contents to use for field studies, Cancelmi said. The bags are used in drug-sniffing tests, burn tests and other types of exercises designed to promote passenger safety.

Some companies involved in developing security screening equipment also use “real” bags to practice hiding dummy explosives and trying to detect them.

Still other airlines simply donate unclaimed bags and their contents to charities. Continental Airlines, for example, donates bags to charitable causes. Southwest Airlines both donates bags to charities and sells them to wholesale vendors.

For passengers who don’t want to contemplate having fake plastic explosives nestled in their pajamas, the best solution is to include a card with their name, address and even a copy of their itinerary inside their bags.

That makes it easier for the airline to locate them, said Stempler. “The more you do to help them, the better off you will be.”

If, after dealings on lost luggage, a passenger is dissatisfied with the results, it’s possible to register a complaint with the Department of Transportation. The DOT Consumer Protection Division’s complaint line is (202) 366-2220, or travelers can write to: U.S. Department of Transportation C-75, Washington, D.C. 20590.

The best protection of all, however, is never to pack anything in checked luggage that can’t be easily replaced.