Most Airlines Have No Idea Where Your Bags Are

Apr 10, 2015

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Lost or misplaced baggage is an unfortunate rite of passage for every airline passenger. Today, TPG Senior Points and Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains why airlines can and should do better, and how you can keep your own luggage from disappearing.

Order a package, and the shipping company will tell you where it was last scanned along every step of its journey. Call a car through Uber, and you’ll see exactly where your ride is in real time. Given where technology is now, have you ever wondered why the baggage tracking capabilities of major airlines are still so pathetic? In this post, I want to look at what (if anything) airlines are doing to prevent lost bags, and what we have to look forward to.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Very few airlines actually track the location of your bags. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Where We Are Now

Few airlines seem to take any initiative to track your bags, as evidenced by the fact that when your bag is lost, the claim agent will ask asked for a detailed description so that someone can presumably start looking for it. In short, most airlines generally have no idea where your bag is, and the fancy looking bar-codes they affix are simply a machine readable version of what appears on the tag. In fact, I can find little evidence that most airlines actually use these bar-codes to scan and track your bags the way that package delivery companies do.

However, there are two notable exceptions at this time:

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines has offered the following baggage guarantee since 2010:

“If your bags are not at baggage claim within 20 minutes of your plane’s arrival at the gate, we’ll offer you a $25 Discount Code for use on a future Alaska Airlines flight, or 2,500 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan™ Bonus Miles.” 

Alaska excludes flights arriving from Mexico from this policy, as well as oversized and overweight bags.

To make a claim, travelers must reach Alaska within two hours by phone (800-654-5669), by Twitter (@AlaskaAir), or by speaking with a customer service agent at the airport.  I have read several reports of people making successful claims and receiving the promised bonus miles or discount code without hassle.

Delta recently implemented its Bags On Time guarantee, but the meaning of “on time” appears to still be up for debate.

Delta Air Lines

Delta is the only airline that I’m aware of that offers a baggage tracking app, which is available for iPad, iPhone, Android, and even Windows Phone.

The last year has seen fierce competition in the Battle for Seattle between Delta and Alaska, with Delta building a new hub where Alaska once dominated, while Alaska makes its own salvos into Delta’s territory. In keeping with this rivalry, Delta announced its own competing 20-minute Bags On Time guarantee earlier this year. Delta’s guarantee purports to offer 2,500 SkyMiles if your checked bag isn’t delivered within 20 minutes, and passengers are supposed to complete this form within three days of their flight in order to make a claim.

Unfortunately, this policy is rife with exceptions and exclusions. For example, only flights within the 50 United States and Puerto Rico are covered (apparently excluding Washington, D.C.), and the policy excludes any itinerary that ends in a flight operated by Delta Connection regional carriers, which is ironic considering that these planes are smaller and hold fewer bags than Delta’s mainline aircraft. Oversize and overweight baggage and special items are also ineligible, and most stunningly, travelers are not eligible to make a claim if their bag is completely lost!

Furthermore, Delta’s policy states that “The time to baggage claim will be defined as time elapsed between aircraft door open and delivery of the bag to the baggage claim belt.” Yet in practice, it appears that Delta is claiming that all bags have arrived on time based on the timestamp of the first bag being scanned at the last checkpoint before being put on a conveyor belt for the carousel. According to dozens of reports on this FlyerTalk thread, Delta is denying virtually all claims because its records show that at least one bag was scanned near a baggage carousel within 20 minutes of arrival, regardless of when an individual passenger’s bags were actually delivered to the baggage claim belt.

In many cases, travelers who filed a claim waited weeks without a response. In other cases, exasperated customers accepted offers of 2,500 miles as a “goodwill gesture.”  In the rare instances that Delta did grant claims, the miles were awarded over a week later with no communication from the airline. If FlyerTalk commenters are any indication, Delta’s baggage guarantee does not seem to be enhancing customer satisfaction in any way, and may be having the opposite effect.

Nevertheless, Delta is going all-in by indefinitely extending this policy, which was originally introduced as a limited time offer.

Where We Are Going

The International Airline Travel Association (IATA), is an industry trade group made up of airlines around the world. Earlier this year, it did much to advance the current situation by introducing a baggage tracking resolution that requires member airlines to introduce comprehensive baggage tracking systems by 2018.

These systems should reduce lost bags by tracking them throughout the entire transportation process, which has been commonplace among package delivery services for decades (when was the last time FedEx or UPS lost one of your packages?). The intent will also be to more quickly locate and return lost bags, as well as cut down on “baggage fraud” (i.e., theft).

Luggage trackers like Trakdot will keep tabs on your bags, even if airlines won’t.

How to Protect Your Bags in the Meantime

Without waiting for 2018, there are some steps you can take now to keep your bag from being lost, stolen, or delayed. Some are as easy as making sure that you have multiple forms of identification attached to your bag, and double checking that the correct baggage tag has been applied. For all the details, check out my post on How to (Almost) Never Lose Your Luggage Again.

In addition, you can now implement your own luggage tracking program using cellular-based electronic tracking devices. LugLoc is a small device that sells for $59.99, and owners can purchase individual traces for $3 each (or less when purchased in bulk). TrakDot is a competing device that sells for $49.99 and includes unlimited tracking for the first year, and $19.99 per year afterwards. Finally, there’s a universal lost and found tracking system called Okoban that can assist in returning your found luggage, as well as many other possessions. To learn more about these solutions, read my post on Luggage Tracking Devices: LugLoc, TrakDot, Okoban & More.

Final Word

Modern airliners are an amazing feat of technology, but the amazement seems to end as soon as the baggage door is opened. While there are advancements to come, the best we can do now is to take every available precaution, and try to hold airlines accountable when their outdated processes inevitably fail.

Have you had success with late baggage claims on either Alaska or Delta?

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