Nearly 1.8 million pieces of luggage were lost, stolen, or damaged by major U.S. airlines in 2012—and that’s just on domestic flights. While it sounds staggering, mishandling 3.09 bags per 1,000 passengers actually represents an 8 percent decline since 2011.
“The rate of mishandled baggage reports filed by carriers is at an all-time low,” says Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley. (The problem reached crisis level in 2007 when U.S. carriers lost or damaged more than 4.5 million bags.) “A number of factors are helping to reduce the rate,” he adds, including improved on-time performance and new baggage-tracking technologies.
Airlines can’t take all the credit, however. Changing passenger behavior has played a key role: as airlines have zealously adopted baggage fees, there’s been a dramatic drop in the number of checked bags.
Punishment has also helped. “Airlines face potentially greater liability for lost baggage today than in years past, giving them greater incentive to prevent baggage problems,” says Mosley. Since 2009, the DOT has increased baggage liability limits to match rising consumer prices; the domestic limit is now $3,300 per passenger.
One statistic that no one seems willing to gather or release is the amount that airlines spend each year to compensate passengers for lost or damaged baggage. “For me, the compensation figure is important because it means that the problem was so bad that money had to change hands,” says Dr. Todd Curtis of AirSafe.com.
Compensation is surely on the minds of those who still have the unpleasant surprise of arriving without their luggage. To avoid that fate, Sarah Schlichter, editor of IndependentTraveler.com, reminds travelers to carry on luggage and fly non-stop whenever possible; arrive at the airport early; display your contact information on your luggage; and consider slipping in a copy of your itinerary.
You can also invest in high-tech luggage tags with radio frequency microchips, such as the SuperSmart Tag and Rebound TAG. While both devices make it easier for an airline or airport worker to match a bag with its owner, they rely on the bag actually being found and reported.
Of course, the airline you fly also affects your chances of sticking with your bag. Regional airlines like SkyWest (ranked a lowly 13 out of 15) tend to have the poorest records, while budget carrier AirTran comes in at No. 2. Before you book your next flight, find out which airlines are best and worst for lost luggage.