By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 5, 2006
The rate of lost or mishandled baggage spiked by nearly 25 percent in August as airlines struggled to handle a surge in checked luggage after authorities banned most liquids and gels from passenger cabins, according to a government report released yesterday.
In the days and weeks after officials enacted the restrictions, several major carriers had said there was nothing unusual in terms of mishandled bags -- even as 20 percent more luggage was checked.
Yesterday's release of statistics, contained in a monthly report issued by the Department of Transportation, is the first independent analysis of how airlines fared. The report reveals an industry that had difficulty keeping up with the flood of luggage.
The rate of mishandled bags was the highest since December 2004, rising to 8.08 per 1,000 passengers in August from 6.5 in July, according to the report, which can be found at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/ .
The rate in August last year was 6.4 mishandled bags per 1,000 fliers.
The government bases its luggage report on complaints filed with the country's 20 largest airlines about bags that are lost, damaged, delayed or stolen.
The report also revealed that the on-time performance of airlines improved in August, despite the security measures: 75.8 percent of flights arrived on time, up from 73.7 percent in July.
United Airlines had a sizable increase in mishandled bags during the month. The rate jumped by almost 35 percent -- from 5.4 per 1,000 passengers in July to 7.28 in August, the report showed.
A United Airlines spokeswoman said the airline, which operates a major hub at Dulles International Airport, could have done better at handling the increase in the flow of baggage.
"We're looking at our processes to find the best way to improve," said the spokeswoman, Megan McCarthy. "We're focusing on how we can better serve customers."
Delta Airlines, which indicated nothing out of the ordinary in the days after the scare, mishandled 36 percent more bags in August than in the preceding month.
Gina Laughlin, a Delta spokeswoman, yesterday blamed the performance on the large increase in checked bags due to security measures.
She said that the spike in luggage was compounded by a major storm that caused havoc at the airline's Atlanta hub in the days after the ban was enacted.
"That was enough to create a fairly significant backlog of baggage in Atlanta that we had to deliver to customers throughout the rest of that weekend," Laughlin said.
American Airlines' mishandled-baggage rate jumped 19 percent from July to August.
Authorities implemented the ban on most liquids and gels because they said they were worried about an alleged plot in Britain to blow up airliners with liquid explosives.
Last week, officials began allowing passengers to carry on small amounts of toiletries in a one-quart plastic bag.
Some airlines have since reported a decrease in checked bags. The Transportation Security Administration has tracked a "slight drop in checked bags" across the country since it eased some of the restrictions last week but could not provide any statistics yesterday, an agency spokeswoman said.
Security officials at Reagan National Airport have noticed a 10 percent drop in checked bags since last week, TSA officials said.
Outside analysts said the increase in mishandled bags in August is not surprising because carriers cut back on staffing during a recent industry-wide economic downturn and were surprised by the wave of luggage.
"This creates all sorts of operational difficulties," said Darryl Jenkins, an analyst who closely tracks the airlines. "I don't think any of the airlines have their hands around it yet."