SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli

Luggage in Limbo

By Joe Brancatelli Business Travel
Tuesday, September 25, 2007; 12:19 PM

Business travelers have baggage and -- right now at least -- our real suitcases are causing more issues than the emotional stuff we carry around. Near the top of the list of woes that the airlines have caused lately: They are losing our checked bags with alarming frequency.

The lost-bag rate, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, has nearly doubled since 9/11; there are now 7.93 reports of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers. But that banal formulation obscures the breadth of the problem. The government's raw data reveal that more than 466,000 travelers reported lost, stolen, or misdirected baggage in July, the latest month for which numbers are available. In plain English, that means the equivalent of one passenger on every Boeing 737 flight is being temporarily or permanently separated from the luggage he or she entrusts to an airline.

As with so many other facets of business travel, however, most of us react to this lost-baggage crisis in a practical, personal, and logically selfish way, asking, How do I make sure that I don't lose my bags the next time I fly?

The obvious answer: Don't check your bags

It isn't rocket science to suggest that the best way to guarantee an airline won't lose your luggage is not to give it to the airline in the first place. On most business trips to most places, most of us should be able to make do with the luggage we're permitted to carry onboard.

Unfortunately, carry-on rules remain maddeningly inconsistent. The government says we "are allowed one carry-on in addition to one personal item such as a laptop computer, purse, small backpack, and briefcase or camera case." But this so-called "one plus one" rule leaves a lot to the discretion of carriers. They determine the size and weight of the bags you're permitted to carry on and, on the increasingly ubiquitous small planes known as regional jets, airlines reserve the right to limit you to one carry-on bag.

Generally speaking, though, you'll be fine if you limit your carry-ons to around 45 linear inches┬┐the total of the length, width, and height of the bag. Also, try to keep the bag's weight below 40 pounds. To be sure, however, check your airline's website (look for a "baggage" or "luggage" link). The more you know, the better your odds are of carrying on your luggage without grief. (The carry-on rules for international flights vary greatly by country and carrier.)

Avoid at all costs: Checking bags on trips with connecting flights

There will be times when you must check bags, of course, but never, ever relinquish your luggage when the itinerary includes a connecting flight on one of the airline's code-sharing commuter partners. Of the 20 carriers ranked by the D.O.T. in the July report, the six with the worst baggage-handling record are commuter airlines. The worst of the worst, Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which flies as Delta Connection, has a daunting lost-bag rate of 15.45 per 1,000 passengers. American Eagle, the primarily commuter partner of American Airlines, is slightly better, with 14.69 reports filed per 1,000 passengers.

In fairness to the commuter airlines, their atrocious performance results from a number of complicated factors, and it's never quite clear whether the small or large airline is to blame for misdirected luggage. But a simple fact remains: If you check bags on a trip during which you and your bags must transfer between a commuter line and a traditional carrier, your chances of being separated from your luggage skyrocket.

Reduce your risk: Logical precautions

When you must check a bag, there are some ways to reduce your risk. For starters, use the technology you have at your fingertips. Most mobile phones have cameras these days. Snap pictures of your bags before checking them and you'll have photographic proof that can prove invaluable if your luggage is lost and you must file an incident report. Always put a copy of your contact details -- especially your mobile-phone number -- inside your checked bags. That way, if your luggage tag comes off, the airline will have a way to reach you. It might also mean the difference between your bag's being returned to you and its being condemned to the slush pile of the damned.

Finally, one simple but crucial precaution: Always check the routing tag that the airline slaps on your luggage. The three-letter airport code printed on it dictates where the bag is headed, and it doesn't take much for a miscoded item to go halfway around the world. For example, LGA is the three-letter code for New York's LaGuardia Airport. But LGB is Long Beach Municipal Airport, in California; LGK is Langkawi International Airport, in Malaysia, and LGW is London's Gatwick Airport. You can find the three-letter code for commercial airports on the World Airport Codes website.

Worst-case scenario: Don't panic

If your bag doesn't show up on the carousel when you arrive at your destination, don't freak out. Although there are no hard statistics, anecdotal evidence does support the airlines' contention that virtually all mishandled bags are returned to their owners within 48 hours.

But don't be complacent. Go immediately to the luggage office in the baggage-claim area and file a report. Make sure the airline knows where to reach you during your trip, because there's a good chance it can deliver your gear to you. And get the local telephone number for the airport's luggage office. Don't settle for the airlines' general toll-free number for luggage issues. That number will usually shunt you to an overseas call center, and those folks are usually powerless -- and geographically challenged, to boot.

If the airline hasn't located your bag within two days, chances are it's not coming back. You may have to return to the airport to file another report. You'll also have to start gearing up to fight the airline for reasonable compensation. But the subject of "reasonable compensation" -- you'll be shocked at how little airlines will pay you for your brand-new Jimmy Choos or your hardly worn Ralph Lauren Purple Label suit -- is grist for another column. Believe me, when the words reasonable and airline appear in the same sentence, there's always another column involved.

The Fine Print

As bad as some U.S. carriers are at handling luggage, many European airlines are worse. On average, the Europeans are mishandling about twice as many bags as U.S. airlines are. Worst in class: British Airways, which is delaying or losing about 28 bags per 1,000 passengers. Portugal's TAP, Italy's Alitalia, and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines are also far below the European average. Air France, Germany's Lufthansa, and Sweden's SAS are about average, mishandling about 16 bags per 1,000 fliers.

© 2007 Portfolio