When the world's first airplane traveler, Orville Wright, took the world's first air excursion -- a 120-foot hop along the dunes at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903 -- he managed to complete his journey without losing his luggage, largely because he didn't take any. Others, following in his wake, have not been so lucky.
Several years ago, in a courier for Purolator Security Inc. boarded a plane in New York, checked a package containing an estimated $9 million in securities and foreign currency, and was perturbed when he landed in Chicago while the package went on to Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Not long before that, Derry Pearce, then president of the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations, was disturbed when he had to buy a suit before he could meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim on the problems of air piracy. Pearce had flown in from Hong Kong, where suits are cheap, to New York, where they are not. And the airline lost his bags.
Equally upset last year was a patron of commuter service operating out of O'Hare International Airport. One of its planes, a 13-seat Beech 99, HAD JUST TAKEN OFF FOR GALESBURG, ill., when a nose cargo door flew open, dropping a piece of luggage into (and knocking out) one of its two engines. Though the bag was later found in Wood Dale, Ill., that passenger also was peeved.
Each year, U.S. airlines handle billions of piece of luggage. (Eastern Airlines alone processed 62 million bags last year.) Very few are dropped out of planes, but alone 1 percent go awry in other ways. Each incident is what airlines politely call a "mis-service."
Passengers often use other terms, but in recent years airlines have gone a long way toward cleaning up the need for such language.
American Airlines, which handles more than 45 million bags a year, claims to have eliminated 90 percent of its baggage problems with BMAS, its baggage managment analysis system. The system uses computers as electronic sheep dogs to round up stray matter from around the world.
But now -- at a time when the country is returning to basics and a philosophic spirit of "less is more" -- a fledgling airline in Newark, N.J., has come up with a perfect solution for almost all luggage problems.
The company is People Express Airlines, which provides no-frills service between such no-frill cities as Buffalo, N.Y.; Columbus, Ohio; Norfolk, Va.; Jacksonville, Fla. and Boston. It has designed it planes so people can carry their own luggage and stow it on board. The advantages are many.
First off, People Express claims to save a substantial amount of money. (Delivering a lost bag to customer's home can cost up to $30, they say.) Also, there is a marked downturn in complaints. When it comes to lost bags, at People the victim is almost always guilty.
Of course, People doesn't put it that way. They say that do-it-yourself baggage handling is faster, and more reassuring, since a bag in sight is a bag not yet lost.
For the airline, eliminating luggage handling allows the airline to turn its planes around faster. A 10-minute ground-stop is not uncommon, and that means higher-frequency runs.
Also, passengers need not get to the airport until 15 minutes before flight time. At the other end, they can walk off, and lug their goods to a cab or bus stand, without a long wait at luggage carousels. "We've alleviated the pain of lost luggage, of pilferage, of spoilage," said People's general manager Hap Pareti.
Started in April, People carries about 55,000 passengers a month, and plans to add about 20 more destinations until its route structure is complete, sometime next year. Its aim is low-cost, high-frequency service -- and its baggage policy is one way to keep fares low.
Using Boeing 737s purchased from Lufthansa, People's designers installed large overhead compartments for luggage and raised seats to provide more room on the floor -- and all of this has led to some reflections on how much luggage passengers really need.
According to People, carrying one's own bags is a good way to encourage efficient packing. "We've found that we're chaning packing habits," Pareti said. "People are using garment bags, which they can stuff under our seats, and smaller suitcases. They're also cutting out unneeded extras."
Except for the strong of back, that means leaving behind rock collections and heavy books. For some, if means mixing personal items (such as shaving cream or perfume) in a briefcase along with business papers.
But for some inventive travelers, new vistas have opened up. Recently, Pareti was happy to see a band of travelers sitting on the floor of the Newark air terminal, reassembling bicyles they had carried off one of his planes.
Still, travelers bound for farther horizons might balk at this do-it-yourself trend of the future. Thus far, complaints to People have been minimal ("a dozen or less since we started.") But manager Pareti admits that what works for his short-haul airline might not work for longer carriers. People goind to, say, Paris, probably will still want to take a lot of luggage, he notes, and they probably won't want to carry it themselves.
Since life is risk -- and so is luggage -- that means at least a small number of people arriving in Chicago from, say, Paris, will continue to lose thier bags. One local hotel that understands this is Chicago's Ambassador East, which offers such woebegone folk what it calls a "lost luggage survival kit."
For women, this includes pantyhose, a mending kit, emery board, and toilet items. The men's package has undershorts, a razor, and deodorant. Both kits have two other items that travelers often turn to in such circumstances -- aspirin and a small bottle of Courvoisier.