Ever wonder why airlines lose, delay and damage bags? We asked an airline baggage handler who, of course, spoke to us anonymously, what it's like in the belly of the beast and on the tarmac. What he told us might help you arrive with your bag and its contents intact.
What goes on behind the curtain?
You might be amazed at how much manpower it takes to put a passenger aircraft in the air. Obviously, the majority of time, you'll only see the pilots, flight attendants and gate agents. That already is a lot of people, but there are more people working outside to get you to your destination. Once you leave your bag at the check-in counter, it goes through a series of conveyer belts, where it may or may not be opened and searched by TSA, until it reaches the pier for your departing flight.
It is then sorted into carts by one ramp agent who brings it planeside for other ramp agents to load on the airplane. And we're doing a lot more than just loading and unloading your bags. Other than bags, there is a lot of other cargo that gets transported by air. We see everything from human remains to mail to fruits and vegetables coming on and off the plane. We're also the guys directing the plane to its parking position at the gate, securing the aircraft and hooking up the ground power and air. Also, since planes don't go in reverse, we are the guys driving the push-back tug, ensuring that aircraft do not come in contact with each other.
How do bags get damaged?
I'm not going to lie, your checked luggage takes a beating. They call it "throwing bags" for a reason. There isn't an easy way around this. Airplanes only make money while in the air, and no airline wants an airplane on the ground too long. Due to the nature of some aircraft, it would be impossible to turn around a 737 or 757 in an hour or less without throwing bags because it's just faster. On these planes, there are only two long and narrow cargo holds where your luggage goes.
One agent puts the bags on the belt loader, which carries it up to an agent inside the cargo hold who throws it 50 feet to the back where another agent stacks all the bags as if it were a game of Tetris. Wheels and handles oftentimes break or crack on impact, and anything fragile inside that is not packed well doesn't stand much of a chance. Don't put red wine or alcohol in your suitcase ever. I would never check any fragile items in a soft sided suitcase, unless it was professionally packaged. Those fragile stickers don't get noticed very often in the rush of loading bags unless it is an obvious shape, such as a musical instrument. I am a musician so I take special care of those, but not everyone is a musician.
Bags can also get damaged by loose ends getting caught in the belt, which can tear off straps, zippers or handles. Handles also break off if the bag is extremely heavy when we try to pick it up by the handle. One good thing about the larger aircraft (747, 767, 777, 787, etc.) is that they are all loaded by machines. Your bags are just put in a can and that can is loaded on the plane by machine so there is no bag throwing. Theoretically there's a better chance of your bag coming out unscathed if you fly on one of those jets.
How do bags get lost?
Sometimes the airport code is read incorrectly and it gets put in the wrong cart and brought to the wrong plane. Someone might mistake VCE for NCE or PDX for PHX. It happens, but not that often. It's always important to ensure you have the correct destination on your bag tag and to keep your receipt. Secure your contact information on the outside and inside of the bag in case the outside tag falls off.
If your bag ends up in a different destination, it won't get re-routed until it reaches wherever it went and is scanned. We try to scan all the bags going on a flight, but the scanners are all wireless now and don't always work due to bad connections or getting locked up. If time is of the essence, your bag may not get scanned. Also, if you have a tight connection, you may be able to make it, but your bag may not. On smaller regional flights, many times bags are not loaded or taken off due to weight and balance limits. This is for safety reasons and ensures a safe take off and landing weight. So ideally, try to avoid those planes.
Finally, there's the old "fell off the truck" scenario. Not in the sense that someone took your bag but that it actually fell off the cart on its way to or from the aircraft. This happens all the time and sometimes will delay your bag if it is not noticed by anyone right away.
What kind of suitcases get damaged least? The most?
Cheap bags that you buy at the discount store break very easily. If your handle is sewn on or is very flimsy, it's probably going to break. If you travel a lot or pack heavy, make sure you buy a quality, durable bag. Hard-sided suitcases will get less damage, but also look for well-designed handles that are attached with rivets and some sort of protection around the wheels. Speaking of wheels, the best bags to get are the "spinners" with four wheels on the bottom. We like these because we don't have to throw them when loading. We just roll them down the belly of the plane so your bag and its contents will suffer much less damage.
Why don't airlines cover certain things?
My best guess as to why airlines don't cover common damages, such as wheels, handles and straps, is because they break so often that they would be paying out all the time.
Have you ever seen theft?
I have not personally seen anyone take anything from a bag and keep it -- but I wouldn't say that it never happens. There are no cameras inside the belly of the plane. When I have to check a bag, I always use the TSA-approved locks to lock the suitcase. I do this not only to prevent someone from easily taking something, but also to keep the bag closed. We see open bags all the time because the zipper just started coming apart, and yes, things do fall out of these open bags. Sometimes, we see it and can put whatever came out back in the bag it came from, but sometimes there are just random items strewn around the belly. If it's a random piece of clothing or a shoe, those won't go down the baggage claim belt too well and just get discarded eventually.
How can passengers prevent their bags from going astray?
The main thing to do is keep your bag tag receipt so you can track your bag. If it didn't get scanned on the flight, it will get scanned eventually when it reaches a station. Also, try to plan sufficient ground time for your bag to make its connection. Thirty or 40 minutes isn't always enough at a big airport like Atlanta.
What's it like to work in that environment?
It's fast paced, loud and potentially dangerous. Hearing protection is a must, but not everyone wears it. (Really not a good idea considering you are working around jet engines.) Speaking of jet engines, they are very dangerous. There is risk of jet blast and suction that wouldn't end pretty if you were careless. This is one of the main points emphasized in training.
In general, training was all about safety. You have to be aware of your surroundings at all times. It's a labor-intensive job that involves working with heavy machinery and in all weather conditions.
Follow George Hobica on Twitter: www.twitter.com/airfarewatchdog