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Here's The Real Way Checked Bags Get Loaded on a Plane

06/02/2015 11:15 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016
SmarterTravel

Does checking a bag early mean it will be last off the plane? Does checking a bag at the last minute mean it will be first to the carousel?

I had some time to ponder this recently as I was waiting for a bag while connecting on an international Delta flight through JFK. Anyone who has done this knows that when you're waiting to pick up your suitcase, take it through customs, and then recheck it before racing to catch your connecting flight, every minute feels like an hour. That's a lot of time to think.

As I watched the first 150 bags flop onto the baggage carousel, I wondered if mine would be last out since I had been one of the very first to check my suitcase that morning. At least, I thought as I checked my watch and wondered if I'd make my connecting flight, this could be a teachable moment.

Fast forward a week. Although my luggage eventually came and I made the flight (with a bit of light jogging), I decided to reach out to Delta to see if there was any truth in the commonly held belief that the first checked bags are the last off the plane.

The short answer, I discovered, is no. But the long answer is much more interesting.

According to the Delta rep I spoke with, luggage distribution on wide body planes has everything to do with weight and nearly nothing to do with when a bag is checked. As people check their suitcases, bags are grouped into larger "cans" or big boxes that hold many bags and can be moved as a single unit. At loading time, cans are weighed and arranged in the baggage hold according to weight, which helps balance out the plane's load. In other words, how far back your bag ends up depends on the weight of the can and the needs of the plane, not when you check it.

On international flights, the timeliness with which your bag arrives on the carousel is determined by more than just unloading order. There are also TSA and CBP processes to contend with, so a bag that gets an extra layer of screening would take longer to come out than a suitcase that gets unloaded later but speeds through screening.

On narrow-body planes, "loose loading"--loading bags individually rather than grouping them into cans--is a common practice. In this case, when you check a bag, it tends to go into a holding area. About 45 minutes before a flight, the bags are sent planeside and then loaded. In this scenario, it all depends on how the luggage is stored while it waits for the plane. If a bag was checked early, it might be at the back of the storage area, which would mean it would be last on the plane, and potentially first off. But ultimately, there's no telling how baggage will be arranged and loaded.

There are, however, still two ways to game the system and get through the airport faster. The first is to fly business or first class, which often get tagged with a priority sticker that moves them to the front of the bag line (though flyers report mixed results on some airlines). But the cheapest--and most surefire--way to get through the airport faster remains to go all carry-on and to altogether avoid the wait at the carousel.

-- By Christine Sarkis

In that spirit, here's some carry-on inspiration:

Read the original story: Can You Get Your Checked Bags Faster? by Christine Sarkis, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.