Missing in action: Lost luggage

4 Jul 2016 by Jenny Southan

Jenny Southan investigates the problem of lost luggage for air travellers, and how tracking technology could be the solution

Lost luggage

Last year, more than 23 million suitcases were “mishandled” during their journey through the world’s airports. We say “mishandled” because luggage is rarely lost entirely – according to the 2016 Baggage Report from SITA, an IT company for the air transport industry, only 6 per cent of misplaced baggage is never returned to its owner, while 79 per cent is simply delayed. Still, a delayed case is at best inconvenient or at worst costly in terms of time and money, a huge source of stress and damaging to an itinerary.

I recently flew to Iceland with Easyjet only to find on arrival (after an hour’s wait at the carousel in Keflavik airport) that no one’s luggage had been put on the aircraft in London. After chasing down a member of staff, everyone had to fill in forms and queue while the information was manually entered into a computer.

We were told that up to €25 per person, per day, could be reimbursed for clothes and toiletries, but this wasn’t going to go far in a city such as Reykjavik and a country many people were visiting for outdoor activities. My case was returned to my hotel two days later. I was later told the problem had been caused by a baggage belt failure at Gatwick.

A recent forum thread on businesstraveller.com revealed some of our readers’ experiences. MartynSinclair was attending a conference in Sweden when his luggage didn’t turn up: “The worst feeling wasn’t necessarily not having my clothes but nobody really being able to say where the case actually was and when I would get it back. Going to a black-tie event in jeans and a T-shirt was novel, especially since
I was making a toast.”

LuganoPirate travelled with Swiss from Johannesburg to Milan via Zurich. He checked in nine items, one of which was a box of 12 bottles of Rose’s lime juice cordial packed into a wine carton. It went missing. “It was just before Christmas and I think the baggage handlers thought they would have a party, as it never showed up. Imagine their disappointment. Another case with clothes failed to arrive as well but Swiss compensated us with just over SFr 1,500 [£1,083], which was more than I expected.”

SITA Baggage Report 2016

Heavy lifting

A recent BBC2 documentary called City in the Sky looked at baggage handling in Dubai airport, which has the world’s biggest automated luggage system. The reporter said: “In just three hours during the morning rush they process more than 50,000 bags. Annually, the airport handles a staggering 57 million items.”

Suitcases are shunted on to yellow trays that are whisked off on conveyor belts to an “early bag store” for those who have checked in ahead of time, or direct to Concourse 2 (either East or West) for “final sortation”. The last leg from the airport to the plane is where “good old-fashioned muscle power” comes in, and human handlers take over. It’s hard work but, in the UK, a typical salary is just £15,000-£18,000 a year.

Even in the most finely honed of operations, transferring flights at a hub is often where cases go astray – 45 per cent of missing bags are down to transfer mishandling. The second-most common reason is a failure to load them in the first place (19 per cent), while ticketing and tagging errors, arrival mishandling, security issues and bag mix-ups all play a part too.

Airports, of course, don’t want to claim responsibility. According to a spokesperson from London Heathrow, it is down to the 83 airlines that fly in and out of its various terminals. Each carrier employs one of ten different baggage-handling companies at LHR, and has its own statistics on baggage performance. Easyjet says it mishandles about 0.5 bags per 1,000 people that check one in (the average worldwide is 6.5).

Know the rules

When it comes to luggage, airlines are governed by the Montréal Convention, which applies to all 191 member states of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. If you have flown into or out of an EU airport and your suitcase is lost, damaged or delayed, you may be entitled to compensation of up to about €1,220 from the airline.

The EU says: “If you are travelling with expensive items, you might be able – for a fee – to obtain a compensation limit higher than €1,220 by making a special advance declaration to the airline – at the latest when you check in. Though the best thing is really to take out private travel insurance.” If you don’t have any luck getting a response for compensation from the airline, you can contact the Civil Aviation Authority.

Getting sorted

Considering roughly a million people are in the air at any one time, it’s amazing that the industry has cut the number of mishandled bags by almost 51 per cent since 2007, creating savings of US$22 billion (according to SITA). Technology has played a big part in this, and passengers are enjoying faster check-ins thanks to automated bag-drop and luggage tag printing.

Home-printed tags, e-receipts sent to smartphone apps and electronic bag tags also help.

SITA says: “The next three years will see a rapid acceleration in self-service baggage options.” By January this year, Air France-KLM had installed almost 765 self-service kiosks at its hubs in Amsterdam and Paris. In May, Gatwick’s North Terminal opened the world’s largest self-service bag-drop zone. This allows the airport to process 4,350 people an hour, up from 3,000. By 2018, more than 75 per cent of airports and airlines will have self-service systems.

In Gatwick South, the new Pier 1 facility (fully operational since June) has an automated early bag-drop store (named the Bag Hotel). Travellers can check luggage in up to 18 hours before a flight – handy if you have an early flight and are staying in an on-site hotel.

Post-check-in performance is also set to improve. For example, a new automated system at Munich airport’s satellite facility for Terminal 2 (opened in April) has increased sorting capacity by a third, to 17,800 bags an hour. According to SITA, airlines in Europe achieved the greatest improvement in baggage mishandling rates in 2015, with a 21 per cent reduction (7.8 bags per 1,000 passengers). In the US, airlines saw a 10 per cent improvement (3.2 bags per 1,000 passengers).

In June, Star Alliance said it would be investing in a multibillion-dollar IT hub for baggage from the end of the year. Its chief executive, Mark Schwab, told our sister publication, buyingbusinesstravel.com, that it would “enable us to more closely co-ordinate the hundreds of millions of messages [between airlines] transmitted across the alliance”, improving baggage handling in places with short connection times, managing priority bags and reuniting passengers with delayed luggage.

This is all good news, but what about getting a refund on your checked baggage fee? (A 20kg bag on a return Easyjet flight from London to Iceland costs about £40.) In the US, the Federal Aviation Authority has suggested that passengers on domestic flights should be able to recoup baggage fees if they don’t get their luggage back within 24 hours.

End-to-end luggage tracking is the missing link, but SITA predicts that in two years’ time, 60 per cent of carriers will be sending baggage location status updates to passengers’ mobiles. By June 2018, IATA’s Resolution 753 will require all airlines to “track a bag into the aircraft, into arrivals or transfer areas, and share this information with the next handling agent”. In the meantime, buy a GPS-compatible suitcase (see right) and never part ways with it again.

Gatwick North bag drop



Possibly the most high-tech suitcase available, the Bluesmart is not only fitted with a global SIM card so you can track it from your phone via GPS, but also an in-built battery for charging devices, a digital lock and a scale. The crowdfunded Bluesmart One costs €449, and the new Black Edition for the frequent traveller is €599. bluesmart.com


With Rimowa’s digital tag, travellers can check in their bag via an app and drop it off at the airport, with no need to deal with staff or print out a sticker. The technology is built into “select” Rimowa suitcases, and sees paper tags replaced with “a digital data module to which the airline’s luggage data is transmitted”. Lufthansa is currently the only airline allowing passengers to use it, while it’s in testing with United. rimowa.com


Set to launch next year, Delsey’s Pluggage case will have fingerprint recognition and tracking technology powered by Lug Loc luggage locator. Passengers download an app that can measure the weight of a case, detect when it has been loaded on board, and when it is on the baggage carousel. They will also receive a notification if the bag has been opened or moved more than five feet away from them. delsey.com


Samsonite’s Track and Go technology will be installed in a new range of suitcases from the end of the year. The Bluetooth beacon technology uses “Eddystone Ephemeral Identifiers”, developed by Google, and will work in conjunction with the Travlr by Samsonite app, allowing users to check the location of their case within a 70-metre radius. Should it go missing, the traveller will be able to flag it as lost, prompting the app to search its database of users to help locate it – any app user passing within 70 metres of the case will trigger a notification to tell the owner where it is. samsonite.com

Antler and Tumi

Antler has unveiled its new Airstream 2, which comes with a unique ID label. Owners register their case on okoban.com, along with their contact information, so if it goes missing whoever finds it can send an alert with its whereabouts. The suitcase is not high-tech in itself, but it’s a handy add-on that may come as standard on all cases in the future. Tumi has been offering a similar service from some years – each of its suitcases has a metal plate with a unique barcode connected to the Tumi Tracer database. antler.co.uk, okoban.com, tumi.com

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