Still, that is small comfort to the lone traveler waiting by a deserted carousel with a sinking feeling.
Passenger aviation experts say there are myriad reasons a bag can go missing. (They prefer the terms “delayed” or “mishandled.”)
“Weather and missed connections are by far the largest proportion” of causes for bags not arriving on time, said Gareth Joyce, senior vice president of airport customer service and cargo at Delta Air Lines.
Mark Matthews, director of customer planning operations at American Airlines, agreed. “When you’re talking about hub-and-spoke carriers, there’s a lot of complexity about transferring bags to connecting flights,” he said.
Shorter connection times also play a role. While passengers might be able to sprint to the next gate, their checked bags might not make it there as quickly.
Damaged or torn-off tags, along with human error, are also contributors.
“The human element can always throw a wrench into the works,” said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, recalling a trip where he realized the agent checking him in had affixed the wrong luggage tag to his suitcase. “If I hadn’t caught it, it would’ve gone to God knows where,” he said.
Jessica Sweet, a resident of Charlotte, N.C., recalled landing in New York around the holidays last year after a business trip without her checked bag — and a winter coat, which she had packed in her checked luggage.
Her suitcase arrived about 24 hours later, but when it did, Ms. Sweet said her makeup bag and a pair of prescription sunglasses were missing.
“It’s almost worth spending the extra money if I have a higher guarantee my bags will be there with me,” she said.
Peter Drummond, baggage portfolio director at SITA, pointed to the new bag-handling data as evidence that investment in new technology and better baggage handling procedures had paid off. But, he said, the drop also coincided with the major carriers beginning to charge passenger fees for checking a bag. Those fees reduced the number of travelers checking bags.
“When airlines started charging for checked baggage, that more than likely had an effect on the mishandled rate,” Mr. Dummond said. “But over that same time period, what we had is a vast increase in the use of technology for tracking bags as well.”
The new bag tags are embedded with RFID chips (for radio-frequency identification), which means the location of bags is tracked and electronically crosschecked against a database to make sure that they are in the right place at the right time. Airline and airport management say this increases security, since each bag is linked to a ticketed passenger. It also speeds up the discovery of a bag in the wrong place so the process of reconnecting a bag to its owner can begin sooner.
“RFID, from a customer experience point of view, has brought transparency to the customer,” Mr. Joyce, of Delta Air Lines, said.
“We’ve invested about $50 million in deploying this tech across our organization,” he said. That investment includes integrating this data into the Delta mobile app. “If you’re traveling and you check a bag, you get a push notification when your bag is loaded,” Mr. Joyce said.
Representatives from American, United and Southwest also said they were building similar systems with advanced bag-tracking capabilities.
At most airports in the United States, the airlines have operational control of their terminals, so it is incumbent on them to add new technology. But Mr. Drummond said airports also had a stake in making sure their airlines were doing their job. “If an airport had a lot of mishandled bags and passengers see that, that reputation will precede that airport,” he said. “So the incentive there is with the airport as well.”
That is one of the reasons the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates a portion of Newark Liberty International Airport’s Terminal B, has spent $2.3 million installing a more sophisticated, RFID-based tracking system. “As terminal operator, we have a responsibility to ensure a certain level of service in that terminal,” said Diane Papaianni, the airport’s general manager.
That kind of tracking is going to become more the norm. By June of next year, the International Air Transport Association has stipulated that all airlines must maintain an accurate inventory of passenger baggage by tracking when each piece of checked luggage moves on, off or between planes.
“It should help primarily with inter-carrier handoffs,” said Dan McKone, head of the travel and transport practice at L.E.K. Consulting. “Inter-carrier handoffs have the largest degree of mishandling.”
“The knowledge that an airline has your bag, even if it’s being mishandled, creates peace of mind for the customer,” he said.
Travelers say, though, that while they appreciate updates about where their errant luggage is, that is good only if the information is accurate.
“While that’s great to know where it is, getting it back was probably a bigger issue for me,” said Rebecca Cohen, whose bag went astray on the Miami-to-New York leg of an extended trip.
“Trying to contact people to resolve this was nearly impossible,” she said.
Ms. Cohen said it took days for her bag to be returned, and the updates she received in the interim were inconsistent and even contradictory.
“They did tell me it was in Miami and I could track it,” she said. “It didn’t show up. I called and they said it was actually still in Miami and the tracker was incorrect.”