NEW YORK >> Heading into winter, fliers should take extra precautions with their checked luggage — December and January are traditionally the worst months for lost bags.
To avoid problems, arrive at the airport early enough to let your bag get to the plane, and print out a copy of your itinerary from the airline's website and stick it inside just in case all the tags get ripped off.
In the U.S. during the first nine months of this year, 3.3 bags for every 1,000 passengers didn't make it to their destination on time, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That's not great if you are one of those people whose bag is delayed or lost. But consider this: during the 2007 peak in air travel, airlines were mishandling more than twice as many suitcases — 7.2 bags per 1,000 passengers.
Globally, the baggage-mishandling rate has fallen 61 percent from its peak in 2007, according to SITA, an aviation communications and technology provider. That has saved the industry $18 billion.
Most bags aren't lost
The vast majority of bags — 80 percent — aren't lost but just delayed, according to SITA. And it takes about a day and a half to reunite passengers with their bags. Another 14 percent are damaged or have their contents reported stolen. And nearly 6 percent of bags are lost or stolen completely.
December and January tend to be the worst months because there are a lot of infrequent travelers checking multiple bags, and a few snowstorms can add to delays and suitcases that miss connections.
The overall improvements to baggage handling come after carriers spent millions of dollars to upgrade their systems.
Tug drivers now get real-time updates of gate changes so they can change their path and ensure that bags make their connection. Scanners allow bags to be tracked throughout the system, preventing a suitcase bound for Chicago from being loaded onto a plane to Detroit. Gate agents have printers to help tag bags that are checked at the last minute because of full overhead bins. And, overall, fewer bags are being checked because of bag fees.
"We continue to invest in technology and in processes so we understand where bags are at all times, and we can manage the failure points," says Bill Lentsch, senior vice president for airport customer service and cargo operations at Delta Air Lines.
Airlines are also starting to empower passengers — or at least keep them better informed.
Delta was the first airline to allow fliers to track their own checked luggage, first on the airline's website in 2011 and then on its mobile app in 2012. Bag tags are scanned when the suitcase is dropped off, loaded onto a plane, loaded onto a connecting flight and then again before being placed on the carousel at baggage claim. Passengers can see all those scans.
American Airlines followed suit in August, allowing passengers to see when a suitcase was loaded or unloaded from a plane. It is only available on the airline's website but will be part of the mobile app.