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Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I left home when I was 13, but only temporarily. I hitchhiked from New York to Florida. I only got as far as New Jersey when I was arrested on the Turnpike. The police called my father and made him come pick me up. He was pissed but he gave me the bus fare to get to Miami Beach. It wasn't until later in my teenage years that I left home for real-- this time to go to Tonga, a small island between New Zealand and Hawaii. I hitchhiked all the way to California before being arrested this time-- having stowed away on a ship in San Pedro. After that I discovered airplanes. I had never been on one and they were incredibly convenient. I mean, compared to hitchhiking... they got you there so fast.

It wasn't long before I also discovered that you are better off not checking bags. My primary motivation was getting out of the airport fast and the baggage carousel was always a place I didn't like hanging around. And on top of that checked bags get lost-- a lot. It's easy for me; I travel light. After nearly 7 years living overseas I came back to America with 2 bags; no need to check anything.

Today's NY Times published a story on the worsening checked luggage situation in the U.S. (I never noticed it overseas and I usually feel far more confident checking luggage on foreign carriers. When I fly overseas I never use U.S. carriers, always British Air if I can or another foreign carrier if there's no B.A. flight. "One in every 138 checked bags was lost during the first nine months of this year, compared with one in 155 bags a year earlier."

Holiday travelers can expect to feel the effects of six years of airline downsizing in one way or another. About 27 million passengers are expected to fly during the 12 days surrounding Thanksgiving, 4 percent more than last year, the Air Transport Association said.

But there are fewer airline employees to look after them, and their bags. And to squeeze more flights out of the day, planes are sitting on the ground for shorter periods between flights. So predictably, more bags fail to join their owners, particularly on connecting flights.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for failure,” said Hans Hauck, manager of baggage operations at American’s headquarters in Fort Worth. Since Mr. Hauck started his job in September 2006, American has not met its bag-handling goal in any month. As of late last week, though, Mr. Hauck remained optimistic that he would make his November number. A look at American’s bag-handling operation, which is the biggest of all United States carriers, shows it is making lots of little improvements but still losing ground. American misplaced 7.44 bags for every thousand passengers through Sept. 30, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported, up from 6.04 for every thousand a year earlier. (All but a tiny fraction of misplaced bags are ultimately reunited with their owners.)

And American isn't the only U.S. carrier that can't do the job. Actually none of them can. Anecdotal evidence shows Delta being the airline most poorly run, although supposedly statistics show that the small regional airlines do even worse than Delta when it comes to lost bags and American Eagle was the worst of the worst.

Two of the biggest problems are downsizing, with fewer employees to do more work, and an inability for the system to read at least 10% of the bar codes on checked bags.

About 2 percent are misread and dropped onto the wrong pier. Then, it is up to a worker stacking the bags on carts to notice the mistake. “He better,” said Ms. Wilewski, the baggage manager.

American and other domestic airlines have resisted investing in radio frequency identification tags, which are used by big retailers to track inventory and are far more accurate. The tags cost about 20 cents each so it would cost $50,000 a day for American’s 250,000 bags, plus the cost of hardware to read them at each step in the process.

“We don’t lose enough bags to justify that investment,” said Mark Mitchell, American’s managing director of customer experience.

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