Airlines grapple with lost and delayed bags: what you need to know and how to pack when traveling this summer – CNBC | Vette Leader

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Air travel has been bumpy this summer – and baggage problems are a factor, along with many other issues for travelers such as flight cancellations and delays.

According to the latest data released by the US Department of Transportation, as of April 2022, nearly 220,000 bags were “mishandled” by US airlines, meaning they were lost, damaged, delayed or stolen.

The number of mishandled bags in April was more than double the approximately 94,000 mishandled bags in April 2021, albeit slightly below the March 2022 figure and April 2019 levels before the Covid-19 pandemic , according to the department’s data.

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How do these numbers look to travelers? Consider this: Last week, Delta Air Lines flew a plane from London’s Heathrow Airport to Detroit with 1,000 stranded bags – and zero passengers – to expedite the transport of delayed bags.

Why airlines struggle to manage baggage

Airlines are grappling with shortages of baggage handlers, pilots and other staff as demand for travel has surged after falling early in the pandemic. According to the Transportation Security Administration, more than 2.4 million Americans passed through airport security on Sunday, a 10% increase from a year earlier and more than tripled on the same day in 2020.

While lost luggage or a delay in accessing your belongings can spoil an otherwise amazing trip, there is one bright spot: travelers can, in many cases, receive financial compensation from airlines if their luggage is lost. There are also steps you need to take before flying to make the process easier.

“Passengers are entitled to it,” said Sara Rathner, travel expert at NerdWallet.

Here’s what you should know if your checked baggage is MIA or comes back with a few dents.

Airlines must compensate passengers for lost luggage

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According to US regulations, airlines must compensate passengers for lost, delayed or damaged baggage up to a certain limit.

  • If your baggage is reported lost: The airline must compensate you for the contents of the bag, subject to depreciation, up to a pre-determined maximum. That maximum liability is $3,800 for domestic flights and about $1,800 for international flights, according to the Department of Transportation. (Airlines may or may not pay more.) The airline must also reimburse any fees paid to inspect the bag. Airlines are also required to pay up to an additional $20,000 for a lost or damaged “assistive device” for a traveler’s disability, such as a crutch, walker, wheelchair, hearing aid, or prosthetic device.
  • If your baggage is delayed: These liability limits also apply to delayed baggage. Payment to travelers may include expenses for additional clothing or other purchases that the delay requires them to make. These are described as “reasonable, verifiable and actual incidental charges” incurred while a bag is delayed. Airlines are not allowed to set a daily cap on these intermediate costs (e.g. up to $50 per day).

“The financial compensation is helpful because it’s not money that you would normally have spent,” Rathner said.

Policies may vary from provider to provider. For example, airlines have different time standards for when a bag is considered “lost”; Most report a bag as lost after five to 14 days, according to the Department of Transportation. Airlines may require receipts or other evidence for items in your baggage.

Airlines can also exempt certain items from refunds, including cash, electronics and fragile items.

Make the lost baggage counter your “first port of call”

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If the baggage carousel is empty and you haven’t received your bags back, travel experts say speak to an airline agent before you leave the airport to file a baggage claim.

“For lost baggage, the first point of contact must be the airport’s lost baggage desk to report the matter,” said Aiden Freeborn, managing editor of travel site The Broke Backpacker.

Airlines are responsible for locating checked baggage that does not arrive where and when it should.

“In some cases, they may be able to locate the item and arrange for it to be forwarded,” Freeborn said. “Unfortunately, this may mean you have to wait a few days and return to the airport to pick it up.”

Airlines differ on who accepts liability and the processing times for claims, he added.

The same advice applies to delayed baggage, damaged baggage or the contents of the baggage – make a report before leaving the airport. As for a damaged bag, the airline may be able to argue that damage occurred after leaving the premises, experts said.

After exiting the airport, travelers should also file a complaint with the transportation department, according to Charlie Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, an advocacy group. The agency will escalate your complaint to the airline and help get yours to the front of the queue, he said.

How to pack to reduce the likelihood of a luggage accident

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There are things travelers can do before their flight to reduce their chances of losing a bag — or ease the headache that could result, experts say.

Perhaps the most obvious – but most effective – tip is to not check any bags if possible.

“Right now, if you could always travel with carry-on luggage, that’s my #1 rule for you,” Leocha said.

Of course this is not always possible. If you have a piece of baggage to check, consider booking a non-stop flight (if possible) rather than a multi-stage trip to avoid baggage errors that can come with changing planes. If a stopover is required, opt for a longer one to ensure there is enough time to transfer your luggage.

Do not place valuables such as jewelry or camera equipment in checked baggage: these are likely not insured if lost. It’s also better to keep Travel necessities such as certain clothing or medical prescriptions in your carry-on baggage if they are delayed or lost and would affect your health or make it impossible to enjoy your trip.

“Travelers would do well not to put all their eggs in one basket — instead, it pays to put items in bags,” Freeborn said in an email. “Personally, I always carry clothes and underwear in my hand luggage for a few days in case my luggage gets lost.”

Experts also recommend photographing your luggage (an easy task with cellphone cameras) and writing down the value of anything you paid cash for during a trip. These steps will help if you need to file a baggage claim and list your personal items and their cost to the airline, Leocha said.

Additionally, some travel insurance policies may cover costs related to lost, stolen, damaged or delayed luggage, experts say. However, purchasing an insurance policy may not be necessary. Travel-oriented credit cards used to fund a trip may already include certain baggage protections.

Travelers can also consider having certain must-have items shipped to a destination ahead of time — although it will almost certainly cost more money and airlines won’t pay for it, Leocha said.

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