Where Is My Baggage, and Why Can't You Find It?

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Good thing they don't serve food on domestic flights anymore, or it would have been spilled during the last turbulence.

But it gets worse. The following scenario is commonplace and is unfortunately repeated countless times to distressed travelers. You are alone in the baggage claim area, the sound of the carousel still echoing in your mind although it stopped a few minutes ago. Hopelessly, you stare once more at the opening from where all other luggage miraculously came, only to confirm once more that your baggage didn't make it. You drag your feet across the room toward the airline's baggage claim office, avoiding the glances that people give you. You know what they're thinking: "Poor bastard lost his luggage. So glad I'm not him."

This happened to me not long ago. My baggage got lost while going from Tampa to Miami. I was flying Continental, but it could have been any other airline (and don't they all look the same nowadays?). I approached the baggage claim counter, waited in line for about 20 minutes, and when I finally was able to get someone's attention, the conversation went somewhat like this:

Me: Hi. I just came in from Tampa, and it seems my baggage didn't make it.
Baggage Claim Guy Who Doesn't Give a S#@&: Did you check the carousel?
Me (annoyed): Yes, I checked and rechecked.
BCGWDGS: What's your flight number?
Me: 7146, the one from Tampa.
BCGWDGS: OK, let me check. Ah, you came in one of those small planes. Yeah, happens all the time.
Me: Pardon?
BCGWDGS: Happens all the time. In those small planes, they don't know if the baggage will make it until they are loading the plane and have to weight balance it.
Me: Oh, how great! And when is my baggage going to come?
BCGWDGS: Should be within the next hour, we have another flight coming from Tampa. Where are you staying in Miami?
Me: I'm not staying in Miami! I'm catching an international flight in about two hours!
BCGWDGS: Oh. Well, give me your address there, and we'll send it to you.

I gave him the address abroad, but I had no confidence that the airlines would actually send it to the correct destination. So I went back to check on the next flight arriving from Tampa only to discover that my baggage didn't make it. Again!

Me: Hi. It's me again. No luck. My baggage didn't make it.
BCGWDGS: Our next flight from Tampa is in about two hours.
Me: Too late. I'm going to be on another flight. But wait. Do you really know if my baggage is still in Tampa and hasn't been shipped somewhere else?
BCGWDGS: Hmm...let me check the system. No, we don't know. We have no way of telling you where your baggage is right now.
Me: So you don't even know if it's still in Tampa, do you?
BCGWDGS: No. For such short trips, they don't scan the tags.

Well, suffice to say I lost my confidence in recovering my bag. Ever. And while he was mumbling about the situation and typing something to the computer, I had to wonder why baggage handling is so bad and why technology hasn't come to the rescue.

It's not that better baggage handling isn't needed. As an article on the Wall Street Journal explains, "With air travel rebounding, and more fliers checking luggage because of security limits on liquids, airline baggage service is suffering. The lost-bag rate has increased every year since 2002. About one U.S. passenger in every 150 had a mishandled bag last year, up 11% from 2005. Financial woes have led to layoffs for thousands of baggage handlers and skimpy replacement of breakdown-prone equipment."

I thought that with the advances in RFID, airlines nationwide would be jumping on the opportunity of having less baggage missing, streamlining the chain of operations, and all other good things that come from knowing where stuff is when you need it (according to a recent article, airlines spend $400 million annually on lost luggage). So why haven't we (OK, I'll speak for myself) seen it?

Well, it seems there are actually some projects going on, but airports are doing it on a small scale, pilot testing it before it's ready for takeoff. Boston's Logan International Airport is reportedly in the midst of implementing an RFID system, and the Las Vegas International Airport has had something cooking since 2003. Better handling, faster processing, less mishandled baggage... seems like we're back to the golden age of air travel, doesn't it? Still, that doesn't help my case because neither Tampa nor Miami has anything planned for the near future as far as I know. The cost of implementation seems to be a critical issue, some news articles citing that Las Vegas Airport is paying 21 cents per tag. Until it gets down to 10 cents a tag, it's unlikely a worldwide rollout will be possible.

While technology and manufacturing are trying to come down with pricing for RFID, I will try to pack everything I need in my carry-on and, in those situations where I do have to check my baggage, just hope for the best. Or fly JetBlue. I have never had a problem with JetBlue. Yet.