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You’ve have landed at your destination safely. After grabbing your hand-carry luggage, you make smooth progress through immigration. Now the baggage claim area. As you wait, you retreat into a daydream about pleasures to come. Should you go swimming right away, or grab some tapas first? As you ponder, you notice your fellow passengers leaving one by one, suitcases in tow. What on earth is going on here? It’s just you left. Then, the moment of realization: something’s gone wrong. Your suitcase isn’t coming. It’s your head that is swimming now: your plans are ruined, your valuables probably lost. Someone else has your (objectively terrible) favourite underwear.

Losing a suitcase is every traveller’s nightmare. But there is comfort in the fact is that in most cases you haven’t really “lost” your baggage. Not permanently. Only a small percentage (5 to 7 %) of the mishandled bags are actually lost and by and large, you will eventually be reunited with your vintage Spiderman Y-fronts. So what do airlines mean when they say baggage has been ‘misplaced’, and how can you minimise the chance of it happening to you?

The most common cause of baggage misplacement is a short connection time. When transferring, passengers generally prefer connection times to be as short as possible. Why waste time at Terminal 3 Costa’s when you could be sipping cold brew on the Costa del Sol?  Every airport has its own suggested time limit for transit passengers, or (in aviation jargon) Minimum Connection Time (MCT). It generally ranges from 1 to 3 hours for international connections. Say you travel from Hong Kong to London via Dubai. Your original transit time was two hours but your departure from Hong Kong was delayed by 45 minutes. You managed to take a flight to London in Dubai but your baggage didn’t.  This “transfer mishandling” is responsible for about 50% of lost baggage cases according to SITA’s research.

airport baggage claim carousel
Only a small percentage (5 to 7 %) of the mishandled bags are actually lost and by and large you will eventually be reunited with your vintage Spiderman Y-fronts. 

What else might be to blame? There are human errors. Baggage handlers might fail to load your luggage or check-in agents might put the wrong tag on it. And, of course, fellow passengers may mix up your anonymous black suitcase with theirs. These cases are usually not serious as the baggage will be quickly returned. More serious cases occur when the passenger decided to replace your real Rimowa suitcase with his knock-off. This is a crime but some people are bad. Very rarely, the baggage handler is the wrong ‘un.

Despite the impressive march of airport technology, must we accept that our luggage be misplaced once in a while and learn to make it part of the adventure? The good news on this score is that airlines and airports worldwide are much more connected than in the past. There is a global tracing and baggage matching system which is widely used by airlines. Airline staff for have unprecedented access to information which can help them find the missing item. However, the volume of flights is just too big to ever achieve 100% of bags greeting their owners at the baggage claim area. The total number of passengers is expected to be 4.3 billion in 2018, which is a 6% increase on the already-staggering 4.1 billion passengers in 2017 according to IATA. More passengers means more suitcases. And more scope for those moments of crisis.

So, lost baggage will happen and it could be yours. If you can’t find your suitcase on arrival, here is what you should do. Firstly, inform the airline immediately. Your luggage may not be far away. Secondly, remember that there may be compensation options. For delayed luggage, some airlines may offer one-off or daily compensation on a goodwill basis. Unfortunately, if you’re flying budget most low-cost airlines do not do this unless they are under a specific legal obligation. In such a case, if your luggage is really lost, you will need to submit your claims through a formal procedure. Airlines will generally require you to list the lost items and their costs which may require receipts as proof. The compensation process is likely to be painfully slow.

Fortunately, there are some practical steps you can take to try to avoid lost baggage. Put a tag with contact information on your luggage. Write down your full name, phone number and (most importantly) email address. When your luggage is found in the middle of nowhere, you will likely be contacted by email. Slide a business card into the luggage in case it needs to be cracked open or your bag tag fell off. Most importantly, never put your valuable items in your suitcase! If they mean that much to you, maybe it’s best to wear those Spiderman pants on the flight.

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