Every year, SITA, the aviation infrastructure service, issues a "Baggage Report," and this comprehensive overview of the state of airline luggage delivery makes for lively reading. Not only does it examine rates of misplaced and misconnected bags; it also offers a sneak peek at changes that airlines are considering for baggage check-in and delivery.
Airline-owned SITA sets standards and provides systems for shared aviation infrastructure. The organization proudly points out that in 2011 (the most recent year tabulated), the number of mishandled bags dropped 20.3%, meaning that "99.1% of checked bags [were] delivered on time to passengers."
It turns out that was the airlines' best-ever performance.
Carriers have focused on making sure bags get loaded onto planes quickly and are transferred efficiently to connecting flights. The 99.1% statistic refers to the percentage of bags that arrived at the airport on the same plane as the passenger who checked in the bag.
I'm sure that was the result of a lot of hard work and planning -- congratulations, global airlines -- but a lot hinges on the definition of "delivered on time to passengers."
I'd argue that the quote above is neither accurate nor complete. There is still an unreported and highly variable gap: the time between "chocks on" at the gate and when the bags actually show up on the luggage carousel.
That gap is the last great unmeasured airline stat, and to my thinking, it is just as important as the definition of "on-time arrival." Until you're reunited with your bags, you're not leaving the airport.
While I'm among those who limit myself to carry-ons whenever possible, it's not always possible, and I've waited for more than an hour for bags that were officially clocked in as being "on time."
The Airports Council International Policy and Recommended Practices Handbook states that "the appropriate authority should establish and monitor compliance with delivery standards for baggage at each terminal" and that "performance records should be exchanged between airlines and airports." But this is recommended, not mandated, and adoption does not appear to be widespread.
One official who works at a large airport and who wishes to remain anonymous told me that although his facility has the ability to measure the gate-to-carousel gap, it has only done so once, following a rash of complaints. When the complaints died down, the tracking ended.
But a uniform delivery time isn't reasonable, he argued, because, "You've seen one airport, you've seen one airport." The distance between gates and baggage carousels varies so greatly that a uniform recommended time would be meaningless.
Fair enough. But since bags and passengers both have the same variable distance to travel to the carousel, I think a reasonable measure of "on time" for a domestic flight would be that a passenger shouldn't have to wait more than 20 minutes for a bag.
Passenger-rights concerns have produced some questionable rules, and I'm not a big fan of additional regulation. But I am a big fan of measuring performance on something as straightforward as this, because without tracking, there's scant motivation for improvement. As it stands now, airlines seem quite satisfied bragging that 99.1% of bags are delivered on time.
If the gap were measured, it could become a competitive point of differentiation, and even a marketing pitch.
Until then, there are some options to reduce uncertainty. United, for example, offers a delivery service that will bring your bags to your hotel within four hours of arrival (or by noon the next day if you arrive after 11 p.m.).
Four hours doesn't sound so great to me. But there's another option that might have once seemed extravagant but, thanks to ancillary fees for checking bags, might now appear to be quite reasonable.
For about the same price as checking a bag and also using the four-hour delivery service, you can use a courier service such as UPS or FedEx to come to your house, pick up your bag and ship it so that it's waiting for you when you arrive.
Not at the airport, but in your room.
I mentioned that the SITA report also talks about what's coming next. It turns out that technology is being developed for passengers to tag their own baggage, rather than waiting in line for an agent to do it.
I appreciate that. But I still look forward to less wait time at the other end of the flight. Email Arnie Weissmann at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.