Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Lost in Transportation

From: Los Angeles Daily News

It's an airline traveler's biggest headache: They're headed from Point A to Point B but their luggage ends up ... well, somewhere in between.

That happened with an estimated 30 million bags worldwide in 2005, according to an industry report released Monday. About 200,000 were never reunited with their owners.

The percentage of bags that were mishandled - about 1 percent of all luggage - represented a 43 percent increase from 2004. That cost the airline industry about $2.5 billion - $900 million more than the year before, according to a report by SITA Inc., a company that produces luggage tracking technology.

Increased traffic, tighter connection times and added security are blamed for the increased number of lost bags.

But industry officials were quick to note that unfortunate travelers typically get mishandled luggage within 24 hours. But American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith acknowledged, "all the statistics in the world don't matter at all if it is your bag."

After 90 days, most of the major U.S. airlines sell retrieved luggage to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a 40,000-square-foot Alabama department store that "Good Morning America" has called "one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state." The baggage center pays an undisclosed amount regardless of the bags' content.

The center sold about 1 million items last year, said spokeswoman Brenda Cantrell, "everything from nail clippers to a diamond ring."

Eight years ago, Unclaimed Baggage Center found a real gem: a 5.8-carat solitaire diamond ring that appraised for $46,000. They sold it for half price.

Cantrell has noticed, however, that the center comes across far more men's wedding bands than women's.

Airports also make a little extra money when bags are left in airport common areas. LAX has a warehouse on Century Boulevard where it holds discarded luggage for 97 days. After that, a bag's clothes are donated to area shelters and valuables are sent to the LAPD property department in Van Nuys and auctioned off.

About 2,000 items - laptops, cell phones, jewelry and wallets lacking IDs - were sold, said airport spokesman Harold Johnson. The income generated is not separated from the auctioning of police seizures.

The much smaller Bob Hope Airport in Burbank got $1,932 from an unknown number of auctioned items in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2005.

To reduce the risk of losing luggage, airline officials advise travelers to label their bags on the outside and inside, double-check the flight tag placed on their bags and arrive early. Most importantly, don't pack things you can't afford to lose: cash, jewelry, medicine.

If you are flying domestically, however, there is a far lesser chance your bags won't travel with you than SITA reported worldwide. The Department of Transportation reported this month that about seven of every 1,000 passengers on domestic airlines in 2005 reported mishandled baggage - less than one-tenth of a percent of travelers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.