Losing luggage during a plane trip? This is what you should do.

The Apple AirTag tracking device that Lily Datta had placed in her luggage before leaving Cleveland on June 27 showed that the suitcase had arrived in Paris the following day. This puzzled Ms. Datta because she and her family had no plans to go to Paris. Her destination was Vienna, with stops in Washington, DC and Barcelona to get there, but not Paris. It was the family’s first foray abroad since the start of the pandemic, a trip to celebrate her son Dev’s high school graduation.

Ms. Datta filed a claim for lost luggage at the airport, but when the suitcase was not delivered to her hotel in Vienna the next morning as promised, she began emailing the airline, sharing the location of the suitcase. (according to AirTag) every day. She received no response. Even more frustrating, she said, was that when she called the customer service number she had been given, “she just got a recording, no one picked up and no way to leave a message.”

Increased demand for air travel and airport staffing shortages have made this a challenging summer when it comes to lost or delayed checked baggage. Incidents like the recent malfunction of the baggage system at London’s Heathrow airport, which caused traffic jams so bad that flights were canceled to give workers a chance to clean up the mess, have only added to the misery.

While the number of mishandled bags had been declining over the past decade, in part due to new technology, recent years have changed that trajectory. The number of delayed or lost bags rose to 6 out of 1,000 bags this February, from 5 out of 1,000 in February 2020, according to the most recent Department of Transportation report.

The system is now operating beyond capacity, said William McGee, senior aviation fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonpartisan organization that promotes equal access to economic markets. “This is the worst summer meltdown for airline customer service in the 37 years I’ve spent working, writing and defending airlines,” he said.

After a few days with no word from the airline, Ms. Datta and her husband, Alan Peyrat, began emailing various United Airlines and Austrian Airlines executives, who had handled the baggage. They also reached out through social media and enlisted the help of their hotel concierge. Seven days after her arrival in Europe, Ms. Datta received an email response from Austrian Airlines. A representative wrote, apologetically, that her bag was one of many thousands missing and “reality at this time does not allow me to give you any concrete information.”

Lost luggage problems have been exacerbated by a reduction in airline investment in baggage handling during the pandemic, said Danny Cox, vice president of guest experience at Breeze Airways, a new airline that launched last year. . “Airlines have been in survival mode,” he said, “There hasn’t been an overabundance of funding to improve baggage systems.” Current staffing deficiencies have a ripple effect, he added. “If you’re looking for a mechanic to fix something, you’re turning to the same people who are servicing other ground operations.”

To improve the chances that your luggage won’t get lost, and that you and your bag will be reunited if it gets lost, follow these tips. Much of the problem is out of your control, so a Zen mindset of patience can also help.

Identify your luggage. The most important thing you can do to help the airline recover your lost luggage is to label the outside with your initials and phone number, and put more complete contact information, such as a business card, on the inside. Take pictures of the luggage and note the brand and dimensions. Keep your baggage claim check and know your ticket and flight number.

To reduce mishandling, position slack straps that can snag machinery or another bag and throw you off course. Remove any barcode stickers or checked baggage tags from previous trips.

Luggage that may appear lost could have been accidentally taken by someone with a similar bag, especially if it’s a black carry-on on wheels, the most common bag, said Kevin Larson, manager of central baggage services for Alaska Airlines. The luggage can also be on another carousel. Mr. Larson advises passengers to put something unique, like a colorful ribbon, on the outside of their bag. A bright luggage tag, stickers or reflective tape can also make a suitcase stand out.

Act immediately. If your luggage doesn’t arrive when it does, notify the airline before you leave the airport. Getting in touch by phone has been a challenge. The notice recorded in a June 30 phone call to Delta Air Lines predicted a wait time of 80 minutes and offered no option to leave a number to receive a call instead of remaining on hold.

Smart packaging. The Department of Transportation advises passengers to avoid packing valuable, fragile, perishable, or irreplaceable items in their checked bags, and allows airlines to specify types of items they will not cover if lost, such as cash, jewelry, computers, of art, antiques and collectibles. Keep them with you or leave them at home. Put important medications in your carry-on baggage.

Keep a virtual eye on him. Placing a small tracking device like a Tile or Apple AirTag inside your luggage allows you to monitor the bag’s whereabouts through a phone app. “It costs about the same as checking a bag,” said Cox of Breeze Airways. Trackers are especially useful for finding out if someone mistakenly took your bag from the carousel instead of yours.

Some airlines, including United, American, and Delta Air Lines, offer baggage tracking capabilities for passengers through the airline’s website or mobile app.

Know the rules for compensation. The Department of Transportation lists the rules that airlines must follow when luggage is delayed or lost. The most an airline can owe a passenger is $3,800 per bag. Flights with an international leg are governed by different rules and the most a passenger will receive is around $1,800.

Each airline has its own policies within government regulations, so passengers should check their airline’s website for more details. United Airlines passengers, for example, must have receipts for lost items if they claim the contents of their luggage are worth more than $1,500. United will consider the bag “lost” after five days, but other airlines may specify a longer time before declaring a bag “lost.”

Replenish while a bag is missing. When luggage is lost, airlines reimburse passengers for toiletries, clothing, and other incidental items they purchase to help them while the company tries to locate their luggage. Airline websites can be vague about what will be covered, and the US government doesn’t allow airlines to impose a daily spending limit, so travelers can feel unsure about what’s allowed. Travelers must complete a claim form available at the customer service desk or on the airline’s website and submit receipts for the items they purchase. They should also have an explanation for anything unusual as to why the purchase was necessary.

Wear protection. Premium credit cards may offer lost luggage coverage, but they can put passengers through some hoops to get it. More than 25 types of Chase credit cards offer up to $3,000 in lost baggage compensation to make up the difference between the airline’s reimbursement and the value of the baggage and items in your baggage, according to Pablo Rodriguez, a JP Morgan spokesman. To pursue. Customers must provide copies of receipts for each item valued at $25 or more that they request replacement, and the payment they receive may be reduced depending on the age of the item(s).

Separately purchased travel insurance may include compensation for lost or delayed luggage, but as always with travel insurance, read the fine print.

Don’t check the bag. The most obvious tip, but still the best way to make sure airlines don’t lose your bags, is to travel with carry-on only. Pack ruthlessly: what do you really need? What can be bought at the destination? Can you wash your socks in the sink? If you check your luggage, try to book a nonstop flight. A transfer is one more chance for something to go wrong.

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