Holiday Travel Warning: Regional Airlines Lose More Luggage

Lost Luggage

Although the number of mishandled (lost, damaged, delayed, or stolen) luggage has declined significantly in recent years, a TravelNerd study finds travelers checking bags should be on guard this holiday season. Reports of mishandled luggage have historically risen above the annual average during the months of December and January. The study also revealed that regional airlines mishandle luggage at significantly higher rates than average. While airlines will reimburse passengers for some mishandled items, they don’t always offer full compensation.

Holiday lost luggage trends

Though passengers may have reason to feel more secure checking bags in 2012, the amount of mishandled luggage during December and January remains disproportionately high. The month of January during the years 2008-2011 has seen mishandled luggage rates 29-43% higher than the annual average. Similarly, the month of December during the years 2008-2010 experienced rates 30-35% higher than the annual average. December 2011, however, has been an exception. Travelers that checked in luggage last December experienced a slight improvement (3.25 reports per 1,000 passengers) compared to the 2011 average (3.33 reports per 1,000 passengers). December and January holiday trends may finally be catching up to overall improvements in mishandled luggage. It is difficult to say whether this drop is the harbinger of a new trend or merely a one-off anomaly.

Regardless of whether December mishandled baggage rates continue the upward trajectory this year, there is hope for holiday travelers who prefer flying without the stresses of lost, damaged, delayed or stolen luggage. Reports of mishandled baggage in the month of November during the years 2008-2011 have been 17-28% lower than the annual average. As a result, holiday travelers may be better off checking luggage during Thanksgiving and carrying on luggage for Christmas and/or the New Year.

Methodology: All domestic mishandled baggage numbers are provided by the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement for all major U.S. airlines. Many airlines have merged or closed business over the years. In order to accurately compare across time, we have excluded these airlines from our calculations.

Beware of regional airlines

Passengers can take several additional precautions to lower their odds of losing a bag. A simple way to prevent luggage loss, damage, delay, and theft is to choose the right carrier. Regional carriers–like ExpressJet, Mesa, and SkyWest–tend to lose a greater percentage of bags (30-52% in December and January). In contrast, legacy airlines—like American, Delta, United, and US Airways—mishandle fewer bags than the industry average, particularly in more recent years. The catch is that regional airlines often operate many of the flights sold under the legacy airline brands. Before travelers book, it would be wise to check whether the flight is operated a regional airline. Avoid these if you’re transporting high-value items.

While regional airlines mishandle a higher proportion of luggage, the worst offender appears to be American Eagle. The airline had the highest loss rate in November, December and January of 2011. In contrast, the most responsible domestic airline seems to be AirTran, which generally had the lowest number of reports for mishandled luggage for the months of November, December and January during the last 4 years (2008-2011).

More tips to minimize loss

If traveling with a partner or group, passengers can divide valuables into multiple bags. Should a bag go missing, the loss won’t be quite so devastating.

All luggage should be properly marked with label tags (both inside and outside) listing the owner’s contact information. At the very least, passengers should supply their name, mobile phone number and e-mail address. Using a very distinct suitcase may also help identify the bag.

Another way to minimize the probability of lost luggage is to book direct flights (layovers lead to complications). And of course, it is a non-issue for travelers who can avoid checking bags altogether.

Before packing their bags, passengers should know how much they can expect to be reimbursed for lost luggage. Airlines will provide up to $3,300 for mishandled bags. To insure checked luggage worth more than $3,300, passengers must declare in advance the value of their checked items. Doing so will generally incur a $17-$50 “Excess Valuation Fee.” This insures luggage up to $5,000.

There are many items for which airlines are NOT responsible. TravelNerd reviewed a few major carrier’s Contract of Carriage (domestics) and highlighted some interesting items that airlines typically do NOT reimburse passengers for – even if the the bag is lost in transit!

  • Electronics of any kind
  • Photographic/Cinematographic equipment
  • Glass
  • Musical instruments and equipment
  • Sporting goods
  • Sporting trophies – such as animal horns and antlers
  • Toys
  • Blueprints and other fragile papers
  • Art
  • Polygraphs
  • Contact lenses/glasses

Our best common sense tips? Don’t check bags, and don’t place valuables in checked luggage.

Resolving a lost luggage case

Losing a bag is a great way to put the cherry on top of any holiday-stress sundae. If it happens, don’t panic. Passengers can follow these easy steps to maximize the odds of recovery.

  1. Go to the luggage counter BEFORE leaving the airport. You may be tired, stressed or eager to cut into the Christmas ham, but don’t go until you’ve talked to an airline representative.
  2. Fill out the necessary forms and provide the requested information. You should know how to describe your bag (color, dimensions, type) and be able to provide a fairly comprehensive list of its contents.
  3. Explore insurance options. If the airline cannot reimburse you for the full value of your possessions, your credit card or insurance company may be able to help.
  4. Follow up with the airline. They should stay in contact with you, but if not, don’t hesitate to call or send a friendly e-mail requesting a status update.