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Sunday, December 18th, 2011

As one of the busiest travel periods looms, so does one of the greatest travel “wonders of the world” IF! We all wonder if our bags will arrive on time, and if they will arrive in tact. At the airport, we watch our checked bags disappear into that black hole in the wall and hope against all hope that someway, somehow they will miraculously appear on the other side of our travels. If we happen to show up on time!

What goes on behind the curtain?
You might be amazed at how much manpower it takes to get your luggage on plane. Once you leave your bag at the check-in counter, it goes through a series of conveyer belts, where it may or may not be opened and searched by TSA, until it reaches the pier for your departing flight. It is then sorted into carts by one ramp agent who brings it planeside for other ramp agents to load on the airplane. And there’s a lot more than just loading and unloading your bags-there is a lot of other cargo that gets transported by air. Bag Handlers see everything from human remains to mail to fruits and vegetables coming on and off the plane. They’re also the guys directing the plane to its parking position at the gate, securing the aircraft and hooking up the ground power, and driving the push-back tug, ensuring that aircraft do not come in contact with each other.

How do bags get damaged?
It’s obvious, your checked luggage takes a beating. They call it “throwing bags” for a reason. Airplanes only make money while in the air, and no airline wants an airplane on the ground too long. Due to the nature of some aircraft, it would be impossible to turn around a 757 in an hour or less without throwing bags because it’s just faster. On these planes, there are only two long and narrow cargo holds where your luggage goes. One agent puts the bags on the belt loader, which carries it up to an agent inside the cargo hold who throws it 50 feet to the back where another agent stacks all the bags as if it were a game of Tetris. Wheels and handles oftentimes break or crack on impact, and anything fragile inside that is not packed well doesn’t stand much of a chance. Don’t put red wine or alcohol in your suitcase ever. Do not check any fragile items in a soft sided suitcase, unless it was professionally packaged. Those fragile stickers don’t get noticed very often in the rush of loading bags unless it is an obvious shape, such as a musical instrument. One good thing about the larger aircraft (747, 767, 777, 787, etc.) is that they are all loaded by machines. Your bags are just put in a can and that can is loaded on the plane by machine so there is no bag throwing. Theoretically there’s a better chance of your bag coming out unscathed if you fly on one of those jets.

How do bags get lost?
Sometimes the airport code is read incorrectly and it gets put in the wrong cart and brought to the wrong plane. Someone might mistake VCE for NCE or PDX for PHX. It happens, but not that often. It’s always important to ensure you have the correct destination on your bag tag and to keep your receipt. Secure your contact information on the outside and inside of the bag in case the outside tag falls off. If your bag ends up in a different destination, it won’t get re-routed until it reaches wherever it went and is scanned. Scanners are all wireless now and don’t always work due to bad connections or getting locked up. If time is of the essence, your bag may not get scanned. Also, if you have a tight connection, you may be able to make it, but your bag may not. On smaller regional flights, many times bags are not loaded or taken off due to weight and balance limits. This is for safety reasons and ensures a safe take off and landing weight. So ideally, try to avoid those planes.

What kind of suitcases get damaged least? The most?
Cheap bags that you buy at the discount store break very easily. If your handle is sewn on or is very flimsy, it’s probably going to break. If you travel a lot or pack heavy, make sure you buy a quality, durable bag. Hard-sided suitcases will get less damage, but also look for well-designed handles that are attached with rivets and some sort of protection around the wheels. Speaking of wheels, the best bags to get are the “spinners” with four wheels on the bottom. We like these because we don’t have to throw them when loading. We just roll them down the belly of the plane so your bag and its contents will suffer much less damage.

Should I worry about theft?
There are no cameras inside the belly of the plane. Always use the TSA-approved locks to lock a suitcase. This not only prevents someone from easily taking something, but also keeps the bag closed securly. Bag Handlers see open bags all the time because the zipper just started coming apart, and yes, things do fall out of these open bags. Sometimes, they see it and can put whatever came out back in the bag it came from, but sometimes there are just random items strewn around the belly. If it’s a random piece of clothing or a shoe, those won’t go down the baggage claim belt too well and just get discarded eventually.

How can passengers prevent their bags from going astray?
The main thing to do is keep your bag tag receipt so you can track your bag. If it didn’t get scanned on the flight, it will get scanned eventually when it reaches a station. Also, try to plan sufficient ground time for your bag to make its connection. Thirty minutes isn’t always enough at a big airport like Atlanta.