What airlines and airports do with lost luggage

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the October 2013 issue.

Dear Globetrotter:

Knowing that ITN will send a free sample copy of the next-printed issue to anyone anywhere (worldwide) on request, subscriber Susan Bigelow of Palmetto, Florida, asked us to send one to a traveling friend of hers, Judy Gallagher, and included Judy’s address. She added a note about ITN: “It is the best travel magazine I have ever seen.” 

“Samson,” by Brian Goggin, is one of two 23-foot-tall luggage pillars in the baggage claim area of Terminal A at Sacramento International Airport. Photo by Debi Shank, ITN

Eager to use that testimonial in my column last month, I hastily typed it up and, referring back to the email, attributed it to Judy instead of Susan. 

When the error was discovered, I wrote to Susan, who replied, “Judy will get a good laugh out of this.”

Seeing your name in a magazine you’re seeing for the first time certainly would be memorable.


Veronica Thighe of Aurora, Colorado, wrote, “On a trip to West Africa in February ’12, I was scheduled to fly United to Washington Dulles and then on South African Airways to Dakar, Senegal. The SAA flight was canceled and I was rerouted (along with some other passengers) onto Delta to New York’s JFK and then Dakar.

“Our connection time was tight. Of the three other people to whom I spoke, two got their bags when we arrived and another person got hers the following evening, but my bag never arrived. All the proper channels to trace my bag were explored. 

“On my return to the US, I spoke to Delta Air Lines many times and, I must say, everyone was helpful and courteous. However, after a couple of weeks I was told that they had researched all avenues but my bag had not been found, so they processed my claim.

“I have been lucky. I travel a lot, and this is a first. But my question is this: where do all those bags go? Mine had the original airline tag on it plus a tour company tag with my home address and phone plus a personal tag with my home address and phone plus a card inside the bag with my home address and phone.

“In my correspondence with our tour leader afterward, she once noted, ‘I have often seen piles of luggage in lost-luggage areas, all with name tags on them. Don’t know why they don’t just return them to the addresses on the labels.’ 

“I just wonder how hard they really look.”

Well, Veronica, ITN staff researched what happens to passengers’ luggage lost by airlines and airports, and here’s what we found.


In 2012, worldwide, people used commercial air transport about 2.95 billion times, and a total of 26.04 million bags were reported as mishandled. “Mishandled bags” range from those temporarily delayed to those permanently lost.

Tracking down owners, returning luggage and paying out claims on mishandled bags cost the airline industry a total of $2.6 billion in 2012, according to the “Baggage Report 2013” released by the company SITA, a “specialist in air transport communications and informational technology.”

In the US, the maximum compensation that can be collected by someone filing a claim for a lost bag is $3,300. In many other countries, the maximum is based on the Montreal Convention’s specified amount of 1,131 Special Drawing Rights, or SDRs, which fluctuate like currency. (On Aug. 27, 2013, one SDR equaled $1.52.)

However, the amount that someone can ask to be reimbursed for purchases that were necessary because of delayed baggage delivery is not set by international law; it is determined by each airline. 

The upshot is this: the sooner airlines can return luggage to passengers and the more bags they can return, the more they save. 


Taking into account all flights on US carriers, 99.5% of passengers’ bags are picked up at luggage carousels and only 0.5% (one-half of one percent) become separated from passengers and delayed or lost, according to the Unclaimed Baggage Center (Scottsboro, AL; 256/259-1525), a store to which many unclaimed bags are sold in the US.

Of that 0.5% of mishandled bags, 95% are returned to their owners within a few days or weeks. Of the remaining 5% of mishandled bags still unclaimed, half are returned to their owners over a 3-month period. 

So, of all the passengers’ bags on all flights aboard US carriers, 0.0025% end up hopelessly lost. (That works out to five bags ultimately unclaimed out of every 2,000.) Still, it adds up to a heck of a lot of unclaimed bags that need to be disposed of each month by the airlines and airports.

In 2012, globally, there were 8.83 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, down from 18.88 per 1,000 in 2007, when airlines carried 2.48 billion passengers and SITA began reporting the numbers collected by the International Air Transport Association and the US Department of Transportation. That’s a huge improvement!

Regarding what individual airlines and airports do with mishandled luggage, the time lines differ slightly among them, but the process runs roughly like this.

The airline hopes to get a report as soon as a passenger realizes that his bag has not shown up at the luggage carousel… or within the first 24 hours. Bags, usually organized by flight date and airline, are held in storage at the airport and are looked over when search requests are received.

After about 14 days, unclaimed bags are moved to a secure warehouse off of the airport site and are organized by color, size and shape but no longer by flight date. For lost-luggage claims that come in two weeks after the flight, that’s where the search is done.

The bags are held in the warehouse for about 12 more weeks, during which time they are opened and inspected for clues. Those bags whose owners can be identified are delivered. After 90 days total, the remaining unclaimed bags become the property of the airline or airport. (By the international Montreal Convention rules, a bag is considered lost after 21 days.)

In the US, unclaimed bags usually are sold by contract in bulk lots to companies or auction houses or are given to charities (Red Cross, etc.), all of which resell the items from the bags as well as the bags, themselves, to the public for profit.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center states on its website, regarding airlines and airports, “Only a small fraction of the total tracing and claims settlement costs is recouped by selling the unmatched bags.”

So, in the US, at least, airlines and airports have high incentive not to lose passengers’ luggage in the first place. They also have incentive to check bags for clues as to who the owners are. It also can be said that they are not mishandling bags on purpose in order to sell them for a profit. (It may be a different case in countries where lost-luggage claims are rarely paid.)


US Airways, JetBlue and AirTran sell lost luggage to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in bulk but are tight-lipped about how much they get back. ITN could not confirm where American, Delta and United send their unclaimed bags. Alaska, Frontier, Hawaiian, Southwest, Spirit and Virgin America donate unclaimed luggage directly to charity.

Regarding unclaimed bags collected by foreign carriers, it is harder to track down what happens. 

Canadian airlines give their unclaimed bags to charities (according to the Sept. 1, 2013, Toronto Sun article “Where Does Unclaimed Baggage End Up?”).

In the UK, bags often are contracted to private auction houses after 90 days. Auction houses in the UK report selling up to 300 lots of bags each week for about £5 to £50 (near $7.80-$78) each. A “lot” can range from one bag to a group of bags, empty or full, contents known or unknown. (Regarding the bags from British Airways, a spokesman stated, “Proceeds of sales are donated to charity.”)

ITN did not search for reports on every airline and airport, but a spot check on a few revealed the following: Philippine Airlines turns unclaimed baggage over to Customs for disposal; Emirates disposes of or sells at auction unclaimed bags after 90 days, retaining the proceeds; the website of the Beijing Capital International Airport indicates that bags are turned over to the government after 90 days, and the website of Moscow Domodedovo Airport says unclaimed bags are sold after 50 days. 


So which are the airports where you can feel more confident that your bags will show up on the carousel? 

According to the SkyTrax World Airport Awards 2013, the five airports with the best records for baggage delivery are those at Zürich, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul (Incheon) and Copenhagen. Airports with the worst records were not listed.

The 2013 SITA report showed that the sizes of airports are in direct correlation to the numbers of mishandled bags. Larger airports, handling greater numbers of bags, always have the worst rates.

Tracking the numbers of bags lost by 15 US airlines during 2012, the US Department of Transportation found that the fewest bags were lost by Virgin America (0.61 bags per thousand passengers), AirTran (1.54), Delta Air Lines (1.74) and US Airways (1.85).  United (2.88) and American Airlines (2.66) ranked in the middle of the pack of 15. The airline with the worst record was American Eagle Airlines (5.31).

According to the SITA report, of all of the incidents of luggage being mishandled, about 48% occurred between flights when bags were being transferred from one airplane to another.

SITA pointed out, “Not only does increasing air traffic place greater stress on bag operations, (but) delays and unexpected changes to schedules can quickly have a negative impact on transfer bags.” 

Making up the other 52% of reasons that bags were mishandled, here is how often they were cited: failure to load, 17%; ticketing error/bag switch/security/other, 13%; loaded onto wrong plane, 7%; airport/Customs/weather/space or weight restrictions, 7%; arrival mishandling, 4%, and tagging error (wrong destination code), 4%.

News articles suggested that the following also could lead to bags going missing: last-minute check-in (increasing the chance of human error); an illegible routing label; tags being poorly attached or getting ripped off, and passengers forgetting to pick up all of their bags from the carousel.


To increase the chances that you and your luggage will be reunited after a flight, consider the following suggestions, gathered from the reports cited, news articles and tips from ITN subscribers.

  • Print your contact information on a tag on the outside of each bag. Include your name, city, state and nation and a phone number or email address. If you include a mailing address, you may want to use a P.O. Box or a business address rather than your home address.
  • Write your contact information on a sticker and attach it to the inside of each bag, too, including your carry-on, in case you leave it behind.
  • With each bag and carry-on, consider including your itinerary with contact information for the places you’ll be staying plus, if you’re on a tour, the company’s phone numbers.
  • Use a hard-sided suitcase with wheels because it is less likely to have handles break, leading to tags getting lost (according to the baggage handler interviewed for the Aug. 12, 2013, Skyscanner.com article “9 Confessions of an Airport Baggage Handler”).
  • Before your trip, inspect bags for damaged zippers or handles.
  • Personalize or color tag your luggage or choose luggage of a distinctive style so it’s easily spotted on the carousel.
  • Inventory the contents of your bags, in case you need to make a claim. You could email the list to yourself (for easy access) or, using your cell phone or the camera you’re taking with you, take a picture of the spread-out contents before packing them.
  • Arrive at the airport early so your bag isn’t rushed through check-in and loading.
  • Available at some airports, consider sealing the suitcase in plastic film to help protect it from pilfering and damage.
  • At check-in, double-check printed tags before letting the bags go to the conveyor belt. (Know the 3-letter codes for the airports on your route.) 
  • Never assume; double-check that the bag you’re picking up is your own.
  • If your bag does not arrive at the carousel, find an agent immediately. Don’t leave the airport before filling out the paperwork. Get a follow-up phone number.

Well, I think that about covers the subject. Remember to count your bags before leaving the terminal!

For the above article, statistics primarily came from SITA’s Baggage Report 2013, for which SITA checked data on the world’s 100 busiest airports, which account for more than 60% of the global passenger traffic. 

Additional statistics were derived from the International Air Transport Association, Airports Council International, the US Department of Transportation and Air Transport World.


Before I sign off, here’s another note from a subscriber. 

Cidne Rossi of Laguna Woods, California, emailed us the address of a traveling friend, Lisa, and asked us to send her a sample copy. She added, “Still bragging to all I meet about ITN.” 

Wait, is that right? Let me double-check. Yeah, it was Cidne Rossi who wrote that.

It’s your mail that keeps this magazine going. Whether it’s a comment, question or trip report, write in.    — DT