When Jenn Choi packed her and her family’s bags she feared for the worst. After hearing horror stories of checked airline luggage going permanently missing, she bought tracking devices for her suitcases to ensure she would not have to rely on a critically understaffed aviation industry facing what could be its worst meltdown in history.
Lo and behold, all three of the bags containing the possessions of the self-help coach, her husband and their one-year-old child remained almost 10,000km (6,200 miles) away in Germany when they arrived in Cancun, Mexico, last week.
“Our bags have still not even been found and we will be without them for at least a week,” she says. “I feel like it’s a part of traveling these days as it is becoming so common. Many people here in Mexico are on vacation without their bags. It’s a mess and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Many families are taking their first holidays in three years this summer due to the pandemic, during which time airlines and airports undertook drastic cost-cutting as demand fell. As passengers return, the amount of luggage being lost by airlines is surging. In April, almost six bags per 1,000 pieces of luggage checked in by passengers were at least temporarily lost by US airlines.
It marked a 67% rise on the same month of 2021 after almost 30,000 flights in, out and within the US were also canceled this summer. The rate of baggage mishandled across the world is also on the rise: up 24% last year, with 8.7 suitcases per 1,000 international passengers not arriving on time.
Claims for stranded luggage have jumped 30% on 2019, according to insurer Mapfre SA, and amid high rates of delayed arrivals certain airports are reportedly seeing a tenfold increase in the amount of luggage arriving on the wrong flights. Elsewhere, some global luggage shipping services are claiming to have seen demand almost triple month-on-month as travelers opt not to check their bags.
The mounting global crisis shows no sign of letting up. On Thursday, Emirates said the industry faced “airmageddon” and pointed the finger at an “incompetent” London Heathrow airport after it capped daily passenger numbers and urged airlines to stop selling flight tickets unfettered.
Heathrow hit back, following disarray at the airport when hundreds of lost bags were dumped in a hall to be processed at a later point after the system was overwhelmed. It blamed a lack of ground staff employed by airlines to check in passengers and organize luggage and suggested that carriers were “putting profit ahead of safe and reliable passenger journeys”. Similar cemeteries of lost bags have been witnessed in New York, Washington DC, Dublin, Amsterdam and elsewhere.
Some airlines have policies to compensate spending on replacement clothes and shoes only if the traveler’s luggage takes more than three weeks to return. “No-one is answering the phone,” says Pascal Sigg, whose two-leg flight from Zurich to Portland last week was hit by delays that forced them to stay overnight in London. “We are on a seven-week trip in the US with children aged two and four and we don’t know if we should buy what we need. This mess only gets worse by the hour.”
Due to the systematic problems, Sigg, who is a PhD student and editor, feels as though airlines “have decided to sacrifice luggage for people to make their trips”. But people’s suitcases include items that have “tremendous” sentimental and economic value, he adds. The automated helplines are providing few answers and would-be sight-seers are left in Kafkaesque nightmares as holidays across the world are ruined.
The worldwide fiasco could seemingly have been averted, with rebounding demand for summer air travel long forecast. But after tens of thousands of pilots, cabin crew staff, and airport workers across the world were made redundant due to pandemic bans on international travel, the industry has been slow to rehire.
In Australia, the leading airline, Qantas, is reportedly losing one in 10 bags at the regional hub in Sydney. It is suffering from a shortage of baggage handlers after it outsourced about 1,700 jobs during the pandemic in a decision later found to have been unlawful. There are also strikes in Europe due to working conditions and low pay.
In what it called a “creative” step towards reuniting people with their belongings, Delta – which reported a quarterly profit of $735m last week – flew a luggage-only plane filled with 1,000 lost bags from the UK to its hub in Detroit. But there remain thousands still estranged from their valuables, essentials and heirlooms amid a shambles that has been unfolding all year.
“I waited three hours at the luggage carousel until the early hours of the morning for a member of airline staff to finally arrive and tell me that there was not even a record of my bag on the system,” says Deborah Sergeant, who had flown from Mexico City to Lima with Copa in February. “She said ‘We’ll look for it and you better stick around here in Lima for a couple of weeks so we can send it to you more easily if it does turn up’. But then I never heard anything.”
Sergeant estimates her gigantic suitcase contained $1,500 worth of possessions and she has been left severely out of pocket after not being compensated and needing to buy a whole new wardrobe, plus numerous other items. “I was traveling with my whole life,” the teacher adds.
YouTuber Connor Colquhoun and his team are $50,000 down after two bags of filming gear went missing between Heathrow and Los Angeles in June. “Once we landed they wouldn’t tell us anything,” he says. “We have tried to contact the airline multiple times nearly every single day and we haven’t heard anything. It’s impossible to talk to a real human being.”
When bags do eventually turn up, in some cases, they are battered and bruised. Social media attention helps some people elicit reimbursements from often otherwise unresponsive helplines. Others have their luggage returned to their home address, but only after days of nail-biting anxiety.
American tourist Donna O’Connor, who traveled to Ireland on 30 June to spread the ashes of her late parents on a family farm, was separated from her bag containing them after a nine-hour delay. “I want them here, that’s why I brought them with me,” she told the Irish Independent.
O’Connor visited Dublin airport every day for a week this month, as opposed to traveling to the west of the country as planned, desperately trying to find the bag containing the precious remains of her parents. “I literally saw over a thousand cases,” she added. After little communication from Air Canada she suddenly received a bittersweet call saying they had sent the ashes back to her Chicago home. “It doesn’t help me to have it back in Illinois,” O’Connor said. “I just feel emotionally spent.”
In part thanks to technological advancements, the number of bags going missing has been on a downward trajectory over the last 10 years, but in 2019 it jumped amid a rise in demand and seven bags per 1,000 were mishandled by US airlines in June that year.
The levels of luggage “mishandled” this year has broadly not yet exceeded pre-pandemic rates, according to the data, until April. But Marc Casto, a travel agency executive from the Americas for Flight Centre Travel Group, expects the data through the summer to reflect a worsening situation.
“A significant number of people will not be reunited with their luggage; very likely more than at any time in history,” he says. “The industry faces more challenges than in any of my 25 years in the sector. Every segment of the travel industry is struggling with labor shortages, from gate agents and baggage handlers to flight attendants and airline pilots.”
Only when airlines and airports undergo an extensive process of hiring and training staff will the issues significantly ease, he predicts. “I sincerely advise all travelers to avoid checking luggage if possible,” Casto warns. Other experts have said to mitigate risk by buying tracking devices and taking photos of valuables inside the bag to help with any future insurance claims.
In news that will assuage some holidaymakers’ concerns, Mapfre SA said on Monday that most lost luggage ends up being returned to their owners, according to analysis of the claims they have received so far. The same day, Choi was still yet to receive good news from the airline. But she had noticed on her GPS tracker that her son’s bag had arrived in Mexico.
“We have already gone shopping for the essentials,” she says. “And we may still be without our luggage but we remain full of love and gratitude for this vacation.”