A coin-sized piece of consumer electronics proved the surprise hit of the summer with travellers.
After a spring of rising insurance claims and widespread images of piled-up luggage, many will have felt some trepidation as they saw their suitcase being swept away in the maw of the airport’s baggage system.
International US data showed rates of mishandled baggage rose as the rebound in passenger numbers was encountered in an understaffed aviation sector, leading more nervous travelers to invest in Bluetooth tracking devices to monitor the journey of their suitcase online.
The UK regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, does not hold such figures, but delivery appears to have improved over the summer. Cuts to flight times and an urgent hiring spree have averted a dreaded ‘lost baggage summer’ at UK airports, although analysts say the industry is not yet out of the woods.
Caps on passenger numbers at airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick and major timetable reductions by airlines such as British Airways have resulted in relief for ground handlers and a better experience for passengers, with consumer organizations receiving less complaints about lost luggage.
At Heathrow and other airports, the arrivals board no longer only shows when a plane has landed, but also whether baggage has been delivered. The airport’s infamous ‘baggage mountain’ in June was due to a technical failure in Terminal 2’s 50-year-old automated system. But most of the pileups are due to a lack of staff – not just in baggage handling , but in all parts of aviation, from check-in to air traffic control.
Any flight delays leave the few ground attendants out of position to tend to the planes, leading to a backlog of delays, with baggage issues only adding to the mix.
Lost bags are not only a painful problem for customers, but also a huge headache for businesses. Besides the tedious administration of bag location and the enormous expense of transporting them, those that pile up often produce an alarming smell: at best, unwashed holiday laundry; or worse, defrosting, leaking and rotting local specialties imported from abroad. While many unclaimed bags from UK airports end up under the hammer at an auction house in Tooting, south London, others are to be cremated.
For some, there is a simple solution. Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, said the airline was to be thanked for freeing passengers from their baggage habits. About 80% of its passengers no longer check anything in the hold, deterred by the high charges that Ryanair was the first to introduce. “We were the good guys. You have a much better experience at the airport. Why would you want to queue at a check-in counter or wait at a carousel when you arrive? Keep your bag and let’s go.
Baggage loss is a bigger problem at large hub airports, with connecting flights, says O’Leary: “On point-to-point routes, you lose remarkably little. We lose about one in every 1,000 bags we carry. At Heathrow, Schiphol, Gatwick to a lesser extent, and in Frankfurt, it’s total chaos.
He concedes it’s not entirely the fault of the airports: “Flights arrive late, passengers can connect – but luggage doesn’t stand a chance.”
Aviation analyst Andrew Charlton says the situation has improved slightly. But he also wonders how long passengers will choose to accept the chaos of travel: “People were so determined to travel this summer that they were ready to put up with it.”
Even Amazon would have attracted aviation workers to its warehouses, airlines will have to employ more people under better conditions, he argues, leading to higher fares. “Eventually, they will have to treat them as humans, rather than as economic units. Will the flight get better soon? I do not know. But more expensive? Certainly.”