Airline baggage problems to worsen


WASHINGTON (AP) – Add this to the nightmare scenario for summer air travelers: the growing chance that their baggage is on another flight, possibly to a different destination.

A congressional panel on Wednesday seemed sympathetic, but left the clear impression help is not on the way.

“I’m afraid more baggage turmoil is almost an inevitability,” said Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

Mica, R-Fla., noted that the number of mishandled bags was 23 percent higher in 2005 than in 2004. For every 1,000 passengers, there were 6.04 reports of bags that were delayed, lost, stolen or damaged last year, according to the Transportation Department.

The likelihood that bags will be lost or late increases with air travel volume, and this summer is expected to be the busiest ever.

Not only does the Federation Aviation Administration predict record numbers of passengers this year, but airplanes also will be more crowded than ever.

The airlines are ready for it, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents large airlines.

“We do not expect a meltdown,” he said.

John Meanen, the group’s executive vice president, told lawmakers that there are not any systematic solutions to the problem of mishandled bags.

Some people have suggested, for example, using tags for wireless tracking of luggage.

But most of the time, said Meanen, “We know where it is, but it isn’t where it’s supposed to be.”

When the number of mishandled bags jumps, it usually is because an airline is having a specific problem, Meanen said. Often the problem is staffing, he said.

Too few workers was the reason for massive problems with US Airways passengers’ bags over the 2004 Christmas holiday season, according to a report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

That December, 42 percent of consumer complaints about baggage had to do with US Airways, said Samuel Podberesky, an assistant general counsel at the department. Those problems continued into 2005 and may account for much of the increase in the number of mishandled bags that year, Podberesky said.

“One-time anomalies are not likely to be repeated on a regular basis,” Podberesky told the subcommittee.

US Airways has since hired thousands of employees, but many financially struggling airlines have trimmed staff to cut costs.

“I’m particularly concerned that airline staffing requirements may be too thin,” said Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa.

Security delays also can cause bags to be lost or to arrive late, Mica said.

Last summer at Fort Lauderdale Airport in Florida, Mica said, delays in screening passengers caused “near riots.”

He believes the Transportation Security Administration ought to speed the screening of checked bags by installing bomb-detection machines as part of the airport conveyor belt systems that move luggage.

Only 14 airports have done so, and of those, only three of the busiest – San Francisco, Boston and Denver – have, Mica said.

The TSA’s acting assistant administrator, Charlotte Bryan, told the panel that 29 airports will have the systems in two years. She noted that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of bags were lost or damaged because of TSA’s security screening.

Meanen echoed that thought, pointing out that 99 percent of checked bags arrive undamaged and on time.

But, he said, as a former baggage handler, “I apologize to everyone whose bag was lost or delayed.”

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