Your bags don’t materialize during the first go-round of the baggage carousel.

No big deal.

Two rounds, and you get a little bit nervous.

Three rounds, and you panic – especially if all your underwear is in that bag.

Your flight arrives on time but your baggage doesn’t. It’s a chance you take when flying, and it may get worse this summer when air travel could reach record highs. About 207 million Americans are expected to take to the skies between Memorial Day and Labor Day, up from 204 million last summer and 158 million a decade ago, according to the Air Transport Association.

More travelers means more bags – and potentially more delayed luggage. “The risk increases for passengers who are connecting,” said Chicago Aviation Commissioner Nuria Fernandez. “Delayed baggage is a fact of very busy air travel.”

And it will be busy this summer for local travelers who might be eager to fly, instead of drive, because of rising gas prices, she said.

O’Hare is bracing for about 76 million travelers this summer, a 3 percent bump from the same period last year, Fernandez said. At Midway, 17.8 million travelers are expected, a 15 percent increase from last summer. During the busy May-to-August season last year, about 1.35 million bags were reported mishandled – or lost, damaged, delayed or stolen – by passengers on domestic flights, according to monthly statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But airline executives say they’re ready for the summer rush. Though they empathize with travelers inconvenienced by late luggage, they say it doesn’t happen as often as people think.

The 1.35 million mishandled bags reported last summer represented only about 6 percent of passengers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.

“In the scope of things, delayed bags are a very small percentage, about 5 percent for Southwest,” said Mitchell Pintur, manager of Southwest’s Central Baggage Services department. “Lost luggage is an even smaller percentage of that figure. But we understand that when your bags are delayed or are missing, it is obviously emphasized.”

That’s an understatement, according to 36-year-old Michelle Carney, a Chicago resident still scarred by a 2004 trip to New York for New Year’s Eve.

“My friend lived in a walk-up apartment in Manhattan with no doorman, so one of us would have to wait around all day in case the baggage delivery service showed up,” Carney said. “It practically ruined my trip.”

Molli Megasko agrees.

Megasko, who lives in Streeterville, Ill., still has flashbacks about a bad bag experience in 2002. And it wasn’t even her bag. “My three friends and I saved all our money to buy cute little dresses and clothes for a spring break cruise that was leaving from Ft. Lauderdale,” said Megasko, 22. “When my friend’s luggage didn’t show up at the airport, needless to say tears were shed. We spent all our money on nice outfits for this trip, and we felt so bad for our friend.”

Despite promises from the airline, Megasko said her friend’s clothes weren’t delivered in time for the cruise’s departure. “It was madness, and we’re picky girls shopping in Ft. Lauderdale for nice dinner dresses,” Megasko said. “A lot of their shops sell tacky things and biker clothing, but we had to get something.”

Carney was luckier, since her bag was delivered before she would’ve had to buy an all-new New Year’s Eve outfit. But she was afraid to check them on the way home to Chicago – or anywhere else.

“Up until about a year ago, I wouldn’t go anywhere for longer than four days because I wouldn’t be able to carry on enough clothes for the trip,” Carney said. “Losing bags is such a frustrating experience, and airlines are unresponsive about it.”

Not so, said Southwest’s Pintur. Southwest is taking extra steps to keep customers and their bags together this summer. At Midway, Southwest is dispatching baggage service employees to “carousel duty” so that they can more quickly respond to customer concerns, he said.

American Airlines is ready, too, but customers won’t see additional precautions, spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said.

“We’ve been in this business 80 years, so we understand – unlike other carriers that are younger – how our traffic peaks in the summer, and we can handle it,” Fagan said.

Customers also can help prevent baggage delays or loss, airline executives say.

“Give yourself at least an hour before your flight to minimize complications,” Pintur said. “Make sure there is proper identification on the bags, and update any information on tags like your address or phone info.”

Fagan said many baggage delays are caused by weather, so she advised travelers – especially those making connections – to give themselves enough time between flights.

Whether you have one flight or three ahead of you, pack smart.

“If you have a very valuable item with you, don’t put it in checked luggage,” Fagan said. “That includes computers, medicine or jewelry. Carry on some clothing items in case there is a delay.”

Carney has learned that lesson, plus gained a new perspective on checking luggage.

“When I go down to baggage claim now, I always think there’s just a 50/50 chance I’ll get my bag on time,” Carney said. “So now, when I see it on the carousel, I’m so excited, saying: ‘Oh, there’s my bag. It’s here!’ “

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