You set your bag on the conveyor belt, the airline's check-in clerk slaps ID tags and a destination label on it and off it goes. The odds that both you and your suitcase will be on the same flight are overwhelmingly in your favor and, thanks to constant improvements in the way baggage is handled, getting better all the time. But statistically, there's a one percent chance that your bag won't reach your destination at the same time you do.
The Ideal Scenario
Soon after your suitcase vanishes behind the rubber curtain, it merges with the bags of other passengers -- in large airports, thousands an hour. After traveling up, down and around a vast network of high-speed conveyor belts, it arrives in a cavernous warehouse-like facility. Here, it will be scanned by Transportation Security Administration staff to make sure there's nothing in it that shouldn't be there, primarily explosives, illegal drugs or weapons. If they see any reason to open it, they will. Your bag might also be subjected to other checks, including sniffer dogs, X-ray and laser scanners and machinery designed to detect trace amounts of banned substances. If it passes muster, luggage handlers load your suitcase onto a wagon with the baggage of others on your flight. This wagon is driven onto the tarmac and its contents packed into the hold of the plane.
After your flight, your checked luggage will make it’s way to baggage claim where you will be reunited with your belongings. We always advise you double-check the luggage tag to ensure it is really yours and to examine each piece of luggage to ensure it hasn’t been damaged.
What Can Go Wrong
SITA (Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques), an airline service organization that tracks progress in improving luggage handling, reports that worldwide, 26 million bags were "mishandled" in 2012, a dramatic improvement from the 47 million that went missing in 2007. Put another way, the system works perfectly 99 percent of the time. When it doesn't, the main reason involves bags that must be unloaded and transferred to a connecting flight within 60 minutes. Accidental mislabeling of destination codes by check-in clerks, or identification labels becoming detached so handlers don't know where the bags are supposed to go, are others. Your bag could also be loaded into the wrong wagon, and from there onto the wrong plane. The TSA downplays the problem of theft from checked baggage, but hundreds of its employees have been fired for that reason.
Most likely, you will not experience these issues. Always be sure to hold onto your baggage claim ticket just in case things take a turn for the worse with your luggage, like a flight cancellation or extended layover where lots of luggage moving occurs. Keeping important items like medication, chargers, electronics and credit cards or debit cards inside your carry on bag is the best practice for ensuring they don’t get lost.
What Happens to Orphaned Luggage
If your suitcase doesn't make it onto the same flight as you but remains in the airport, the best you can hope for is that the airline puts it on the next flight out and has it delivered to you. However, if you and your suitcase are en route to different final destinations, that reunion will take longer for the airline to arrange. If your suitcase and the ID tags have parted company, and you've neglected to put your name and contact information on the outside of your bag so you can be tracked down, the reunion with your missing bag might never happen. If a lost bag sits unclaimed for 90 days, its contents can be donated to charity or sent to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama to be sold as second-hand merchandise.
Stacking the Odds in Your Favor
Accidents happen, but to increase the chances they don't happen to you, use luggage sturdy enough to survive rough baggage handling. Familiarize yourself with TSA regulations about what you can and can't pack in checked bags and follow them to the letter. Make sure your name and contact information are clearly indicated on the outside of your bag, preferably in more than one place. Snap a picture of your bag, showing the ID tag, before it heads off down the conveyor belt. Put all prescription medicines, jewelry, electronic devices, breakables and especially cash in your carry-on bag, thereby giving handlers no reason to take an interest in opening it. Put some visual identification mark on your suitcase so you can distinguish it from similar bags on the carousel like stickers or duct tape, or describe it as an identifying feature if you need to file a lost luggage claim.
In most cases, departing with your luggage for domestic flights and even nonstop international flights will usually end with you and your luggage reuniting at the end. Following travel tips in the airport might increase these chances, so take a last-minute skim over these tips the next time you’re about to travel. Whether you’re flying well known airlines like Southwest or Delta Air Lines, or taking a small plane to a lesser known location, it’s better to be safe than sorry.