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Confessions of an Airline Baggage Handler


Behind every checked bag, there’s a team of employees trying to get passenger and luggage to their destination on time.

The new Delta Air Lines television commercial portrays a little girl placing her special suitcase on the baggage belt at the airport. Viewers follow the child’s luggage as it makes its way through the conveyor system, is loaded on to the aircraft and is safely returned to its owner’s waiting arms at her destination.

While many travelers have not experienced this fairy-tale ending when it comes to bag and passenger arriving at their destination at the same time, the fact is that most of the time this is the case. Things can and do go wrong, but according to the 2014 SITA baggage report, an industry group that looks at baggage mishandling annually, the total number of mishandled bags in 2013 was down by 17.2 percent to 21.8 million. The improvements are even more marked when compared with a 5.1 percent increase in the number of passengers, to 3.13 billion, reducing the overall rate of mishandled luggage by 21.2 percent to 6.96 per thousand passengers. Baggage handling mishaps have decreased by nearly 50 percent over the past 10 years.

Behind every checked bag there’s a team of employees committed to ensuring that passengers’ luggage reaches its destination. FlyerTalk surveyed several airline baggage handlers to discuss how they approach their job and what common conditions disrupt the baggage handling process.

Jay, a baggage handler with American Airlines, has worked “up and down the east coast” for more than 35 years. As a baggage lead, he starts his day at 4 a.m. so that he can be on the job before 6. He explains that as a lead he works the same gate for a full shift, which gives him the opportunity to watch the schedule and estimate how many bags he can expect on each flight. This allows him to prepare with the right equipment and team members.


“There are typically four of us working each flight,” he tells FlyerTalk, with more experienced handlers on the day shift when there is much more traffic.

Time is the number one enemy of the baggage handler, says Pedro Laboy, a Southwest ramp agent at McCarran International Airport (LAS). This is because airlines want quick turnarounds to keep flights in the air and on time.

According to SITA, delayed bags were the number one reason for mishandled bags in 2013, at more than 81 percent, with 15.5 percent reported damaged bags and just 3.3 percent in lost or stolen luggage. Of the delayed luggage, the transfer of bags represented the number one cause of delayed bags. Transfer can include between the passenger and the airline at check in, or transfer between two connecting flights.

Handlers say there are many factors that can cause delays. Passengers arriving and checking bags at the last minute, late aircraft arrival or departure, or bad weather all affect baggage handling outcomes, putting extra pressure on the ramp teams to get luggage moving appropriately.

“When you’re unloading one [late] flight, you’re figuring out what’s going to happen with the next one in your head,” Laboy explains.

“We have a lot of flights coming in from the Northeast, so in the winter there can be significant weather delays,” he says. “We’re used to rain, but if the ramp closes because of lightning we go inside until the weather passes.”

Laboy says bad weather doesn’t have to be at his station to create an issue. “Whether it’s at your station or somewhere else, weather definitely creates a domino effect,” he explains. “If it’s weather at your station, you may get what’s called ‘flow control,’ where [Air Traffic Control] will not let any planes take off or land. When that happens, we have a problem, and everybody downline from that point has a problem. They have to play the catch-up game. You’re always battling time.”


When rushed, human error can occur. Agents and handlers can mistag a bag, or it can get separated to the wrong flight.

“If someone is in a rush, and destinations have a similar airport code, then every once in a while the bags get mixed up,” Jay explains. “We just remind everyone to be cautious and make sure you’re getting it right.”

Passengers have a role in ensuring their bags don’t get lost. Having a name and contact information is in or on the bag somewhere can go a long way in reducing time separated from your luggage, and making sure bags are in good condition so they don’t get caught in the handling system can also help.

“A bag isn’t lost altogether; it’s somewhere in the system,” writes Laboy. “But, if we can’t identify whose bag it is, it becomes difficult. There are so many bags that look alike, and sometimes people haven’t written their contact information down.”

In 2013 airlines took an average of 36 hours to repatriate delayed luggage to the passenger, SITA noted in the report.

A real issue today is passengers over-packing their suitcases, which increases the risk of damage. Handlers noted they have dealt with zippers breaking, contents tearing bags and items falling out of the suitcase.

“I keep a roll of tape on me at all times,” Jay says. “You do see it of course, so I’ll put everything back in, get the name off of the bag and go up to the gate so the gate agent can page the passenger” and let them know their bag was damaged.

Jack Rantowich, a bag room coordinator for the Delta Air Lines/Virgin Atlantic Team at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), says there are a lot of things passengers can do to help make sure their bags stay on the system track.

“[Passengers] need to pack their bags properly, and remove any old baggage tags from previous flights,” Rantowich recommends. “It’s also important for them to look after their luggage, as damaged bags have a tendency to get caught in the baggage system.”

According to SITA, the industry spends $31 billion to move luggage. With the right care and attention, traveling with luggage can have a happy ending.

[Photo: iStock]

Comments are Closed.
drvannostren November 3, 2014

@crystalgeyzer Those tags are for you, not me. ANYTHING can happen in the baggage belt system, including the baggage tag ripping off/falling off, zipper gets caught and rips the bag, etc etc. That's why minor damage to bags isn't covered, there's not much that can be done about that in most major airports. Now let's say the tag gets ripped off, unless the tag magically appears without a bag (which does happen sometimes, I'm not being sarcastic) then we have a problem. I've got a tagless bag, no idea where it's going or what flight #. So next step is look for the name tag. From there it's pretty easy and usually can be dealt with quickly. The agent looks up the name, finds out what flight you're on, re-issues the tag and we slap it back on there. Done! No name tag? Well now you're F'ed. Because there's literally no way for me to tell who this belongs to. Until you get to your destination and are bagless. Then it's the arriving agents calling the departing agents asking "do you guys have any pink polka dot bags laying around? Oh You do!? Great I think it belongs to ______ let me confirm and we can send it on the next flight". But 7/10 it's "do you have any black roller bags laying around that missed? Oh, you have 100...alright well...I'll get back to you". This is why "lost luggage" is a misnomer. It's not LOST, someone has the bag, they just don't know where it needs to be. At YEG we had an entire room of these bags, and lots of them had tags but took a few days to materialize, lots had no tags, and the really dusty ones had no tags and no id. So here's what you do to prevent this from basically EVER happening. 1. Buy a distinct bag. Anything to set it apart from the black 22 (which is a standard roller). Hard shell, silver, still looks classy. It doesn't need to be a Disney Princess bag. At least hard shell silver will narrow the search down. 2. Mark the bag if possible. DON'T BUY BAGGAGE STRAPS. All they do is get ripped off and caught on things, they are more harm than good. But, you can tie a pipe cleaner or something to the handle. As long as it's not pointy/obtrusive. A small piece of fabric works really well, and helps you at the carousel identify your bag quickly. If it's a silver bag hard shell, put some permanent sharpie on it, or a reflective sticker if you want. Anything to "personalize" it. Those are all good things to do, BEYOND your usual name tag, which should be there, because that's the first thing to look for. A bag with a name tag window usually ensures it won't rip off either. Know your bag brand. There's nothing worse than "oh yea it's a black duffel...but I don't know what brand". Odds are your bag has a brand on it. Know it. Lastly, put something INSIDE the bag. Eventually the search for the owner of these bags gets to opening it up. A name tag in the face of the bag can be a saving grace. 3. Take a picture. Seriously, it takes 2 seconds, before you check your bag in. In case it's not delivered you can show them, in case it's broken, you've got proof it wasn't checked in that way. I know this sounds a bit ridiculous and time consuming but they really aren't. Most of it is just awareness and pre-planning once. You do all this stuff once (with the exception of the picture) and it's done until you get a new bag.

drvannostren November 3, 2014

@flyingmusicianlax In full disclosure no item is really "safe". But there are things you can do, and things we (formerly) can do to help. 1. Put a FRESH fragile stick on whatever the item is, in a visible place (Ie: if you have a violin and 1 side of the case is round and the other is flat, put it on the round side because that'd be face up) but don't feel the need to plaster 100 stickers on it, that'll likely piss someone off and while they won't intentionally break your stuff, it makes me think you assume I'm an idiot. I also say FRESH because guess what, if I see a fragile tag for Air Canada and I'm working at WestJet, maybe whatever was in this box was fragile LAST time, but not this time. The sticker might fall off as well, so a new one will likely be better. 2. Pack better. Don't put a bottle of liquor in your checked bag and call it fragile. I travel with liquor bottles all the time and not once has one ever broken, because when you wrap the bottle in shirts, socks etc and put it right in the center of your bag, not near the edges, top or bottom, then it's basically insulated. 3. Travel carry on. As much as I HATE seeing people walk on planes with guitars, if the airline will let you, just do it. 4. Buy a hard shell case, based on your handle I'm assuming you travel with musical gear. There's nothing stupider to me than to bring a guitar in basically a backpack. Even if I do everything I PERSONALLY can, there's no telling what the next person will do, or what happens when bags shift in flight. 5. Don't get too anal. This one is very specific, some people take their fragiles MUCH to seriously. I'm not saying your guitar or whatever isn't important. But what you SEE might not be what's happening. Also, airline employees are often ignorant to what other employees are doing. If they're not doing that job, they often have no idea what the job entails. I put a guitar on a belt loader one day to send it up into the plane and the gate agent came up to me and said "everything goes in there with the bags? even fragiles and guitars?"...I simply looked at her, amazed at the stupidity of the question, and said "yes", what I wanted to say was "no they go on the roof rack". Similar situation, I also had another guitar placed on the belt (I say placed when I mean placed, I literally THROW bags on to the belt, because I know how to do it without breaking stuff and even throw is too strong of a word, gently toss might be more accurate) and he came down and berated me. He said something like "THE PASSENGER WHO OWNS THAT GUITAR IS IN ROW 3 AND SITTING RIGHT ABOVE YOU AND SAW EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID TO IT" my calm response was "ok, so what did he say" and it came back as something like you threw it forcefully or whatever. I said "bring him down here and inspect it, I personally guarantee it's not broken", he took down my badge number, my name and said "you'll be getting a call from Toronto if this thing is broken"....needless to say, I never got that call. It's like a baby, you might toss it into the air, and catch it playfully, if it's your kid....but if I see you doing that with MY KID, I'm gonna freak out. TL;DR, pack really well and it won't be a problem, we aren't out there trying to break your stuff. But a chandelier in a cardboard box....probably won't survive.

crystalgeyzer November 2, 2014

The article says to indicate your name and contact info somewhere on the bag, but everytime I attach a travel tag to the exterior of my bag, the checkin agent always removes it or tucks it into the bag. I guess so the tag doesnt get caught on the machinery. Are dangling tags the best way to attach contact info or is there a better way?

flyingmusicianlax November 2, 2014

Drvannostren: thanks for offering! What's the best way to ensure a fragile item is truly treated as such?

drvannostren November 1, 2014

None of this is a revelation to me, as a baggage handler for around 6 years, I've seen just about all there is to see. If anyone has any follow up questions feel free to ask.