The secret life of checked airline baggage

On a recent flight, I had an interesting discussion with the man next to me. It turns out his job is to work with airports and airlines to streamline the process of baggage handling to reduce delays and misplaced bags and he told me how the system works. Apparently, there are miles of conveyor belts behind the scenes at airports that begin at the check-in counter and they have multiple sensors all along the way that use lasers to periodically check the barcode on the baggage tags to make sure that the bag gets transferred to the correct belt for the final destination. The sensors also check the times at each checkpoint and predict when it should reach the next checkpoint so that if a bag does not reach it at the expected time, an alert goes off and someone physically goes to see if the bag has mistakenly switched to the wrong belt, fallen off the belt, or has got jammed somewhere. He said that the goal is to have bags spend no more than 20 minutes in transit from one plane to another though they can often do it in 10 minutes.

This system has reduced the number of bags that go astray and I have to admit that it has been quite awhile since any bag of mine has failed to arrive with me on a domestic flight.

I was impressed at the sophistication of the system. Here is a video of a bag’s journey.

I was surprised when he told me that airlines have to pay a fee to the airport for each bag that is checked in. This means that airlines have an incentive to discourage people from checking in bags which may explain why we now have fees for doing so. Of course, that creates another problem with overhead bins in the cabin not being sufficient for all the carry-on luggage, which airlines seem to be dealing with using gate-side check-in which presumably does not require the payment of the fee.

Apart from my anecdotal experience of bags not getting lost anymore, this article confirms that things have improved, though they are still not perfect.

Sita, an international IT provider to the industry that monitors global baggage handling, says that the total number of “mishandled” bags has fallen from 46.9 million in 2007 to 24.8 million in 2018.

And this is during a period when the total number of air passengers nearly doubled.

Europe has by far the worst baggage handling performance, according to Sita. The continent clocks up 7.29 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers annually, compared to 2.85 in North America and just 1.77 in Asia.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I recently discovered that some airlines now are doing ultra-cheapo flights that don’t let you have any luggage at all.

  2. John Morales says

    Technically, stuff you carry in your pockets and so forth ain’t luggage.

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