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Holiday Travel: The Airline Most Likely to Lose Your Luggage

For many travelers, having a flight delayed or canceled is on their list of worst vacation nightmares. But making it to your destination only to find out your suitcases didn’t is a whole different kind of disaster.
In September, the most recent month for which data is available, the top 10 US carriers “mishandled” more than 177,300 checked bags, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ monthly Air Travel Consumer Report.
That’s 480 damaged, delayed, lost or stolen pieces of luggage for every 100,000 bags checked. It may not seem like a lot but in 2021 alone, more than 1.9 million bags were mishandled by US-based airlines, according to data from the bureau.
Which airlines are the worst for lost, delayed or damaged luggage?
American, the largest airline in the world, ranked at the top for mishandling luggage, closely followed by economy carrier JetBlue.
Here’s the list.
Luggage Mishandled by Airlines Airline Bags mishandled per 1,000 in Sept 2022 Bags mishandled per 1,000 in Sept 2021 American 6.3 5.6 Jetblue 6.1 4.8 Alaska 5.9 4.9 Frontier 5.1 3.6 United 4.6 3.8 Southwest 4.6 3.2 Spirit 4.4 4.7 Delta 3.1 5.2 Hawaiian 2.7 2 Allegiant 1.7 1.4
On average, American mishandled 6.3 bags per 1,000 in September, according to the report — a major drop compared to the 9.3 bags per 1,000 bags during August, when the summer travel season was near its peak.
In a statement shared with CNET, American said it strives to return delayed luggage to customers as quickly as possible.
“Unfortunately, weather and operational issues may slow down the process in some instances,” a spokesperson said. “We understand it can be frustrating when travel doesn’t go as planned, and our team works hard to correct issues when they arise.”
One of the smallest carriers on the list, the low-cost Allegiant, had the best record — only 1.7 bags per 1,000 mishandled.
“Our grounds crews work very hard to maintain that ranking and they deserve all the credit for treating customers’ baggage as if it was their own,” an Allegiant spokesperson told CNET.
But there’s always a tradeoff. The same Air Travel Consumer Report found Allegiant had one of the worst records for on-time arrivals.
The problem appears to be cyclical, based on peak travel seasons. According to the Department of Transportation, in January, there were just 191,624 mishandled bags. By June, that number jumped to 301,633 pieces of luggage — but dropped to 261,278 in August and 177,304 in September.
“As passenger numbers swell around the holidays, we expect the number of mishandled baggage may also increase,” Meghan Walch, product director for InsureMyTrip, told CNET.
How can I avoid having a bag lost or delayed?
The first thing to do is remove any old tags, said Melissa Klurman, a travel reporter for The Points Guy, which like CNET is owned by Red Ventures.
That includes “the little bar codes that get put on the side of your suitcase,” Klurman told CNET. “I’m guilty of leaving them on, too. Take them all off. Do a thorough investigation. You don’t want anything that’s going to confuse your routing.”
Klurman is a veteran traveler who has dealt with lost luggage before. She still prefers the flexibility and comfort of checking a bag.
One tip she has is getting to the airport early — “but not crazy early.”
“If you check your bag more than four hours before your flight takes off, it goes into holding,” Klurman said. “And that adds a whole other layer of chances for it to get lost.”
Read on: The Worst US Airlines for Delays and Cancellations
Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, told CNET that while there are no guarantees, the direct approach is best.
“When booking a flight, remember that fewer connections mean fewer opportunities for baggage to get lost en route,” Klee said in an email.
How to prepare for a lost bag
Always have a spare change of clothes in your carry-on, Klurman said. And, if possible, keep expensive or irreplaceable items — laptops, medications, jewelry — there, too.
She also suggested keeping copies of your itinerary with your contact information in all your checked bags so that if they’re discovered in transit, the airline is able to get them to you promptly.
And she and Klee both pack tracking tiles like the Apple AirTag to keep tabs on their suitcases.
“The airline may not know where your bag is but the AirTag uses GPS. That has helped a number of people. They were able to use that AirTag and say to the airline, ‘My bag never left my home airport.'”
What do I do if the airline loses my luggage?
If your luggage doesn’t come down the carousel with everyone else’s — or has damage you didn’t check it in with — notify airline personnel immediately and file a report.
Especially if your bag is damaged, filing a report before you leave the airport prevents anyone from claiming something happened at a later date. If your suitcase never turns up, hold onto your claim slip. That’s the only proof you have that you checked your luggage.
You’ll likely be given a reference number to use to check online to find out if the bag has been recovered. Keep it somewhere safe — and take a photo.
After departing the airport, you should consider filing a consumer complaint with the US Transportation Department.
What are my rights when it comes to lost or delayed luggage?
Kinga Krzeminska/Getty Images
The Department of Transportation’s aviation consumer protection website has detailed information on travelers’ rights when it comes to lost baggage.
If your bag is declared lost after being checked with a US-based carrier, the airline must compensate you for its contents, up to $3,800 on domestic flights and about $1,780 for international flights.
While the airlines will reimburse you for clothing and many other items, cash, electronics and other fragile or expensive items are often not covered. (Travel insurance may protect those items, as well as more of the necessities bought on the trip.)
If your bag is delayed, the airline must pay for replacement clothing or other “reasonable, verifiable, and actual” purchases, though they can set a maximum daily payout.
Carriers can differ on when a bag is deemed irretrievably “lost,” according to the Transportation Department, ranging from five to as many as 14 days.
And an airline may ask for receipts or other proof for items in your bag. So take photos of the contents of your suitcase before you head to the airport, Klurman said. Also, know the brand, size and color of your suitcase and any telling accessories or markings.
Read on: American Airlines Agrees to $7.5 Million Settlement Over Unfair Checked-Luggage Fees

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