A coin-sized piece of consumer electronics proved the surprise hit of the summer with travellers.
After a spring of surging insurance claims and widespread images of piled-up baggage, many will have felt some trepidation at seeing their suitcase whisked into the maw of the airport baggage system.
International data from the US showed rates of mishandled luggage climbed as the rebound in passenger numbers was met an understaffed aviation sector, leading more nervous travellers to invest in Bluetooth tracking devices to monitor their suitcase’s journey online.
The UK regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, does not hold such figures but delivery appears to have improved over the summer. Cuts to flight schedules and an urgent hiring spree staved off a feared “summer of lost luggage” at UK airports, although analysts believe the industry is not yet out of the woods.
The cap on passenger numbers at airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick, and large schedule cuts by airlines such as British Airways brought relief to ground handlers and a better experience for passengers, with consumer organizations receiving fewer complaints of lost bags.
At Heathrow and other airports, the arrivals board now no longer just tell when a plane has landed, but also if the bags have been delivered. The airport’s notorious “baggage mountain” in June was due to technical failure in the 50-year-old automated system in Terminal 2. But most pile-ups have been due to lack of staff – not simply in baggage handling but in all parts of aviation, from check-in to air traffic control.
Any flight delays leave scarce ground handlers out of position to attend to planes, causing delays to accumulate, with baggage issues only adding to the mix.
Lost bags are not only a distressing issue for customers but a huge firm for firms. Apart from the time-consuming administration of locating bags, and the huge expense of couriering them, those that stack up often soon produce an alarming smell: at best, unwashed holiday laundry; or worse, defrosting, leaking and rotting local delicacies brought from abroad. While many unclaimed bags from UK airports end up under the hammer at an auction house in Tooting, south London, others have to be incinerated.
For some, there is a simple solution. Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, says the airline should be thanked for liberating passengers from their baggage habits. About 80% of its passengers no longer check anything into the hold, deterred by the high charges Ryanair was the first to introduce. “We were the good guys. You have a much better experience at the airport. Why would you want to go and queue at a check-in desk, or wait at a carousel on arrival? Carry on your bag and off you go.”
Lost luggage is a bigger issue at larger hub airports, with connecting flights, O’Leary says: “On point-to-point travel you lose remarkably few. We lose about one in every 1,000 bags we carry. Through Heathrow, Schiphol, Gatwick to a lesser extent, and through Frankfurt has been utter chaos.”
He concedes it is not all the airports’ fault: “Flights are arriving late, passengers may make the connection – but the bags have got no chance.”
Aviation analyst Andrew Charlton says the situation has slightly ameliorated. But he also wonders how long passengers will choose to accept travel chaos: “People were so determined to travel this summer they were prepared to put up with it.”
With even Amazon reportedly luring aviation workers to its warehouses, airlines will have to employ more people in better conditions, he argues, leading to higher fares. “Eventually they are going to have to treat them like humans, rather than economic units. Will flying get better soon? Don’t know. But more expensive? Certainly.”