Airlines try to keep luggage from taking separate vacation

Last Monday, Gerald and Kay Sullivan (not their real names) boarded Continental flight 518 on the first leg of their trip to Nantucket island off the coast of Massachusetts for two weeks' vacation. Unfortunately, their luggage seemed to have been given other travel plans. Instead of going to La Guardia Airport in New York and then to Nantucket airport, which uses ACK as the abbreviation on baggage tags, their luggage headed for Akron, Ohio. An all-out search followed, with travel agents and Continental baggage trackers deployed. A couple of days later, someone at the Akron airport happened to notice the bags and sent them onto Nantucket.

The Sullivans' case was not dramatic or all that disturbing, even to them. What is disturbing, travelers say, is how often such scenarios occur. In the first half of 1987, there were 3,149 complaints about lost, delayed, and damaged luggage. That was 1,101 more than in all of 1986, the Department of Transportation reports.

The generic culprit is deregulation, which lowered fares and encouraged millions of people to board airplanes rather than buses to get from here to there. When the government stopped mapping out routes for the airlines in 1978, airlines found it more efficient to shelve linear routes for the hub-and-spoke system. That meant passengers would have to change planes more often, making it more likely that their luggage would be lost.

These two factors - more travelers and more connections - can create a ``logistical nightmare if it's not well-planned,'' says United Airlines spokesman Joseph Hopkins. United just invested $35 million in a new terminal at O'Hare to prevent such debacles. Each bag gets a bar code sticker, akin to those on grocery products. A computer scans the code and sends it on one of 79 underground belts to the proper gate. The system can handle 480 bags a minute, versus 75 the old way.

Still, if an incoming flight is delayed more than a half-hour, even technology probably won't help.

``To the extent that you can reduce delays, you will make a great dent in the [wayward luggage] problem,'' says James McCarthy, spokesman for the Air Transport Association. In this respect, help may be on the way: Last week the Transportation Department announced further rules to make sure that six airlines at four of the busiest airports come closer to their published departure and arrival times.

Until the system improves, there are steps travellers can take to prevent luggage from getting lost or hasten its recovery, according to airline officials and travel agents:

Don't check in at the last minute, when your luggage is unlikely to make it. But ``if you check in two hours ahead,'' says William Goldstein, chief executive officer of the Travel-On travel agency, ``you're more likely to lose your bags,'' because they will be sitting around and may be tempting prey for theives.

Keep identification inside and out, and put an itinerary in the bags. That way, if the luggage gets misplaced and isn't found until after you've returned from vacation, it will be sent to you at home.

If you have valuables, and can't carry them on, take out insurance. Airlines only have to pay $1,250 per person for bags lost on domestic flights.

For the super-frequent traveller, keep an itemized list of everything in the bags. Mr. Goldstein never throws away a receipt when he buys a piece of clothing since airlines require receipts for lost goods - and then depreciate the value before reimbursing the passenger.

Fill out the lost claim form immediately. While you have seven days to file for damaged bags and 21 days for lost ones, you might have more trouble convincing the airlines of a valid claim if you delay.

Be persistent. The technology, called the Airlines Computerized Baggage Tracing System, is in place to find your bags. When a bag is lost for more than a week (longer for some airlines), a description of the bag is put in the computer. So if you flew on Delta and your bag ended up on a Northwest flight, the system can match your description with the bag the Northwest folks picked up.

If all else fails, look for yourself. Every major airline has a warehouse where they store unclaimed luggage. At Eastern's football-field sized warehouse near the Miami airport, they let you come in and search for yourself. Not all airlines do that, so check it out before booking a flight to the warehouse of your choice.

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