Will Your American Tourister Become an Accidental Tourist?

IN the movie ``The Accidental Tourist,'' business travellers are counseled to ``bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble.'' Just back from Lima by way of Miami, Ra'ul Rivera of the Bronx wishes he had followed that advice. Eastern Airlines has lost his luggage. ``They were totally irresponsible,'' he fumes after filling out forms for an hour and a half.

Mr. Rivera is not alone in his dilemma. US airlines reported mishandling 226,300 pieces of luggage on domestic flights in September. On a historical basis, a Department of Transportation spokesman says, mishandled baggage complaints are second only to grievances about flight service. The Air Transport Association (ATA) says US airlines estimate they carry 675 million pieces of luggage worldwide per year, and misplace 1 percent.

Most mishandled bags ``are just lost for a little while,'' says Tim Neale of the ATA, the trade association of the industry.

However, Chris Witkowski, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP), points out that misplaced luggage can ruin a trip. ``If the bags are not there, people become miserable. I frequently hear from people whose luggage did not make it to the dock when they are taking a cruise. They have to wait to get to the next port to buy new clothes. It creates a nightmare.''

Exactly why airlines lose luggage is not clear. According to a May 1985 report issued by the Paris-based International Civil Airports Association, the main causes for mishandled bags were the simultaneous arrival of wide-body jets at major hubs, the late arrival of handling crews to transfer bags to connecting flights, and misallocation of the moving belts that bring luggage to passengers.

Since that report, however, the industry has embarked on a program to improve its performance. It has established minimum connecting times for allowing baggage transfers and maximum delivery times for them. At 17 major airports, airlines must segregate bags going to other carriers from other luggage, mail, and cargo. Transferred luggage receives first priority. At 39 major airports, mandatory attendance is required for committees set up to evaluate local problems.

The airlines have also established new electronic systems designed to handle initial passenger inquiries about misplaced bags. A separate computer keeps track of bags lost for more than five days. The industry is now studying whether to establish a single system for all airlines.

Mergers between airlines sometimes cause temporary problems as crews adapt to different methods of handling baggage, says a Transportation Department spokesman. This is apparent in the latest statistics which show US Air, which has merged with Piedmont, with a relatively high rate of lost luggage. The strike at Eastern Airlines has given that troubled carrier the worst record in the industry.

If a bag is lost permanently, the airlines have a limited liability. On domestic flights, they will pay a maximum of $1,250 per passenger unless ``excess valuation'' insurance has been taken out. This costs about $1 per $100 in value. But airlines will not pay for lost cameras, electronics, or jewelry.

At Continental Airlines, David Messing says the policy is to pay customers for needed toiletries and clothes if the luggage has not been found within four hours. However, Continental will only pay for a portion of the new clothes, reasoning the clothing will be used for more than the single trip. Many airlines will also depreciate the value of the lost luggage. All airlines have different time deadlines for when they will pay for lost bags.

Travelers who have their bags misplaced on international trips will be paid $9.07 per pound of luggage. Mr. Witkowski believes this low amount is preventing improvement in service since airline liability is so limited. ``The problem can be particularly bad for travelers going to third world countries,'' says Witkowski.

The options for passengers are limited. Witkowski suggests taking out extra insurance for bags that are checked. In many instances, homeowner's or renter's insurance will cover a portion of the loss (for a booklet on facts and advice for passengers, send $2 to Aviation Consumer Action Project, P.O. Box 19029, Washington, D.C. 20036).

Current Federal Aviation Administration regulations limit travelers to two carry-on bags. For many seasoned travelers this is enough. As the ``Accidental Tourist'' notes, ``In travel, as in most of life, less is always more.''

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