Piled high and stretching in all directions, photographs of a growing mountain of luggage at Heathrow airport this week were the stuff of holiday nightmares.
In spaces where passengers would normally bustle, there were suitcases. Hundreds of them. The bags were clearly not being collected by arriving passengers, and equally clearly not heading for a plane. The result of a ‘complex baggage system failure’, said the airport.
It was enough to make anyone who has ever lost a bag at an airport shudder.
For of all the moments of potential stress when travelling, surely one of the worst is that sinking feeling when you step off the plane at your destination airport, only to discover your baggage hasn’t made it, too.
In spaces where passengers would normally bustle in Heathrow Airport, there were suitcases
Have you been affected by airport chaos?
Suddenly all those plans you had to head straight to the pool are out of the window and replaced with a dash to the shops for emergency toiletries and underwear.
It was a scenario bride Melissa Waite, 39, found herself in earlier this month when she flew to Cyprus for her £20,000 dream wedding. Some of the wedding luggage failed to make it on the TUI flight from Manchester Airport. The beauty therapist and her husband-to-be, Michael, 32, had earlier been on the verge of calling off their wedding after flights for 50 of their guests were cancelled.
Bride and groom arrived, but their luggage containing wedding clothes and outfits for two of the pageboys did not.
‘I thought the luggage would arrive within a few days, but it didn’t,’ says mother-of-four Melissa. ‘I had to travel to a shopping mall that was an hour and 20 minutes away from where we were staying — during a heatwave that had temperatures of 38c.
‘I’d spent at least £350 on wedding clothes for the boys, maybe more. And I did not know what they would wear for the wedding without their pageboy outfits, which matched everyone else. It was really stressful.
‘I started to give up at one point, thinking that the wedding was not going to happen. I was supposed to be on holiday but I was spending all my time ringing Manchester Airport, and we had to pay for new flights to help some of our guests.’
Thankfully, the missing luggage did turn up, six days later and on the eve of the wedding.
‘Our wedding day was beautiful — as nice as it could be. But afterwards I just felt drained,’ says the exasperated bride.
Travellers wait in a long queue to pass through the security check at Heathrow
Given the current chaos at UK airports, anyone planning to hop on a plane this summer could be forgiven for feeling an increased sense of trepidation.
The crux of the problem is that airlines and baggage handling companies were forced to cut staff numbers at the start of the pandemic and are now struggling to rehire to meet the renewed demand.
Should you be worried? Is a lost suitcase a lost cause? And where do bags go to when separated from their owners?
The trouble with transfers
At any given moment, as much as 236,000 tons of baggage is up in the sky, criss-crossing continents.
In 2019, the last year of normal travel before the pandemic struck, 25.4 million bags were mislaid during air travel globally, a figure roughly equivalent to 5.6 bags going missing — or being tampered with — for every 1,000 passengers.
Not surprisingly, this dipped during 2020, when passenger numbers plummeted, to 3.5 bags per 1,000 passengers, but had climbed back to 4.35 bags per 1,000 passengers last year, the most recent figures — a rise of 24 per cent.
The good news is that, according to Sita, the international IT provider to the industry which monitors global baggage handling, travellers today are far less likely to be parted from their suitcases than 15 years ago.
But if in a normal year even 25 million bags — carried by 4.5 billion passengers — go missing, the question is why?
Nearly half of all suitcases that go astray do so because of problems with flight transfers.
Put simply, if your flight to the Caribbean, Australia or wherever involves a transfer elsewhere before you reach your final port of call, the chance of your suitcase going astray increases. This is because while you may be able to dash between planes and make it to your seat in the nick of time, your luggage may not move so quickly.
Robots are increasingly being deployed to take on some of the work of handling baggage — a task that is the responsibility of both the airport and the airlines
Passengers at Heathrow Terminal 3 complained of being in immigration queues for up to two hours as they tried to board their flights
Then there are the bags that go astray because a label has fallen off or because a luggage handler or another passenger has picked up the wrong case (yes, after a 12-hour flight one black bag looks much like the next one).
Perhaps the bigger question is, if your bag goes missing, will you get it back? The answer is yes . . . probably.
But 23 per cent of cases that go astray and turn up have been damaged or had items go missing and — unfortunately — six per cent of those that go missing are lost for ever in a baggage black hole.
WHERE DO missing cases end up?
If one, or more likely several bags, don’t make it on to a flight, the baggage will be collected and taken to an airport storage area, where the baggage label (a barcode which also carries the airport code — LHR for London Heathrow, for instance) will be read.
It should mean that bag is put on to the next available flight to its destination and delivered to the owner.
What’s much trickier is if the label has fallen off, meaning a hunt to match bag with owner.
This requires the owner to file a missing baggage report, preferably including lots of identifying detail. All major airlines use the World Tracer System to track luggage, using information you provide about the appearance of your bag, its contents and journey history.
Baggage handlers are not allowed, however, simply to open a suitcase and have a rummage.
Passengers at Manchester Airport were left waiting for hours in the busy check-in desks
At Heathrow Airport passengers continue to face hours of waiting just to check in at the under staffed terminal
There is an official process to sanction a secondary search, in which case the bag can be opened and the handler will look for contact details that might help reunite bag with its owner, or identify objects that match a lost luggage report.
Of those bags deemed to be forever lost — after a period of 21 days — there’s a good chance they will end up at a luggage auction, of which London auction house Greasby’s is the biggest.
There’s an entire industry of savvy bargain hunters who will pay for a mystery case (most valuable items are removed and auctioned separately) in the hope that the contents might be useful.
Pre-Covid, every month Greasby’s was auctioning around 200 suitcases, which major airlines at Heathrow, including British Airways, had been unable to reunite with their owners.
The auction house takes a commission and the rest goes to the airline, meaning that they profit from having lost your case!
PLAYING TAG WITH sticky LABELS
The most widely used system for labelling luggage remains the barcode system — that’s the sticky label ground staff thread through the handles of your case when you check it in.
It’s a quick way of encoding luggage information, but it does require a scanning device to be pointed at the barcode to ‘read’ that information.
In some smaller airports, these labels are not routinely scanned, but are sorted manually.
Typically, your bag will make it on to the plane before you do. Before departure, it allows airlines to check that no bag is on the plane without the passenger also being present (if they don’t board the plane, the bag must be removed).
However, this does not act in reverse — if you make it to your plane but your bag does not, don’t expect the pilot to delay take-off.
If one, or more likely several bags, don’t make it on to a flight, the baggage will be collected and taken to an airport storage area
There are similar chaotic scenes at Bristol Airport as passengers face long queues
The bags were clearly not being collected by arriving passengers, and equally not heading for a plane
And if there is a luggage system failure, as happened at Heathrow this week, the results can rapidly escalate — if a luggage belt in a busy terminal carries 8,000 bags an hour, those bags will swiftly pile up when it’s out of action.
COULD ROBOTS BE THE SOLUTION?
Quicker, more reliable solutions than a barcode do exist and experts say that a more rapid implementation of these methods could ease the lost luggage nightmare.
Robots are increasingly being deployed to take on some of the work of handling baggage — a task that is the responsibility of both the airport and the airlines.
Baggage handling is contracted out by the airlines to ground handling companies, while baggage transport systems such as the conveyor belts that whisk your bag off at check-in are the responsibility of the airport.
Heathrow Terminal 3 paved the way for the future of baggage handling when it opened a robotic handling hub in 2016.
Airlines have been asked to adopt RFID technology (Radio Frequency Identification), a tagging system also deployed in retail, which transmits and receives information via an antenna and a microchip.
Because the information is transmitted using a radio frequency, scanners, or rather receivers, do not have to be pointed at the tag, but can be stationed at key points throughout, for instance, an airport.
Clem Garvey, CEO of Paragon ID, works with precisely this technology, and says: ‘It means handlers can know in real time whether there are any issues with a bag.’ This means that at multiple points across an airport, the bag can be tracked to ensure it is heading for the correct flight. And when things go wrong, there is no wading through bags with a barcode scanner — rather the RFID device sends out a signal that will guide handlers to the bag they need to find.
The IATA (International Air Transport Association) has called upon all airports and airlines to introduce the technology, but has stopped short of a mandated timeline and the pandemic has slowed progress.
Heathrow Terminal 3 paved the way for the future of baggage handling when it opened a robotic handling hub in 2016
Manchester Airport early Thursday morning showing a massive queue wind its way round T2
British Airways is understood to have run trials of the technology, as have others, but implementing it is proving expensive.
WHAT TO DO if YOUR bag is LOST
Most importantly, whether your bag is missing or damaged, you will need to report it.
Most airlines have a dedicated baggage desk within the baggage claims area, where you can register a Property Irregularity Report. Keep a copy of this and your bag should be forwarded on to you. If the errant bag means you have none of your holiday essentials, you can claim back the reasonable costs of any essentials you have to buy, so make sure you keep receipts.
However, there is a 21-day time limit for making compensation claims to the airline.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority, when hold luggage is lost, delayed or damaged, the airline is liable for your losses.
However, there are no rules which fix the amount of compensation you should receive.
That’s where your travel insurance comes in. Check your travel policy’s cover on possessions before you leave because most of them will have a limit. There’s no point in packing your Louis Vuitton suitcase if its value alone takes you over your single-item limit.
Some policies may cover delayed baggage, paying up to specified amount for emergency purchases.
TRAVEL TIPS FOR A STRESS-FREE TRIP
Pack less — if you take only hand luggage, it will cut down on waiting times and reduce the risk of a baggage disaster. British Airways and other airlines state in their conditions that they don’t accept liability for lost jewellery, valuables or cash, so keep these in your hand luggage, along with your documents.
If you are putting luggage in the hold, then pack a few essentials and take any medication in a smaller bag to keep with you just in case.
Terminals in airports across the UK have been extremely busy as people try to get away for a much needed break following the coronavirus pandemic
Travellers queue at security at Heathrow Airport in London
Ensure you have a copy of your prescription or letter from your doctor to show at security if the medicine is in liquid or gel form.
Make sure your bag is in good condition; if it’s already fragile, it’s likely to get worse. And try to pack evenly so it travels smoothly on the baggage conveyor belts.
It’s easy to forget, but put something that identifies you and how to contact you inside the case.
And take a picture of your bag — it may come in handy if it goes astray.
Black bags are everywhere, so try to make your bag stand out in some way; but make sure it’s not because there are straps everywhere, since they could get stuck in luggage belt mechanisms.