If you travel frequently, odds are you've checked your suitcase more than once. But what exactly happens to your bags after they're weighed, labeled, and swept away by the conveyor belt? Read on to learn where checked bags go, how they might be mishandled, and what you can do to reduce the risk of lost luggage.
What Happens to Your Bags at Check-In
Checking bags is a fairly routine process: you set the bag on a scale, and then it gets tagged with a barcode. This is the first step in ensuring that your bag gets where it needs to go. This barcode contains information about your flight, enabling airport staff to direct your bag to the right place.
After your bag is tagged, it disappears down a conveyor belt. Checked bags will generally travel through an intricate system of conveyor belts hidden from public view. This web of conveyor belts ultimately takes your luggage to a warehouse.
Scanned by TSA and Brought to Your Flight
Once in the warehouse, checked bags are scanned to ensure that they do not contain dangerous or illegal items. If anything suspicious is identified by the scanner, it will alert TSA workers. Those employees may then open and search your bags.
After your bag has been cleared to fly, its barcode is scanned and it is grouped with other bags that need to be loaded onto your flight. Some airports have an automatic sorting system at this point, while others still sort luggage manually.
The suitcases destined for the same location are either loaded into a wagon or placed back on the conveyor belt, and are brought to their designated flight. Here, airport staff load the bags onto the plane to make the journey with you. At the end of your flight, bags are transported in a similar way to baggage claim — or, if you have a connecting flight, the bag is scanned again and transported to its next flight.
That all sounds fairly straightforward, and for the most part, it is. According to the Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), the number of mishandled bags dropped by nearly 50 percent between 2007 and 2012. Still, there are a number of things that could go wrong when you check your bag.
We hope you never have to experience the sinking feeling at baggage claim when you wait and wait only to realize your bags aren't coming out. What exactly causes lost luggage?
A frequent cause of delayed or misplaced bags is flight transfers. While it isn't too much of a challenge to get a suitcase onto the correct initial flight, every transfer thereafter increases the risk of bags heading to the wrong place or not making it to the next flight on time.
Lost or damaged barcode stickers also cause issues. Airport staff have no way of knowing where to send the luggage without being able to scan it — and if you haven't labeled the bag with your contact information, they will have no way of even knowing whose bag it is.
What Happens to Bags That Are Never Claimed?
If your bag is lost and the airline cannot find it within a 90-day window, you are paid a lost baggage claim fee.
Lost bags that have been in the airport for more than 90 days are generally sold after an exhaustive search for their owners. Many of these bags end up in Scottsboro, Alabama, at a place known as the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Here, clothes and jewelry are professionally cleaned, electronics are wiped of personal data, and objects are either sold or donated. The Unclaimed Baggage Center donates approximately half of all unsold items through their Reclaimed for Good program. Items that cannot be sold or donated are ultimately thrown away.
How to Minimize Your Chances of Lost Luggage
While a fairly small percentage of bags actually end up "lost," there are steps you can take to minimize your chances of that happening to your luggage. The most important step is to ensure your name and contact information are securely attached to the bag, maybe even in more than one spot. You should also make sure you haven't accidentally packed something that doesn't adhere to TSA regulations — this will help prevent delays or detained bags.
It's also worthwhile to photograph your bag before checking it. This gives you something to show authorities if an issue does arise.
Finally, if you have a transfer, try to schedule as much time as possible between your first and second flight. This will increase the likelihood of your luggage being moved to the new flight on time.