• 40 bags are lost every minute around the world. (iStockphoto / Getty Image)
Almost 20 million bags go missing at airports across the world every year.
By
Ben Winsor

11 Jan 2017 - 3:37 PM  UPDATED 11 Jan 2017 - 3:45 PM

After a long overseas trip, I landed in Sydney yesterday.

My bag, however, did not.

Somewhere between Amsterdam, Beijing and Sydney a lost, grey duffle bag is trying to find its way home. 

It’s in good company, however; almost 20 million bags go missing at airports around the world every year.

But compared to the billions of trips taken each year, that means that roughly just 0.7 per cent of passengers are left disappointed at the luggage carousel.

Over the past decade, that rate has been sliced in half due to better technology and more integrated systems, according to Airport IT provider SITA.

In my case, the culprit was probably my 17-hour stopover in Beijing.

45 per cent of bags which don’t arrive when their passengers arrive are a result of mishandling during a transfer, a SITA report says.

Transfer delays can happen when the connection is too tight for the bag to make it on time, or – in the cases of lengthier stopovers – if it isn’t retrieved from storage in time.

“Behind the terminals there are kilometres of conveyor-belts” says Darren Hamilton, Operations Manager with baggage systems provider ANSIR.

Tag reader error is another reason bags end up in the wrong place, he says.

“Either the tag’s sitting on the bottom of the bag, or the tag gets ripped off, or the reader misreads it,” Darren tells me.

In truth, it's a miracle only 20 million bags go missing - if SITA's numbers are to be believed.

A 2015 video from Amsterdam's Schipol Airport shows a hectic and fast-paced system of trays, belts, lifts and scanners.

Yet the machines rarely get anything wrong. 

The biggest risk is a tag ripping off - those bags are the most likely to be lost forever, but there is still hope.

A sophisticated worldwide tracking system called WorldTracer is responsible for reuniting homeless bags to their rightful owners.

A joint initiative by SITA and the International Air Transport Association, WorldTracer connects the ad hoc baggage systems in airports around the world into a searchable database.

SITA says the vast majority of missing bags are eventually identified and returned.

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Most of the time this is done using the tag numbers on baggage receipts, but it can also be done through physical descriptions if the tag has been ripped off – but that method is far less reliable.

If there’s a home address or contact details on the bag, baggage providers will have something to go on.

Otherwise they’ll have to rely on finding a match through a physical description – some baggage providers may even open the bag to search for identifying information.

Currently there’s no global network for all checked baggage, and WorldTracer only comes into play when bags are lost, but by June 2018 the airlines and airports around the world aim to track each bag through aircraft loading, arrivals areas and transfer systems.

“The ability of passengers to track their bag, just like a parcel, will go a long way to relieving their stress as they wait at the baggage carousel for its arrival,” said Francesco Violante, CEO of SITA, in a company report.

Those bags go on quite a journey.

“Once a bag’s checked in and goes behind the hole in the wall – past the glossy stainless steel visible on the public side – it’ll then go through an x-ray machine to make sure there are no threats,” Darren Hamilton tells me.

“If it detects a threat then an operator will then check it again through an x-ray,” he says.

“If it fails that second inspection it goes to what’s called a level three, where they call for the owner to come and inspect it – if no one claims it, it goes into an explosion-proof container and they take it to the tarmac and blow it up,” Darren says.

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Assuming your bag isn’t blown up, it will then pass through an automated tag reader, which will identify where it is going and direct it down the right chute.

Kilometres of conveyor-belts will then carry the bag to the right aircraft.

But if your bag makes it before you do, and the flight is about to leave, then handlers will manually go through the cargo-hold to remove your bag.

“The only time baggage will go on an aircraft without a passenger on it is if your luggage got shipped to a different destination because there was an error somewhere on the line – either an operator error sending it to the wrong destination, or with the tag misread by the automated reader,” Darren says.

While the process can cause departure delays, it’s a safety issue for the airlines.

Going to the trouble of checking-in a bag without then making it to the gate in time raises suspicions.

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If bags are delayed – or lost forever – passengers are most likely covered by either the Warsaw Convention or the Montreal Convention, under which they can claim compensation.

Losing a luggage receipt will not void any claim, and you can claim directly from the airline regardless of whether you have travel insurance.

The amount of compensation will vary depending on the delay, baggage value or even the weight of the bag – but airlines are unlikely to be forgiving if a claim falls outside the time limit.

Damage should be reported in writing as soon as it is discovered, and within three days of receiving your luggage – though some flights have longer deadlines.

Claims for delayed baggage should be made in writing within 14 days of receiving it – if you haven’t received your luggage within seven days of landing, you’re entitled to commence a full claim for lost baggage.

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