Travel Notes: Lost luggage up sharply during holidays

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If you plan to fly during the holiday season, the chance of losing your luggage increases sharply.

The rate of mishandled luggage in December was as much as 35 percent higher than the annual averages for 2008 through 2010, according to a study by NerdWallet, a personal finance analysis website. In January, the lost or damaged rate was as much as 43 percent higher than the annual averages for 2008-11.

For example, in December 2010, airlines reported an average rate of 4.7 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers, compared with the average for the year of 3.47 lost or damaged bags, according to NerdWallet Inc. The trend did not hold true in December 2011, when the rate dropped to 3.25 reports, compared with the annual average of 3.33 reports, according to NerdWallet.

Alicia Jao, NerdWallet vice president of travel media, suggested a simple reason: Around the holidays, travelers carry more luggage with them, increasing the likelihood of lost bags.

The study also found that the lost luggage rates are higher among regional airlines. The worst offender, according to the study, is American Eagle, the regional carrier of American Airlines. The airline had 9.19 reports of mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers in January 2011 -- more than double the average rate for all other airlines that year, according to the study.

In a statement, AMR, parent company of American Eagle, said the airline "continues to make great progress in its baggage performance, with a 28 percent improvement for the first nine months of 2012 compared to 2011."

Avoiding baggage fees

In the first six months of 2012, the nation's largest airlines collected more than $1.7 billion in fees to check baggage.

One way to avoid such fees is to fly an airline such as Southwest Airlines that doesn't charge for the first two bags. The other way is more questionable.

Eric Rose, a business consultant who travels frequently, came across the second method on a recent flight on Virgin America. He saw several passengers drag luggage that was too big for the overhead bin to the gate, only to have the gate attendant send the bags into the cargo hold without charging the passengers a check-back fee. The move saved the passengers a fee of $25 a bag.

Mr. Rose noted the fee loophole in an email to Virgin America Chief Executive David Cush.

Mr. Cush responded that the airline tries to spot passengers with too many bags at the security checkpoint. If they get to the gate with extra bags, he said attendants check the luggage without charging fees to avoid delays in loading planes.

"Needless to say, people have figured out the drill," he said.

Passengers' wish lists

The nation's airlines would be best improved if they allowed disabled travelers to board first, created child-free zones on planes and stopped charging extra for seats with a few more inches of legroom.

Those were some of the findings when the travel review website SmarterTravel recently surveyed 1,191 of its readers and asked "How should travel change in 2013?"

In the survey, 77 percent said disabled travelers should get to board first, 58 percent said airlines should offer child-free zones and 68 percent said airlines should not charge more for extra roomy seats that had previously been offered at the regular economy fare.

When asked whether use of electronic devices should be allowed on takeoffs and landings, 22 percent said yes, 37 percent said no and 41 percent said maybe.

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