American Airlines Baggage Chief: "There's A Lot Of Opportunity For Failure"

The New York Times is taking a look at American Airlines’ recent effort to improve their checked baggage operation. Who would have thought that dirty printers were causing lost baggage?

Workers at American found that printers that produce adhesive tags for bags were often dirty. That made bar codes hard to read, leading to misdirected bags. Regular wiping of the printer heads helped, but even with a clean printer, the bar code readers are only about 90 to 92 percent accurate, said Denise P. Wilewski, manager of airport services for American here.

“We never hit 100 percent — 90 percent is acceptable,” she said.

The Times says that lost baggage is getting worse. Fewer airline employees are handling more bags, and planes are staying on the ground for less time—making it more likely that bags will be “mishandled.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity for failure,” said Hans Hauck, manager of baggage operations at American’s headquarters in Fort Worth. Since Mr. Hauck started his job in September 2006, American has not met its bag-handling goal in any month. As of late last week, though, Mr. Hauck remained optimistic that he would make his November number. A look at American’s bag-handling operation, which is the biggest of all United States carriers, shows it is making lots of little improvements but still losing ground.

Small regional airlines lose bags more frequently than the big guys they’re affiliated with, so it might be wise to avoid checking bags when you know your carrier might be Atlantic Southeast (Delta) or American Eagle (American.) Or, if you can, avoid checking your bag at all! Travel light. It’s better than it sounds.

Travelers’ Odds Decline on Airline Baggage [New York Times]
(Photo:Ben Popken)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Franklin Comes Alive! says:

    90% is acceptable? In most industries, getting something right 90% of the time would get you a trip to the unemployment office.

  2. Franklin Comes Alive! says:

    Also, FWIW, my wife and I have *never* had a lost bag on Southwest (and we fly enough to have had their companion pass in the past – between the two of us we probably have 100 round trips on SW in the past 3-4 years).

    On the other hand, United has lost my wife’s bags on 3 out of the last 4 trips she’s taken with them for business, so some big airlines seem to be able to handle baggage a little better than others.

  3. scoobydoo says:

    THIS is an industry that would benefit from RFID. Instead of putting time and money into spying on us at Walmart they should work on getting ALL bag tags RF enabled.

  4. HRHKingFriday says:

    @scoobydoo: Right on. I’ve always thought about hacking a GPS or something and putting it in my suitcase. While I’ve never lost luggage (knock on wood), I’ve been on so many delayed flights that half the time my luggage arrives in a giant “pile” in the corner of the baggage claim.

  5. kimsama says:

    @scoobydoo: Haha, but knowing the airlines, the RFID would only work 90% of the time, too.

  6. Quellman says:

    If you are too lazy to Hack some GPS check out GPS tracking Jackets linked to Crappy News Network:

  7. SVreader says:

    “90 percent is acceptable.”

    Um. Why so blase about potentially losing 10% of luggage? One of the most stressful parts of traveling, besides wondering whether you’ll be told you can’t fly because the airline overbooked or a flight was cancelled, is worrying about whether or not your luggage will be on that conveyor belt.

  8. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    He’s blaming it on dirty print heads?
    I’m surprised he also didn’t blame dirty bar code scanners that read the badly printed bar codes!
    The grocery stores I go to are always cleaning the glass over the scanner!
    He also said people do a better job of reading the tags than the machines.
    So hire people instead of using machines.
    What a weasel!

  9. UpsetPanda says:

    Can someone tell me what the photo actually means? I’ve never seen one of those, AND I’ve never had a claim check before, to my knowledge. When I fly, I fly out of Washington-Dulles, but even at other airports I’ve never seen this type of sign. Is this something that is unique to JFK?

    I bought bright red luggage just because I identify my luggage based on apperances. I add something to it, though, to make sure I know it’s mine and not belonging someone else who has red luggage as well. When the Berlin airport lost my luggage, it turns out that they had also lost the luggage of several other people I was traveling with. We all checked our bags at the same time, but for some reason, half of us got our bags and the other half didn’t. I was really annoyed and upset, and thankfully, they found the bags and brought them to our hotel later that day.

  10. UpsetPanda says:

    *** sorry, I didn’t mean to ask whether claim tickets are unique to JFK, I actually MEANT, “are claim tickets unique to certain airlines.” I think JFK got stuck in my head because the article is from NYT.

  11. ColoradoShark says:

    Hey, Denise P. Wilewski, here’s
    -a house to live in where they got 90% of the nails in the right place
    -a bridge to drive on where they got 90% of the rivets in the right place
    -a car to drive in where 90% of the welds are good


  12. MercuryPDX says:

    @CaffeinatedSquint: I’ve seen these signs at JFK (and the phrase is on the LED signs at PDX Airport over each belt). When you check in at the counter with luggage, the claim check is usually affixed inside your ticket folio.

    It’s just a reminder for people who DON’T do something unique to take a second and verify the numbers match because bags look alike.

  13. DrGirlfriend says:

    @CaffeinatedSquint: When you check your baggage, your agent should be giving you a tag or sticker that corresponds to the one that is being affixed to your luggage. In olden days (like, maybe 5+ years ago) the tags I was given were about the same length as the ticket sleeve, but nowadays I have noticed that they are small stickers affixed to said sleeve.

    The only airport I have been to that checks these against your luggage when you exit baggage claim is in San Juan. In fact, the last time I flew I lost the sleeve I was given at the counter, so I had to show them ID. But if you have that sticker (which you should, it’s just easy to miss), you can cross-reference it against the tag on your suitcase.

  14. erratapage says:

    I had my luggest stolen halfway through my London/Paris vacation last year when the Heathrow British Airways luggage system fell behind after the fog. The day we were there, there were probably 10,000 pieces of luggage in the lost luggage area and there was no organization to it.

    About a month after our trip, they shipped my bag back to me. Of course, that didn’t help me with the clothes I needed during my vacation (or my battery chargers). Happily, I always carry on my medications.

  15. UpsetPanda says:

    @DrGirlfriend: @MercuryPDX: I guess I’ve been getting them all along but haven’t used them to verify my baggage.I can usually tell though, so thankfully I haven’t missed my bags at the claim.