Did you know the airlines use 3rd party independent contractors to return lost luggage? It’s true. You can now be a lost luggage delivery service, just like you can be an uber driver or postmates delivery person. But while rideshares and food delivery services are uncomplicated and welcome services for most people, how do you feel about a stranger (not an airline employee) being responsible for your bags? Let’s get into it.

What is mishandling and why is it the reason bags get lost so often?

The main culprit is still baggage mishandling. Even though tracking technology has advanced significantly, travelers still suffer through this frustrating experience on occasion. Estimates hover around 1% of all bags being lost, which maybe doesn’t sound like a lot. But if you’re one of the 1% – that statistic is cold comfort. And while airlines used to return bags themselves, more and more you can assume that an average Joe is bringing you your bag.

Last year, especially over the summer, more bags were lost than in a typical year. We’ll get into why that was in a moment. But first, let’s see why bags often go missing and which airline loses bags the most.

Why do bags go missing?

What does “mishandling” mean, anyway? You might assume that a baggage handler simply tossed your bag onto the wrong plane, and that’s mishandling. While this can happen, it actually is pretty rare. Mishandling is a general term for the kinds of human error that can cause your bag to not make it to your destination. But, generally speaking it’s not an absent-minded baggage handler that’s the issue.

One of the most common ways your bag might get misdirected happens when your bag is in transit – specifically at the “transfer” point. Sometimes a tight connection between flights can be the problem, causing some (or all) bags to get “left behind.” This is why your bags sometimes have to “catch up with you” once you’ve landed.

When you have multiple flights, the chance of mishandling goes up as well. This puts you in a tough spot. Sometimes, a passenger doesn’t have a choice – and you can’t avoid multiple flights even if you wanted to do so. But every time a human has to move a bag from one plane to another, the chance for error simply goes up.

There’s also situations in which bags get tagged wrong. You should always check your bag tags before you drop them (if you’ve printed them at a kiosk) or before you let the baggage agent take possession of your bag. Double-check that tag.

Why do so many more bags seem to be going missing these days?

It’s true that lost luggage is on the rise, In fact, in 2022 lost baggage was up over 24%. This is mostly due to staffing shortages that are the result of the pandemic, and the travel demand the airlines are still struggling to catch up with. So, for most airlines, offloading the task of returning bags is a no brainer. When they subcontract that task out it allows airline employees to focus on more pressing issues.

Which airline loses baggage the most?

According to Business Insider, of all national airlines, American Airlines lost the most bags in 2022, losing 850 bags per 100,000. Now that you know why and how bags often go missing, this shouldn’t be a surprise. American Airlines has the most international flights of any U.S. air carrier, edging out Delta (which is second) and United (3rd).

Essentially, this just means that American has more opportunities for mishandling. As the largest international air carrier, they will have more connecting flights.

Which airlines lose baggage the least?

And now for a bit of good news. Allegiant Air, Hawaiian Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Spirit Airlines lost the least number of bags in 2022 (in that order). If you’re worried about an air carrier losing your bags, you might want to choose one of these clear winners!

What else can you do as a traveler to avoid a lost bag?

Aside from booking direct flights when you are able, and double-checking your bag tags, we do recommend proper planning. If your bag is truly lost and you have to file a claim with the airline, you’ll be required to provide documentation of the missing items. Terribly organized people take photos of the packed items with a list of things that were lost.

It’s always recommended to pack necessities in your carry-on. Your medications, laptop and any high-value items are best carried with you on the airplane. We also recommend bringing one change of clothes with you (if you can), so that you can change your clothes after a long flight even if a bag has been delayed.

Should I invest in an airtag for my bag?

You might also consider putting an airtag on your bags if you have an iPhone. Airtags are completely safe for flying, inexpensive ($29 from Apple) and can help travelers feel like they have a little more control. You can “see” where your bag is if it’s been airtagged through an app on your phone.

Who are these couriers tasked with delivering your lost bag?

Over the past few months the Internet has been rife with folks who watch their bag being transported all over various airports, and sometimes across town in real time. This has happened on occasion when an airline contracts a 3rd party to deliver bags, as many often do.

Sometimes a courier has gone home and slept or gone to pick up breakfast before delivering an airtagged bag. Understandably, this proves frustrating and even alarming to some passengers. Who can blame a traveler who didn’t realize that the airlines weren’t laser-focused on their one missing bag? It’s not logical, but in the moment your missing bag is all you can think about.

The airlines get stressed during massive infrastructure strains – like countrywide delays and cancellations that sometimes occur. Being able to tap into couriers who are oftentimes already on the road working for Uber or other platforms, in theory gives airlines more capacity to return bags quickly.

However, an independent contractor who has been “screened” may not go through as strenuous of a background check as you might like. Roadie is a popular crowdsourcing platform used by a lot of the domestic air carriers, and while their Terms & Conditions for drivers is lengthy, it’s largely an honor system.

There’s not a lot of data on how satisfied customers are with these gig workers returning their bags, probably because most passengers don’t even know that it isn’t the airlines making the delivery.

What to do if your bag is gone for good

First, you will need to file a claim with the airline. It’s best to give the airline the address where you live or where you’ll be staying. Ask the details of their lost luggage policy. You want to know when a lost bag is considered permanently lost. Most airlines will consider a bag lost after 2 – 3 weeks.

You can ask a staffer at the airline if they use subcontractors to return luggage, so if something is missing from your bag later, you have that information as well.

How much compensation are you entitled to if your bag is lost?

In the U.S. the Department of Transportation sets compensation to a maximum of $3,800 for domestic flights. Keep your patience. Compensation can take a while. If you do not feel the airlines are working with you, reach out to the Department of Transportation.

How do you feel about your missing bags being subcontracted out to a 3rd party gig worker for delivery? Let us know in the comments below.

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