Thursday, December 24, 2009

Armstrong's First Law of Luggage

The First Law of Luggage when it comes to air travel is this: Don't check any bags. Not ever. Not if you can possibly help it. Not with any airline on any flight at any airport.

Sure, you will have to wrestle your bags into the overhead compartment or squeeze them under the seat in front of you, but you won't have to pay the baggage-checking fees that U.S. and some European carriers charge, and you won't run the risk of having your luggage lost or delayed.

I was reminded of this iron law of travel today when, perusing Twitter, I saw a tweet from someone I know. Flying home to Scotland for the holidays, he discovered his checked bags have gone missing - with all the Christmas presents he was merrily taking home from the United States. "Thank you, British Airways,'' he wrote, clearly exasperated.

In his case, the errant airline was BA, but it could be pretty much anyone. As more travelers travel with more bags, some bags are bound to be misrouted or even lost for good.

Even if a bag isn't lost or delayed, paying an airline to check them can get expensive. Given passengers' reluctance to accept higher fares, airlines - especially in the United States - have decided to charge extra fees for more and more services, such as changing seats, getting more legroom and checking bags. In the third quarter of this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airline fees topped $2 billion on U.S. carriers, up 36 percent from the same period in 2008. Cash-strapped airlines defend the fees by saying they are for 'bespoke' services and are democractic: people who use designated services pay fees, others don't.

There are a few bright - or brightening - spots in this otherwise gloomy picture. The International Air Transport Association recently commended Germany's Frankfurt International Airport and Lufthansa for improving their handling of luggage, for example.

A Lufthansa press statement explained how Frankfurt - which I find generally a dim and overcrowded place, bursting at the seams - has managed to improve its baggage performance, at least with Lufthansa.

"The IATA inspectors were particularly impressed by achievements in the transfer of time-critical baggage for passengers in transit, who account for a considerable 70 percent of Lufthansa's passenger volume at Frankfurt, its largest hub. On the basis of up-to-the-minute flight data and the passenger's itinerary, Lufthansa identifies very short transfer times ... Baggage items belonging to affected passengers are then not fed into the baggage conveyor system as usual, but instead are collected directly from the incoming flight by staff, who then take them by car to the connecting flight. Up to 1,500 bags per day thus make their connection in time.''

So, things can get better when it comes to luggage, and sometimes do. In general, however, Armstrong's First Law of Luggage holds true: If you have a choice in the matter, don't check anything, anytime, anywhere.

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