What really happens when an airline loses your luggage – and how do you prevent your luggage from getting lost?

Baggage piled up amid delays and cancellations at Manchester Airport this week, after a power outage damaged the airport’s departure security and baggage systems. Meanwhile, British Airways passengers were forced to fly from Heathrow without their luggage after a technical problem disrupted the systems.

It’s a wonder anyone checks a suitcase these days: from a two-week wait for luggage at Edinburgh Airport, to the passenger who claimed Air France lost her wheelie for two months, baggage problems have accelerated in recent years – and more predictable – than any arrival carousel.

But if you can’t travel with just carry-on luggage, who’s responsible for keeping your bag safe—and how can you maximize your chances of reuniting it? Should you tape it down? Use an AirTag? And how do you make sure it’s first on the conveyor belt? We asked the experts all the essential questions about lost luggage.

What happens to delayed or lost baggage?

“Like a bag [isn’t] on the same flight as the passenger, it will be forwarded on the next flight,” advises a spokesperson for Swissport, which handles around 677,000 suitcases per day for 800 airlines. “This is often done manually. In the meantime, the bag is stored at the airport. Once it arrives, the process also requires human intervention to ensure it is repatriated efficiently.”

Apart from staff strikes, airport issues and IT outages, passengers on connecting flights are more likely to experience baggage issues – especially if their transfer time is shortened by delays – or experience problems due to canceled flights.

What should I do if my bag never arrives?

Check the baggage hall: if the bag is heavy or there is a problem with the carousels, it may be waiting somewhere else. If that doesn’t work, find your airline’s baggage counter; the staff will ask for your luggage tag so they can track it.

Ask about compensation and a refund if you paid for checked baggage. “Most airlines will reimburse you for what is necessary,” the Civil Aviation Authority advises: ask how the costs are submitted and whether there is a maximum amount. You may also need to inform your travel insurer.

You will probably need to provide a detailed description, so it is helpful to have a clear photo of your luggage on hand. If missing luggage is reported, please note the reference number. You will also need to provide an address where your bag should be delivered. Many carriers provide updates on lost luggage through online portals.

baggage hall at Manchester Airport

Bags abandoned at Manchester Airport after power cut – Paul Cousans/Zenpix Ltd

Who is responsible for my luggage: the airline or the airport?

It is the airline’s job, not the airport’s. They can handle the luggage themselves or engage a specialized service provider, such as Swissport, Menzies or DHL Supply Chain.

What happens to my luggage after I check it in?

“When you drop off your baggage, an electronic message is generated at the same time as your baggage label is printed,” explains Spencer Conday, Managing Director Supply Chain Solutions at leading airport baggage handler DHL Supply Chain. “This is a BSM (baggage source message) and is sent to various IT systems at the airport that are responsible for processing the baggage.”

Your luggage will then be identified and subjected to security screening. “Identification is usually performed using barcode scanners, although newer systems may use RFID (radio frequency identification) technology instead,” Conday continues.

“Once the bag has been identified and secured, the next step in the process is to determine if the bag is on time. Is it early, on time or late? This determines where the bag should go.

“Depending on the baggage system, early bags go to storage until the appropriate time of release. On-time bags are delivered directly to the airline’s baggage handlers, loaded into metal containers called ULDs (unit load devices), and tailored to the passenger manifest to ensure accurate data and authorized loading of the bag. This process is known as ‘make up’.

“Late baggage is allowed to travel directly to the aircraft parking area, to minimize travel time. The majority of baggage is on time and the baggage handlers take the ULDs to the correct aircraft stand and load them.”

The airline is responsible for your luggage, not the airportThe airline is responsible for your luggage, not the airport

The airline is responsible for your luggage – not the airport – James Hancock / Alamy

If I am on a codeshare flight, which airline is responsible for my luggage?

Any claims for lost luggage must be made to the operating airline, not the one that sold you your ticket.

What if I fly with multiple airlines?

If your trip includes connecting flights with different airlines, check in advance whether you will need to retrieve and recheck your luggage along the way. If this is not necessary, the carrier transporting you to your final destination will be responsible for delivering your luggage. So report any problems to them.

What should I do if I get home and realize something has been stolen from my bag?

Contact the airline and your travel insurer immediately. Take photos of any damage to the case or lock and find receipts if possible.

Should I wrap my bag in cling film?

No. “Packing can cause friction between the item and the baggage system, which could damage the bag and/or the baggage system,” says DHL’s Conday.

Add a colorful ribbon to your black suitcase to make it easier to spotAdd a colorful ribbon to your black suitcase to make it easier to identify

Add a colorful ribbon to your black suitcase to make it easier to identify – d3sign

I have a black suitcase. Is a colorful suitcase less likely to get lost?

No, but it can help with identification, says the Swissport spokesperson. “The color of the baggage is not a determining factor for whether or not a bag has been mishandled,” they advise, “but color, stickers, ribbons and other identifiers can help speed up the process of reuniting passengers with their bags.”

Should I use an AirTag to keep an eye on my luggage?

Maybe. Apple’s AirTag is a battery-powered tracking device, which emits a Bluetooth signal that can be located via the Find My app. It weighs 11 grams, making it easy to fit in your suitcase.

As Senior Content Manager of aviation rewards website headforpoints.com, Rhys Jones flies at least once a week – always with his AirTag. “It’s peace of mind,” he explains. “And when I stand at the baggage claim, I already know whether my bag has arrived.”

With an Apple AirTag you can track your bag throughout your journeyWith an Apple AirTag you can track your bag throughout your journey

With an Apple AirTag you can track your bag throughout your journey – izusek

How else can I prevent my bag from getting lost?

“We recommend that passengers arrive early at the airport and label their luggage inside and out,” the Swissport spokesperson said. “This should include your name, contact details and flight details.”

In addition to taking a photo of your luggage for identification purposes, take a photo of your airline’s luggage tag. If it is taped to the back of your boarding pass, you may want to place it in a less exposed area, such as in an inside pocket of your carry-on luggage.

The zipper on my suitcase is unreliable. What should I do if my bag bursts along the way?

Your items will be delivered in a plastic bag. “Bags that leak can cause serious disruptions,” Conday said. “When this happens, the bag is identified by people who collect the contents and place them in a clear plastic bag. The damaged bag and its contents are then processed manually.”

How do I make sure my bag is first on the recovery carousel?

Other than a ‘priority’ tag for business and first class luggage, there is no guaranteed way to bypass the line. Although rumor has it that the last bag to be checked is often the first on the carousel. Other tips include using a ‘fragile’ sticker so that your bag is loaded last and therefore collected before others.

I am traveling with hand luggage only. Is it safe to leave my handbag in a scanner tray while going through security?

“This is one of the safest parts of any airport,” a spokesperson for a major London airport told Telegraph Travel. Anonymously they said: “Never be complacent, but security is full of high-tech cameras and trained personnel – the ones you see and the ones you don’t. Thieves know this.”

Two guards at Miami Airport were filmed last summer pocketing valuables from passengers’ bags, while a guard in Manila was caught swallowing cash, but these incidents are extremely rare, our insider says. “If you have a problem, please report it immediately and it will be taken very seriously.”

This article was published in September 2023 and has been revised and updated.

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