Airlines are Getting Better at Handling Bags but Winter Remains the Worst Time for Lost Luggage

Heading into winter, fliers should take extra precautions with their checked luggage _ December and January are traditionally the worst months for lost bags.

To avoid problems, arrive at the airport early enough to let your bag get to the plane, and print out a copy of your itinerary from the airline’s website and stick it inside just in case all the tags get ripped off.

planeIn the U.S. during the first nine months of this year, 3.3 bags for every 1,000 passengers didn’t make it to their destination on time, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That’s not great if you are one of those people whose bag is delayed or lost. But consider this: during the 2007 peak in air travel, airlines were mishandling more than twice as many suitcases _ 7.2 bags per 1,000 passengers.

Globally, the baggage-mishandling rate has fallen 61 per cent from its peak in 2007, according to SITA, an aviation communications and technology provider. That has saved the industry $18 billion.

The vast majority of bags _ 80 per cent _ aren’t lost but just delayed, according to SITA. And it takes about a day and a half to reunite passengers with their bags. Another 14 per cent are damaged or have their contents reported stolen. And nearly 6 per cent of bags are lost or stolen completely.

December and January tend to be the worst months because there are a lot of infrequent travellers checking multiple bags, and a few snowstorms can add to delays and suitcases that miss connections.

The overall improvements to baggage handling come after carriers spent millions of dollars to upgrade their systems.

Tug drivers now get real-time updates of gate changes so they can change their path and ensure that bags make their connection. Scanners allow bags to be tracked throughout the system, preventing a suitcase bound for Chicago from being loaded onto a plane to Detroit. Gate agents have printers to help tag bags that are checked at the last minute because of full overhead bins. And, overall, fewer bags are being checked because of bag fees.

“We continue to invest in technology and in processes so we understand where bags are at all times, and we can manage the failure points,” says Bill Lentsch, senior vice-president for airport customer service and cargo operations at Delta Air Lines.

Airlines are also starting to empower passengers _ or at least keep them better informed.

Delta was the first airline to allow fliers to track their own checked luggage, first on the airline’s website in 2011 and then on its mobile app in 2012. Bag tags are scanned when the suitcase is dropped off, loaded onto a plane, loaded onto a connecting flight and then again before being placed on the carousel at baggage claim. Passengers can see all those scans.

American Airlines followed suit in August, allowing passengers to see when a suitcase was loaded or unloaded from a plane. Right now, it is only available on the airline’s website but will eventually be part of the mobile app.

Sitting on a plane ready for takeoff and knowing that your suitcase isn’t in the hold below might be frustrating. But airlines say they would rather have passengers know it then and talk immediately to a baggage representative, once on the ground, instead of standing at the carousel waiting for a suitcase that isn’t there.

If your bag is late, you might be able to get some bonus frequent flier miles or even a voucher toward a future flight.

Since 2010, Alaska Airlines has promised that suitcases will be on the carousel within 20 minutes of the plane arriving at the gate. If not, passengers get a $25 voucher for a future flight or 2,500 bonus frequent flier miles. Delta copied that policy this year, offering 2,500 bonus miles to existing members of its frequent flier program _ but no voucher. Act quickly: Alaska requires you to reach out within two hours of arrival; Delta within three days. And ultimately it’s your stopwatch against the airlines’ _ they are the final arbiter of tardiness.

And if you wanted to get that $25 checked bag fee refunded, you are out of luck.

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From wildfires to commercial flights, drones becoming a dangerous and growing nuisance

From wildfires to commercial flights, drones becoming a dangerous and growing nuisance

By Elliot Spagat

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN DIEGO – As Jason Thrasher lowered his helicopter to a park with seven firefighters aboard, he saw what he thought was another firefighting chopper battling a blaze that was threatening homes.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pilot suddenly identified the object as a four-rotor drone only 10 feet from his windshield, forcing him to make a hard left to avoid a collision about 500 feet above ground, according to a report he filed the next day.

“If that drone came through my windshield, I have no idea what could have happened,” Thrasher said in a phone interview. “If that drone hits my tail rotor, for sure it’s going to be catastrophic.”

The near-miss last September in Nevada City, about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, explains why drones have quickly become a serious nuisance and concern for firefighting pilots and other first responders, fueling calls for more oversight and self-policing in the skies.

The U.S. Forest Service has tallied 13 wildfires in which suspected drones interfered with firefighting aircraft this year 11 since late June _ up from four fires last year and only scattered incidents before. Last month, the sighting of five drones in a wildfire that closed Interstate 15 in Southern California and destroyed numerous vehicles grounded crews for 20 minutes as flames spread.

Firefighting agencies have introduced public service announcements to warn drone hobbyists, while lawmakers are seeking stiffer penalties for interfering.

“When you can’t support firefighters on the ground, fires get bigger,” said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It’s significant, and it’s a huge issue.”

On Aug. 2, for the second time in three days, a commercial pilot reported a drone while approaching John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. On Tuesday, as flames engulfed a Vietnamese restaurant in San Diego, the local fire department pleaded with drone operators to leave the area, tweeting, “You are interfering with fire operations.”

A simple explanation for the growing number of encounters is that consumer drones are more common as prices fall. The Consumer Electronics Association predicts U.S. sales will reach 700,000 this year, up from 430,000 last year and 128,000 in 2013. The industry group estimates this year’s average sale price at $149, down from $160 last year and $349 in 2013.

Twenty members of Congress from California asked the Federal Aviation Administration last month to consider a requirement for drone makers to include technology that aims to prevent operators from interfering with first responders. One bill in the California Legislature would raise fines and introduce jail time for anyone who impedes firefighters, and another would grant immunity to first responders who destroy interfering drones.

Greg McNeal, a Pepperdine University law professor, likens worries about safety and ethical boundaries to concerns years ago about use of camera-enabled cellphones in locker rooms and other public places. Governments are wrestling with how to regulate a new consumer technology that can wreak havoc when misused.

Most operators who flew near wildfires were probably unaware of the dangers, said McNeal. Others are “straight reckless,” he said, perhaps motivated to get images that no one else has to sell them.

The U.S. Forest Service reports potential drone sightings this year in eight wildfires in California, two in Washington state and one each in Colorado, Minnesota and Utah:

A plane dropping retardant on a fire near San Bernardino, California, came within about 500 feet of a drone on June 24. Another pilot soon came within the same distance of a second drone, forcing the grounding of four firefighting aircraft for 2 1/2 hours.

A reconnaissance airplane in eastern Washington state spotted a drone on July 11. Pat McCabe, a U.S. Forest Service aviation supervisor seated next to the pilot, saw the drone land about three miles from the fire perimeter and get loaded into a grey or black SUV, whose driver sped away.

“The intelligence gathering stopped, and now our focus was on the drone,” said McCabe.

The sighting occurred as water- and retardant-dropping aircraft were scheduled to stop for the day. If it was earlier, McCabe said those planes and helicopters would have been grounded.

A drone appeared about 200 feet from the left wing of a reconnaissance aircraft near Milford, California, on June 29. The firefighter pilot, who was about 1,500 feet above ground, left the area and was ordered to return to base.

Under FAA guidelines, drone hobbyists should fly no higher than 400 feet, stay clear of stadiums and people, and avoid flying within five miles of airports. During wildfires and other emergencies, the FAA imposes temporary restrictions.

Software, including a product from Pepperdine’s McNeal named AirMap, can alert operators to FAA-restricted areas. But, some firefighting officials say, wildfires spread so quickly and unpredictably that there may be a dangerous lag before flight restrictions are in place.

The prospect of public shaming may be the best deterrent, said Jon Resnick, spokesman for SZ DJI Technology Co., one of the largest consumer drone makers.

“Technology can only do so much,” he said. “At a certain point, common sense needs to take hold.”

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“Most people don’t realize you have to have training, have insurance and be qualified under Transport Canada.”

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