Along with anxiety and long lines that post-Sept. 11 security measures have caused for air travelers has come a somewhat unexpected side effect: fewer complaints of lost, damaged and stolen luggage.
The latest federal government numbers show a lower incidence of mishandled baggage each year since the terrorist attacks in 2001. In general, there are three or four complaints for every 1,000 passengers, down from four or five complaints - which could mean a couple of thousand fewer losses a day nationwide.
The improved baggage numbers in some ways reflect the change that has transformed air travel in recent years. Experts say more people are traveling with fewer bags to check because of the rise of low-fare airlines that fly shorter routes, enabling people to take shorter trips. Technology, security measures and even luggage design have improved. And more passengers may be reluctant to file complaints about lost or damaged baggage because the role of the federal Transportation Security Administration has confused them.
To be sure, claims that cost millions of dollars a year are still being logged at airlines and the TSA. But it is unclear from government data whether more claims are for lost items or for stolen items, and experts say they have heard more complaints about pilfering since Sept. 11, 2001, with travelers wrongly believing they are not allowed to lock their luggage.
TSA screeners at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, for example, were recently accused of stealing items from baggage.
Still, the overall trend appears positive for passengers, said David S. Stempler, president of Air Travelers Association, a Washington-based consumer group.
"Post 9/11, the airlines had to develop systems so they knew which bags were on which planes with their passengers and which were not, and they discovered it was a good way to cut down on misrouted baggage," he said. "Almost all of them put bar codes on the baggage tags now and they use scanners so it's recorded in their computers."
Stempler said the proliferation of luggage on wheels has also made it easier for passengers to take their belongings with them instead of checking them. At the same time, he noted, new federal regulations allow only one carry-on bag as well as a computer or purse, so many passengers are forced to check extra luggage.
Some people are giving up on filing complaints now that they have to do it through the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the federal screeners and has not been as quick to settle claims as airlines, he said. Some passengers also say they cannot prove their claim or that it's not worth the hassle, Stempler said.
Cathy Valero, a Delta Air Lines passenger who arrived in Baltimore from Atlanta on Thursday morning with her husband, Erick, to visit her mother, said she didn't bother to file a claim after a recent trip to Venezuela on Avensa Airlines when her bag was returned looking like "it had gotten caught in an escalator."
"We didn't do anything about it," she said. "It was too much trouble."
Still, she and her family said they considered themselves lucky, given the amount of traveling they do and the little trouble they've had with luggage.
Valero's mother, Pat McLeod of Prince Frederick, said her husband's baggage was lost about a week ago on a Delta flight but the airline had it on the front porch by the next morning.
Some airlines said they continue to match every piece of luggage with a passenger even though they no longer have to because federal screeners have taken over.
One of those that does is JetBlue Airways, the discount carrier based in New York, which placed at the top of the latest federal baggage claim report.
In addition to using bar codes that scan information into computers when passengers check in, JetBlue has begun color-coding the baggage tags to match flight numbers. JetBlue then processes bags in the order of flights.
In the event passengers arrive at their destination before their luggage - the most common complaint, according to airlines - JetBlue makes its own claims and sends an attendant to the gate to tell the passengers.
"That eliminates the situation where there are no more bags on the belt and people are still standing there," said Chris Collins, vice president of system operations. "It defuses what could be a really bad situation."
Other airlines, wary of decreasing customer service, have sought new means to care for luggage.
Despite a decade of improvements in baggage handling, Delta Air Lines said it plans to invest in radio frequency identification tags, similar to the EZ- Pass toll collection system. A tiny chip is attached to luggage that can be used to track bags from multiple locations.
The carrier expects to unveil the system by 2007 at a cost of $15 million to $25 million. In turn, the airline expects to save much of the $100 million it spends annually on mishandled baggage, said a spokesman, Reid Davis.