Security rules lead to more checked -- and lost -- bags

Air Travel

September 17, 2006|By Michelle Higgins | Michelle Higgins,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

As travelers adapt to the inconvenience of climbing into airplane cabins without their makeup, toothpaste and mocha lattes close at hand, they are also discovering another consequence of the new security rules: more time lost to the rituals of checked bags.

Not only are people who once took pride in packing everything for a trip into a single carry-on suddenly waiting at baggage carousels, but also, because of the increased number of bags being checked, airline luggage-handling systems are being stretched to their limits.

To comply with the ban against carrying liquids and gels on board, Steve Mandel of Parsippany, N.J., packed his toiletries in his bag for a recent Continental flight from Newark to Dayton, Ohio, and checked it. Waiting for his little bag to arrive at the luggage carousel added about 30 minutes on the way out and nearly 40 minutes on the way back for a flight of two hours or so. And that was in addition to the time spent checking the bag before takeoff.

"All because I had toothpaste, after-shave lotion and shaving cream," said Mandel, who flies often for business. Those extra minutes were enough so that he is now considering avoiding air travel altogether when he can. "I can drive to Boston in five hours," he said, referring to one of his business destinations. If he flies, "It's four hours by the time I get there and get everything, and I'd still have to rent a car and drive someplace."

Although security lines have mostly returned to normal levels, lines at airport check-in counters have lengthened. And though the coming of fall means fewer leisure travelers checking luggage, business travelers are making up for that by checking what would normally be carry-on bags rather than leaving toiletries behind. Airlines and airports continue to report anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent increases in checked luggage, though the immediate surge in checked bags has subsided from 50 percent increases in the days just after the new carry-on restrictions were put into effect.

After years of staffing cutbacks, the airlines appear ill-prepared to handle the influx of bags. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents bag handlers, ground workers and other airline employees, said it had lost about 43,000 members because of airline cutbacks since Sept. 11, 2001.

So far, some airlines are having baggage handlers work overtime or are asking other employees such as gate agents and ramp workers to pitch in. But if the amount of checked luggage doesn't subside, they will have to consider hiring extra workers.

Besides greater capacity, there's the continuing problem of making sure all those bags get where they are supposed to go.

"Now is the worst time to check a bag," said Joe Brancatelli, the publisher of the subscription travel Web site "The system was breaking down before. Mishandled baggage numbers have been spiking."

The longer wait times to check in and retrieve bags are the latest addition to increasing inconveniences and reduced services on commercial flights in recent years -- some attributable to increased security, but many others to cost cuts in an era of cutthroat competition. For most travelers, the tipping point that makes air travel something to be avoided altogether is probably far off. But inevitably, people will look for ways to escape the extra wait.

Ship ahead

For those who don't mind paying for convenience, companies with names such as Luggage Forward and Virtual Bellhop will pick up and deliver bags to a destination, bypassing the airline baggage system altogether. Prices vary depending on a bag's weight, destination and shipping time. Luggage Forward charges $103, for example, to ship a medium-size bag weighing up to 40 pounds from New York to Los Angeles in five days. Overnight delivery costs $201.

Other companies let customers drop off their suitcases at check-in centers far from the airport. Baggage Airline Guest Services in Orlando, Fla., or Bags Inc. for short, has agreements with the major airlines to allow passengers to print boarding passes, check in and drop off their luggage for domestic flights at a variety of locations including the Disney resorts and hotels in Orlando. The price is $10 per person, and the service cuts time only on the trip out. Go to / aadvanceBagCheck for a list of participating hotels and cruise lines.

Hyatt Hotels is working with Bags Inc. to establish drop-off stations in its hotels in Denver, Seattle, San Diego, Boston, Miami, Orlando and Tampa, Fla., by the end of the year. Fliers don't have to be staying at one of the hotels to use the service.

Bags Inc. said using its service won't increase the odds that a bag would be lost, even though more people may be handling it, because the company has direct access to airline reservation systems and typically delivers bags to airports at times when crowds are diminished.

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