Should I AirTag my luggage? What really happens to your bags at the airport

How do you ensure your bag is first onto the carousel?
How do you ensure your bag is first onto the carousel? - Simon Bond/Getty

Heathrow is facing “baggage bedlam” this October half term, trade union Unite has warned, as 170 luggage-handling staff prepare to strike from 23 to 27 October. But it’s a wonder that anyone would check in a suitcase these days: from a two-week wait for bags at Edinburgh Airport, to the passenger claiming that Air France lost her wheelie for two months, this summer’s baggage woes have been quicker – and more predictable – than any Arrivals carousel.

But if you can’t travel hand-luggage only, who is responsible for your bag’s safekeeping – and how to maximise your chance of being reunited? Should you cling-film it? Use an AirTag? And how to ensure it’s first on the conveyor belt? We asked the experts.

After I’ve checked in my luggage, what happens to it?

“When you’re at bag drop, an electronic message is generated at the same time that your baggage tag 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 it is sent to various airport IT systems responsible for processing the bag.”

Your luggage is then identified and security-screened. “Identification is usually carried out using barcode scanners, though newer systems may use RFID (radio frequency identification) technology instead,” continues Conday.

“Once the bag is identified and secure, the next step in the process is to determine its timeliness. Is it early, on-time or late? This dictates where the bag must go.

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

“Late bags may travel directly to where the aircraft is parked, to minimise journey time. The majority of bags are on-time, and the baggage handlers drive the ULDs to the appropriate aircraft stand and load them.”

What can go wrong – and how does lost luggage work?

Staff strikes, airport issues and IT failures aside, passengers with connecting flights may be more likely to experience baggage issues – particularly if their transfer time is shortened by delays.

“If a bag [isn’t] on the same flight as the passenger, it will be forwarded on the next possible flight,” advises a spokesperson from Swissport, which handles around 677,000 bags 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.”

If your bag hasn't arrived, check the baggage hall
If your bag hasn't arrived, check the baggage hall - Richard Baker/Corbis/Getty

Who’s responsible for my luggage – the airline or the airport?

It is the airline’s job, not the airport’s. They may handle the baggage themselves, or employ a specialist provider such as Swissport, Menzies or DHL Supply Chain.

What should I do if my bag never arrives?

Check the baggage hall: if the bag is heavy or there’s an issue with the carousels, it may be waiting elsewhere. Failing that, locate your airline’s baggage desk; the staff will ask for your baggage tag, from which they can track it.

Ask about compensation, and a refund if you’ve paid for checked-in bags. “Most airlines will reimburse you for the bare essentials,” the Civil Aviation Authority advises: ask how expenses are submitted, and whether there’s a value limit. You may also need to inform your travel insurance provider.

You will likely need to provide a detailed description, so having a clear photo of your luggage to-hand is useful. If a missing bag report is filed, note the reference number. You’ll also need to give an address for your bag to be delivered to. Many carriers give lost-luggage updates via online portals.

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

If I’m on a codeshare flight, which airline is responsible for my bags?

Any lost luggage claims should be made with the operating airline, not the one who sold you your ticket.

What if I’m flying on multiple airlines?

If your journey involves connecting flights with different airlines, check beforehand if you’ll need to reclaim and recheck your bags en route. If this isn’t necessary, the carrier that transports you to your final destination is responsible for delivering your baggage – so raise any issues with them.

What if I get home and realise something has been stolen from my bag?

Contact the airline and your travel insurance provider immediately. Take photos of any damage to the suitcase or lock, and find item receipts if possible.

Should I wrap my bag in cling film?

No. “Wrapping may cause friction between the item and the baggage system, which can lead to the bag and/or baggage system getting damaged,” says DHL’s Conday.

Add a colourful ribbon to your black suitcase so you can identify it more easily
Add a colourful ribbon to your black suitcase so you can identify it more easily - d3sign

I have a black suitcase – is a colourful one less likely to get lost?

No – but it may help with identification, says Swissport’s spokesperson. “The colour of the baggage is not a trigger on whether or not a bag gets mishandled,” they advise, “but colour, stickers, ribbons and other identifiers can help speed up the process of reuniting passengers with their bags.”

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

Perhaps. 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 11g, making it easy to slip into your suitcase.

As Senior Content Manager of airline rewards website, Rhys Jones flies at least once a week – always with his AirTag. “It’s peace of mind,” he explains. “And when I’m at the luggage belt, I already know if my bag has arrived.”

An Apple AirTag allows you to track your bag for the whole journey
An Apple AirTag allows you to track your bag for the whole journey - izusek

How else can I stop my bag from going missing?

“We recommend passengers to be early at the airport, and to label their luggage inside and out,” says Swissport’s spokesperson. “This should include your name, contact information and flight details.”

As well as photographing your luggage for ID purposes, take a snap of your airline baggage tag. If it’s stuck to the back of your boarding pass, you might want to move it somewhere less vulnerable – to an inner pocket of your hand luggage, perhaps.

My suitcase zip is dodgy – what if my bag bursts en route?

Your belongings will be delivered in a plastic bag. “Bags that spill can cause serious disruption,” says Conday. “When this happens, the bag is identified by people who gather the contents and put them into a clear plastic bag. The damaged bag and its contents are then manually processed.”

You can try putting a 'fragile' sticker on your bag
You can try putting a 'fragile' sticker on your bag - Hinterhaus Productions

How to ensure my bag is first on the reclaim carousel?

Other than a “priority” tag for business and first-class baggage, there’s no guaranteed way to beat the queue – although rumour has it, the last bags to be checked in are often the first on the carousel. Other tips include using a “fragile” sticker, so that your bag is loaded last, and therefore retrieved before others.

I’m travelling with hand-luggage only. Is it safe to leave my handbag in a scanner tray while I go through security?

“This is one of the most secure parts of any airport,” one spokesperson from a major London airport told Telegraph Travel. Speaking anonymously, they advised: “Never be complacent, but security is full of high-tech cameras and trained staff – the ones you see, and the ones you don’t. Thieves know this.”

Two security guards at Miami Airport were filmed pocketing valuables from passengers’ bags this summer, while one in Manila was caught swallowing cash, but these incidents are vanishingly rare, says our insider. “If you have an issue, report it immediately and it will be taken very seriously.”

Have you experienced luggage issues before? Share your story in the comments section below

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