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U.S. airports finally have something they’re better at than their European counterparts.
Cramming clothes into carry-on bags may not appeal to travelers in Europe this summer, but the alternative could be worse; checked luggage is nearly three times more likely to arrive late in Europe than in the U.S. due to complex airport transfers and strikes.
European airlines lost, damaged or pilfered about nine bags for every 1,000 passengers last year, aviation specialist SITA found in its 2014 Baggage Report. In contrast, about 3.22 bags per thousand travelers faced mistreatment on U.S. domestic flights, and the rate in Asia was just 1.96.
Airlines worldwide have strived to improve baggage delivery in recent years, from speeding up security checks to identifying “hot [transfer] bags” with short layovers for immediate unloading.
Still, despite slashing its rate of mishandling by 41.2 percent since 2003, Europe has lagged consistently behind other regions, just as Asia has remained on top.
“In Europe, there are quite a lot of transfer operations going on,” said Nick Gates, SITA’s portfolio director for baggage. “When you have more complexity, inevitably there are more chances for the operation to fail.”
Scant statistics on which European carriers and airports lose the most luggage make a definitive explanation elusive, though the sheer number of flight connections through the region may be a factor.
Budget Irish airline Ryanair, however, touts its good record, saying it mishandled a mere 0.36 bags per thousand passengers last year, although many of its customers don’t check their bags.
A series of mergers in the United States – most recently the purchase of American Airlines by US Airways in December 2013 – has consolidated the U.S. market to three major companies and a handful of other carriers.
In comparison, more than twice as many airlines serve Europe.
With carriers contracting different ground crew, transfers between airlines heighten the risk of mishandling, said industry consultant Robert Mann. Indeed, 45 percent of luggage incidents worldwide in 2013 occurred during flight connections, SITA said.
Passenger traffic also strains baggage operations, and more travelers went through Europe than any other region in the year ended February 2014, according to Airports Council International. London Heathrow ranked the highest for international passengers in 2012, followed closely by Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt within the top six.
While SITA has documented other factors – such as loading and ticketing errors – the Association of European Airlines (AEA) says that strikes also contributed toward Europe’s poor performance.
Baggage handlers at Belgium’s Brussels Airport quit work for four days in May 2013 as they negotiated new contracts with cargo company Swissport, leaving more than 20,000 checked bags stranded. Only two weeks ago on June 4, a wildcat baggage-handler strike erupted at Rome’s Ciampino airport.
At least 10 actions by baggage handlers and more than 60 strikes total – conducted by airport security, airline crews and air traffic control officials as well – rocked the European Union in 2013, according to AEA spokesman Geert Sciot.
In the U.S., federal law instead prohibits officials in security screening and air traffic control from striking, and while baggage handlers may strike, they rarely do.
The AEA has asked the European Parliament to boost the number of baggage handling companies that are allowed to operate at major airports, currently limited to two. This would limit the impact of strikes carried out by the ground crew of a single company, Sciot said, although it would not address the difficulty of flight transfers.
Barring this, what should defensive travelers do?
Fly with fewer connections and stick to one carrier for the whole journey, if possible. Check that stewards tag the destination of your bag correctly.
Or, adopt an ascetic philosophy: Pack light and carry on.
(Editing by Alwyn Scott and Bernadette Baum)