According to a recent report by aviation technology company SITA, a total of 42 million bags were lost by the aviation industry during 2007. If taken at face-value this is a fact that would haunt even the most seasoned air traveller as they hand their luggage over during check-in.
The phenomenal worldwide growth of the aviation industry – both in terms of the sheer increase in number of flights and the huge expansion projects at so many airports – combined with enhanced security measures has inevitably led to a natural rise in mishandling incidents.
On a global scale, 2.25 billion pieces of checked luggage are handled by the aviation industry on a yearly basis. Of this, more than 98% of bags complete their journey safely, and those that are mishandled or lost are reunited with owners within 48 hours of the flight.
Yet with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) identifying an overall industry loss of $3.8bn in 2007 due to mishandled baggage, concerns are understandably beginning to escalate.
It is not only the everyday passenger that is troubled by lost baggage. Travel insurance companies are also losing thanks to walking bags. Travel insurance figures show a sharp increase in claims over recent years.
Take Norwich Union, for example, which experienced a 40% rise in delayed baggage claims between January and June of 2007 compared to 2006. With the insurer paying each policyholder around £150 to cover cost of delayed baggage and an average of £240 for each missing bag, could the issue even spark a rise in luggage insurance rates, and in turn provoke a fierce response from the general public?
The knock-on effects of lost luggage for the average holidaymaker though cannot be underestimated. The stress and heartache surrounding the loss of luggage has a serious impact on a traveller, and at times can cause almost irreparable damage to their opinion of the airline, airport or even country.
A casual search through a number of online blogs can reveal hordes of disgruntled travellers vowing never to fly on certain airlines or return to a certain country – a view often stemming from just one terrible holidaying experience.
Mounting figures of lost or delayed luggage, no matter how relative to industry growth, amount to further irate customers. This year we have seen a prime example of the damage an airport and airline's failings can generate. The much publicised failings of British Airways' Terminal 5 grand opening has done little in the way of restoring the general public's faith in air travel.
Despite costing the British Airports Authority a total of £4.3bn – £75m of which was on technology and a further £175m on IT systems – and featuring 18km of conveyor belts for baggage handling, within a month of opening the terminal had lost roughly 200,000 bags and saw passenger numbers fall by 220,000.
Later admitting to 'compromising' on the testing of baggage systems, this somewhat extreme example does go to prove that technology accounts for little unless matched with organisational prowess.
Identifying this fact, collaboration seems to be one of the key attributes in IATA's Baggage Improvement Programme (BIP) which is designed to confront spiralling lost luggage figures head-on. During 2008, IATA hopes to secure the participation of six airlines and airports around the world in the action plan, which encompasses training courses for employees, improving read rates through better barcode labels and optimising information sent between departure control and baggage systems.
BIP also elusively touches on the subject of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging within the baggage handling system framework. Identifying a range of proven baggage handling solutions, IATA is providing thorough research for airports and airlines to help find appropriate solutions while at the same time facilitating industry collaboration.
Able to direct, track and trace luggage throughout an entire journey, RFID offers a more comprehensive alternative to the standard bar-coding option and is perceived by many as the future for baggage-handling systems.
The CEO of SITA, Francesco Violante estimates that RFID technology could help save £700m if implemented throughout the entire industry. An idealistic notion, though it is too early to tell what benefits can be reaped from a solution that has only this year begun its first steps into the baggage-handling sector.
Whatever the outcome, 2008 will be a pivotal year for the industry's response to rising figures of lost luggage. Even though there are underlying factors behind the increase in 2007, it still remains one of such magnitude that industry organisations, airports and airlines alike have been forced to take notice and explore means of improvement.