From next year, IATA will require all airlines and airports to monitor and log the status of passengers’ bags through all the major stages of the bags’ journey. This means inbound (arrival bags) will need to be more actively tracked or monitored. Picture: Matt Rourke /AP
Despite strict security at airports, millions of bags are lost each year. Surely there’s a smarter way to manage baggage? asks consumer watchdog Georgina Crouth.

It’s one of the most dismal parts of travelling: you arrive at your destination but can’t find your luggage. Then you’re told it was “mishandled”, flown somewhere else in error and assured it will be traced. The only thing is - no system is fool-proof and even with a scanned bar code, luggage often goes astray.

Tinus Bezuidenhout wrote to me about the fiasco with his luggage, which wasn’t resolved to his satisfaction by SAA.

“I booked in my suitcase and my black sports bag at OR Tambo for my flight to Dar es Salaam. The lady tagged both while I was waiting, but she wasn’t fluent in the process.

“When I arrived in Dar es Salaam only my black sports bag was available. I went to the Swissport luggage handlers to lodge a query and they searched for my suitcase, to no avail.

“Then I completed all the required ‘lost luggage’ documentation for them to send to OR Tambo.

“While filling in the documentation, we discovered that the one tear-off from the tag on my suitcase was in the name of Murray (flight VFA SA40 Victoria Falls). I recalled that while standing in the queue, the people in front of me at the check-in desk were all dressed as if they were going fishing or on a safari.

“After a few emails and no positive feedback, I tried phoning but SAA customer care just doesn’t pick up the phone.

“I had to buy all necessities to cope with my stay in Tanzania until I had to return to SA.”

Bezuidenhout asked a staff member in his company’s South African office to follow up with the travel agency, which “escalated” the matter with SAA. More documents were filled in.

On his return to SA, he went to OR Tambo to locate the luggage, or at least, get some answers.

That “escalation” came to naught: when he went to the claims division, no claim had been logged on their system. So, he went through the logging process again.

While waiting, he was given a letter stating they would pay him R4 943 for his estimated 21kg luggage. That, though, doesn’t cover it.

“I do understand them not paying for my laptop and the biometric clocking machine and the small machine spares I had in my suitcase (these were covered under our company’s travel insurance), but the loss of my personal stuff and the money spent on the phone for being not assisted is not acceptable to me.”

SAA’s baggage claims team leader, Mimi Lokwe, got back to Bezuidenhout, explaining their policies are in line with the IATA Warsaw Convention (an international convention that regulates liability for carriage of people, luggage, or goods performed by aircraft), which dictates they pay $20 per kilo, which was calculated at 18kg, hence the R4943.

“The rest of the items which were car parts and laptop were declined due to our conditions of carriage. I am terribly sorry if we did not settle your claim according to your satisfaction, however, like any other airline, there are certain policies and procedures that need to be followed when assessing claims. Once again my apologies for all the inconvenience caused.”

The weight discrepancy aside, SAA’s own stated policy on lost baggage states: “SAA contributes to the costs of replacement purchases for essential items if your baggage arrives more than 24 hours late. Expenses for toiletries and if necessary, a change of clothes are reimbursed.”

Bezuidenhout was on a work trip and had to buy toiletries and clothing - then had to jump through hoops to lodge the claim. No comment from SAA on that.

But with all the security measures at airports, it shouldn’t be so hard to find luggage. I asked SAA what had been done in terms of tracing the luggage, as there was a bar code and tag on the case, and the logical starting point would be the Vic Falls and the travellers ahead of Bezuidenhout in the queue. They didn’t get back to me in time, despite their promises.

Perhaps there’s little appetite to chase lost baggage - it’s too much effort and costs too much. Surely there’s a smarter way to manage baggage?

Last year, Sita, the world’s leading specialist in air transport communications and information technology, reported the air transport industry has cut the number of mishandled bags by 50% globally since 2007, saving an estimated $22billion in total. This means only 23.1million bags were “mishandled”, equating to 6.5 bags lost per 1000 passengers. This, despite international passenger numbers having grown by nearly 200%.

Self-service check-in, the report notes, is the best way to lessen the risk of losing your luggage.

Sita’s Bag Journey service provides smart solutions that allow bags to be tracked like parcels. Nick Gates, Sita’s portfolio director for baggage, explained: “It follows the bag, from check-in to final delivery, through multiple airports and multiple airlines. We are delivering this service to our community via an application programming interface (API) to allow airlines and airports to integrate it into to their existing systems quickly and easily.”

From next year, IATA will require all airlines and airports to monitor and log the status of passengers’ bags through all the major stages of the bags’ journey. This means inbound (arrival bags) will need to be more actively tracked or monitored.

Andrew Price, head of airport operations management at IATA, said: When one major airline introduced 100% tracking, they saw a 35% reduction in mishandling.”

Sita’s baggage tracking offering is also integrated with WorldTracer - a global tracing and matching service of delayed bags, which allows a bag’s journey to be tracked even if it was mishandled - which is available on StarAlliance partners, which means SAA.

It’s not fool-proof though. Despite advances in technology, human agency will always be a factor, so you should check in your own baggage, carry your precious property in your hand luggage, and and take out travel insurance.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected]

** Folow Georgie on Twitter @Consumerstar or on Facebook Independent Consumerstar

The Star