Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Your Lost Bags May Not Count as Lost: A quirk in Department of Transportation accounting makes it easy for airlines to make their baggage statistics look better than they are — and a fix may be delayed

The Wall Street Journal
By Scott McCartney
Updated Nov. 15, 2017 7:40 p.m. ET

Several airlines have found a slick way to avoid counting some of the checked baggage they lose or delay, skewing comparisons of airline reliability. And it may be 2019 at the earliest before the loophole airlines are throwing bags through gets fixed.

Federal regulations since 1987 have required that airlines tally the number of mishandled bags monthly and report them to the Transportation Department. Specifically, airlines must disclose the number of mishandled baggage reports that travelers file at airline baggage offices—the paperwork where you describe your suitcase and give the airline an address for delivery once it turns up.

That turns out to be a key distinction. American Airlines rolled out messaging that notifies customers when a bag didn’t make a flight and asks for delivery instructions. United and Delta say they are about to do the same. That’s a huge convenience for inconvenienced passengers: No anxious waiting at the baggage carousel for a bag that won’t show. No standing in line for baggage-office paperwork.

But no paperwork means no report, airline executives say, so the lost or delayed bag never gets counted as mishandled in DOT statistics. American and United say they are complying with the regulation, even though they won’t be reporting all their mishandled bags. Delta says it has decided to set up its mobile app to generate the same report as going to the baggage office, and the mishandled bags will be reported to DOT.

A DOT spokeswoman says the agency is aware of what airlines are doing and looking into whether it “impacts the way airlines report mishandled baggage data.”

After American began proactive notification at the end of July, its rate of mishandled bags plunged 32% in August to 2.8 reports per 1,000 passengers, from 4.12 in August 2016. Monthly numbers bounce around because of weather problems or airline meltdowns that affect baggage handling. But these numbers represented by far the best August in four years for American. (August is the most recent month DOT has reported.)

American says the improvement resulted from many initiatives, primarily more scanning of bag tags, so the airline can do a better job of monitoring bags’ whereabouts. The customer notification and reporting change was just one factor, a spokesman says, and “certainly not” the reason for the statistical improvement.

United was scheduled to begin proactive notification last spring but says the baggage alerts have been delayed, with launch now expected for the first quarter of next year.

Delta says it has been notifying customers of baggage status since 2010 but still directs customers to a kiosk or baggage service office to file a report, which does get reported to DOT. That will change, Delta says, but the reporting to DOT will remain the same.

“We are exploring technology that would allow customers to bypass the [baggage service office],” a spokeswoman says.

The reporting dodge came to light after the Middle Seat reported it in March. Some airlines may follow suit. Others say they are talking to DOT about a fix that would level the playing field on baggage-handling performance.

JetBlue , for example, says it doesn’t think airlines should be singled out for reporting operational statistics while bus and rail lines, car-rental firms and hotels don’t have to publicly report performance.

“However, as long as requirements for airlines remain, they should be applied equally across all airlines,” a JetBlue spokesman says. “We would applaud the DOT for closing any loopholes that, left unchecked, would leave the traveling public with a less-than-accurate portrayal of actual performance.”

Southwest reports all mishandled bags to the DOT, a spokesman says. The airline says it has participated in discussions with the DOT and other airlines about mishandled baggage reporting guidelines and awaits further direction from the government.

That may be awhile. The DOT actually issued several changes last year to improve mishandled baggage reporting, including a change to require reporting the number of mishandled bags instead of the number of mishandled bag reports. It also requires reporting the number of bags checked instead of the number of domestic passengers boarded.

DOT currently compares the number of domestic mishandled baggage reports against the number of domestic passengers. But checked baggage fees changed passenger behavior, DOT said in its final order. So it wants to calculate mishandled baggage rates by comparing delayed, lost, stolen, damaged or pilfered bags to the total number of checked bags, instead of the number of passengers. The department calls the current means of measuring mishandled bags “outdated.”

The changes were scheduled to begin at the start of 2018. But last January, the Trump administration issued a temporary freeze on new regulations. A week after the freeze was issued, Airlines for America, the industry’s lobbying organization, requested a one-year delay. The DOT decided to delay the rules change until Jan. 1, 2019.

Original article can be found here ➤

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