Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Why Your Bags Can Stay Stuck for Days: The recent fiasco at John F. Kennedy International Airport (KJFK) reveals how airlines have little incentive to deliver your delayed luggage as quickly as possible

The Wall Street Journal
By Scott McCartney
January 17, 2018 9:23 a.m. ET

Lines were long and baggage was piled high. A Swiss International Air Lines agent told Jim Modlin that a conveyor belt was broken, but assured him that his clothes and ski equipment would be on his flight to Zurich on the first Saturday in January.

They weren’t. Instead, Mr. Modlin’s luggage joined the tens of thousands of bags from dozens of airlines piled up at New York’s Kennedy Airport. It took Swiss five days to get his two bags to him, just as his one-week vacation wrapped up.

“The notion that they feel it’s OK to leave hundreds or thousands of bags sitting in New York, and not reunite them, is an outrage,” the New York attorney said from Zurich last week. “At some point they should spend the money to fix it.”

The baggage-handling meltdown at JFK after the Jan. 4 storm unpacked some harsh reality for all travelers: Airlines have little incentive to spend to expedite delayed luggage, and travelers have little protection and few rights. Nothing compels airlines to pay to ship bags by cargo carrier or rival airline. Regulations generally cover airline requirements for lost luggage, not delayed bags.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates JFK, publicly implored airlines to expedite bags and get them delivered by the end of Monday, Jan. 8. That call had little impact: The Port Authority says the baggage backlog didn’t clear until Friday, eight days after the storm.

Swiss says it had about 400 bags left behind at JFK and shipped as many as possible on the airline’s three daily flights from there. But it took more than five days. The carrier “did everything possible to keep the unpleasantness for our passengers as low as possible,” spokesman Stefan Vasic says.

Other airlines were overloaded and a cargo plane wasn’t an option, Mr. Vasic says. “There were no other options or possibilities of shipping these left-behind bags earlier,” he says.

On top of the inconvenience, getting airlines to pay for temporary clothes, equipment and essentials can be a hassle. Typically airlines require receipts or prior approval for expenses and impose tight spending limits, not wanting to pay for new Armani suits. Sometimes airlines reimburse at reduced amounts based on future use and depreciated values. Spirit Airlines even has a policy that customers may be forced to send swimsuits, flip flops and other clothes purchased to the airline before it will reimburse interim expenses. (The airline says it rarely enforces that rule.)

Because the JFK mess was so bad, one carrier says it waived receipt requirements up to $500. The carrier asked not to be identified.

The U.S. Transportation Department caps airline liability for lost or damaged bags at $3,500 per passenger. For delays, airlines are expected to pay “reasonable expenses.” European Union rules and the Montreal Convention, a treaty that governs most international flights, both limit airline responsibility to about $1,600 per passenger.

“The only way that we’ll truly see airlines move faster and provide compensation for delayed luggage is stronger regulations that hold airlines accountable,” says Henrik Zillmer, chief executive of AirHelp, a service that collects airline compensation for passengers.

Worldwide baggage handling has improved dramatically as airlines have implemented more tracking, according to SITA, an aviation technology firm. SITA says the world-wide rate of mishandled bags reached a record low in 2016 of 5.73 per thousand passengers, or about one mishandled bag for every 175 passengers. That’s down 70% from the 2007 rate.

Airlines say the JFK mess resulted from a string of problems that scrambled schedules. Some terminals had planes waiting hours for gates, and arriving passengers went home or to connecting flights without baggage. Outgoing planes didn’t get their baggage loaded in many cases, leaving bags like Mr. Modlin’s behind. On Sunday, a water pipe flooded parts of Terminal 4, including key areas for baggage.

By Monday and Tuesday, local New York television showed video of giant baggage piles from dozens of airlines at JFK.

Delta, which has part of its operation in Terminal 4, says it juggled 8,000 bags left behind at the peak of the problem, but got all its bags delivered by that Wednesday.

Delta set up a separate hotline for JFK customers to tell the airline where to deliver bags. It used three delivery services in New York instead of just one. It replaced two Airbus A320 flights to Atlanta with wide-body Boeing 777s to move bags faster out of New York, and ran two extra flights, one to the Dominican Republic, to move stranded passengers and bags out.

Delta also flew in 50 baggage workers from Minneapolis, Detroit and Los Angeles to help clear the backlog and trucked some bags to LaGuardia so workers there who weren’t as busy could get them out on delivery vans or onto planes.

Delta says problems began early the day of the storm, when some morning flights the airline hoped to launch were canceled—after bags had already been accepted for transport. By Thursday night, Delta had about 3,000 bags backed up.

The pile grew Friday, when JFK closed a runway to repair lights damaged by plows. Airlines had been counting on that runway being open at the busiest traffic time—4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Still, Delta thought it could clear the 5,000 or so bags by the end of the weekend.

The water-pipe break in Terminal 4 Sunday afternoon flooded the Customs baggage screening area. Delta—one of about 30 airlines in T4—had 11 international flights on the ground but no way to deliver bags to passengers. Passengers scattered, leaving bags behind.

When Mr. Modlin arrived in Zurich, his heart sank as only a handful of bags showed up on the Swiss carousel. Had the agent in New York told him there was a good chance his bags wouldn’t make it, he would have pulled out his ski boots and carried them aboard. All he carried on was a briefcase.

Swiss told him to buy some clothes and rent ski equipment. The airline would reimburse him for what it considered appropriate. The skiing wasn’t as enjoyable without his gear. What really marred the vacation was spending hours calling Swiss baggage offices in Zurich and New York and waiting on hold. He couldn’t get New York to return messages. In Zurich, agents told him New York wasn’t responding to their calls and emails, either.

Bags weren’t scanned in New York until they went on a plane, so Zurich wouldn’t have any information on his bags until they showed up. An agent told him some flights were coming in with only about 10 extra bags.

“They’ve all been very polite,” he says of Swiss agents, “but completely unhelpful.”

What to do when your luggage is delayed:

Never ever pack medicine, valuables or other critical items in checked luggage.

When your bag doesn’t show up, make sure you complete paperwork at the baggage office or give delivery instructions through the airline app if that’s an option. Make sure the airline has your hotel, cruise ports and schedule.

Tell the airline you are going to purchase necessary clothes, toiletries and vacation gear and expect full reimbursement. Get the airline policy in writing. Are receipts required? Is there a spending limit? Must you return purchased items to the airline? Airlines are also required to inform you of your rights under applicable domestic or international regulations.

Don’t leave the airport without the local phone number at the baggage office, as well as the airline’s central phone center for baggage issues.

Make a list of all items in the missing bag while it’s still fresh in your mind, along with when you bought items and the original cost, if possible, just in case the bag never shows up.

Original article can be found here ➤

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