Lost luggage: Here's what happens to your baggage after check-in

WATCH: In the latest episode of Global News explains, we explore the epic journey baggage takes from the check-in desk to your final destination. And what happens if you're one of the unlucky passengers whose luggage gets lost along the way.

Everyone knows somebody with a horror story about delayed, or worse, lost baggage.

In reality, though, more than 99 per cent of luggage is reunited with its rightful owner within 48 hours.

Still, losing luggage can be extremely frustrating and inconvenient. Most times, you’re left with only the clothes on your back and items in your carry-on bag.

Mishandled luggage — as the air transport industry refers to it — is not cheap, costing the industry US$2.9 billion every year, according to the International Air Transport Association.

“We’ve been seeing a dramatic rise in complaints,” CEO of Canadian Transportation Agency, Scott Streiner, explained to Global News.

“In 2014-2015, we got about 700-800 complaints a year. Last year we finished with 5,300 complaints, so there’s been a dramatic increase overall.”

Tips to prevent lost/delayed luggage

  • Don’t put valuables or medication in checked baggage.
  • Put your identification on the outside and inside of your bag. Putting a copy of your itinerary inside the bag will also help the airline find you in case your bag gets lost.
  • Since most mishandling occurs during transfers, try not to book flights with short connection times.
  • Check-in early.
  • Make a list of items you packed. This helps when an airline asks what you had in your bag if it does get mishandled.
  • At bag-drop, ensure the correct destination is marked on your luggage tag.
  • Pack a change of clothes in your carry-on bag so you have something to wear if your bag is delayed or lost.

How bags get lost in the first place

After checking in your bag at the airport, it goes through an epic journey of its own.

Suitcases are moved around from one conveyor to another in a massive underground labyrinth known as the luggage handling system.

“The technology used to carry your bag is really, really advanced,” explained Andrew Price, head of global baggage operations at IATA.

“You have conveyors that move the bags around. You have security screening machines. Then you have things like the early storage, where you may have robotics that are handling 4,000 to 5,000 bags.”

Watch the video above to get an inside look at how the luggage handling process works.

However, the system is not fool-proof.

READ MORE: Pro golfer blames Air Canada for temporarily losing clubs, hurting his chance at the European Tour

According to airline information technology company SITA, 47 per cent of bags were delayed in 2017 because of transfer mishandling.

Failures to load accounted for 16 per cent of mishandled bags.

Ticketing errors, bag switches, security issues and other problems represented 15 per cent.

Airport, customs, weather or space-weight restrictions accounted for 10 per cent.

Other issues include loading errors, tagging errors and arrival mishandling.

“It’s not always something that happens because of the airline or airport,” Price said.

“Sometimes, it’s criminals doing these things.”

READ MORE: RCMP use bait bags to crack down on baggage theft at YVR

What you are entitled to if your bags are delayed or lost in transit

It depends on your airline’s specific policy — which is governed by what’s called the Montreal Convention.

The international treaty was created in 1999 to protect air passengers travelling on international flights and sets common rules of compensation among the 120 countries that ratified it.

READ MORE: Air Canada, WestJet raising checked baggage fees

“Under the convention, airlines under international trips have to provide compensation if a bag is lost or damaged when you can demonstrate a loss,” Streiner said.

In Canada, the airline is generally liable to pay up to $2,000 to cover your losses.

What happens to unclaimed bags?

If a bag has not successfully been reunited with its rightful owner after 90 days, it could be thrown out, donated to a charity or end up at an auction house.

United Way Greater Toronto told Global News it once had the opportunity to pick up unclaimed luggage from Air Canada.

“Most of the items were clothes — some new — and souvenirs, which were given to shelters.”

Allison Sharpe, director of donor engagement, said the most helpful were the suitcases themselves.

“When someone transitions from a shelter, they will typically put their belongings in a plastic bag. The unclaimed luggage allowed shelters to give their clients the dignity of leaving with their belongings in a suitcase.”

In the U.S., many orphaned bags end up at the Unclaimed Baggage Centre in Scottsboro, Ala.

Famously known for its lost treasures, the store claims to be one of Alabama’s top tourist attractions, hosting over a million visitors a year.

Clothes in decent condition are cleaned and electronics are tested, fixed and wiped of data.

Some of the most incredible finds include a crocodile head, a unicycle, and a platinum Rolex watch worth over US$60,000.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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