Piles of suitcases in the airline lost luggage area at the airport

The Truth About Airline Lost Luggage And What To Do About It

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It’s every traveler’s nightmare. You descend to baggage claim at your destination and begin waiting for your bag. And you wait and you wait. That dreaded feeling begins to rise up inside you as you realize that your bag didn’t make it.

Here’s everything you need to know about airline lost luggage: what to do when the airline loses your luggage, the sickening truth about lost baggage by airlines and even tips on preventing lost luggage hassles.

People waiting around a baggage carousel wondering if their luggage is lost
That dreaded feeling of wondering if your baggage made it (Photo by Tom Mayby CC 2.0)

What To Do When the Airline Loses Your Luggage

Here is what to do when luggage is lost or delayed on your flight. Nobody from the airline is just going to magically find your bag without you taking steps to make it happen. You need to be your own advocate.

File your claim immediately at the airport

Don’t just assume your bag will come on the next flight. You must file your claim immediately to receive compensation and it helps to start the clock on your claim. Be sure to have all of your information handy, including record locator number, flight number, and description of your bag (including color, shape, size, manufacturer, and any distinguishing characteristics).

Be loud, be vocal

Get in front of a real person (ideally a manager) at the baggage office at the airport. Get their attention. Get them looking for your bag. But remember the phrase, “You catch more flies with honey.” Being a jerk or obnoxious is unlikely to help your case. Be pleasant, but forceful.

You need to assume your bag is lost for a minimum of 5 days

Airlines rarely get bags back to passengers in 48 hours. Most bags that fall into the delayed baggage category make it back to the passenger in 3-7 days. Figure out what you need for a few days and immediately buy those items.

Itemize everything

Keep receipts for everything you buy. How much do airlines have to pay for lost luggage? The answer depends on if the flight was a domestic flight or an international flight.

The airlines are required to reimburse you for delayed, lost or damaged baggage up to $3,300 per person on domestic flights. International flights are covered by the Warsaw Convention, but the current lost luggage reimbursement is around $1,750 per person. Actually getting paid for your lost or delayed luggage reimbursement is another matter with some airlines being very quick and others not.

Share your story

After a few days, you will want to take your story to social media. Don’t be a jerk, but share your story and be sure to tag your airline’s social media accounts. Have friends re-share the story, particularly on Twitter. Eventually someone in the airline will pay attention. That’s what you need – a real person in customer service/central baggage office to take interest. They are the people who can help get someone to look for your bag.

Lost baggage waiting for owners at baggage claim
Baggage waiting for owners

The Truth About Airline Lost Luggage

Filing a Lost Luggage Report Probably Won’t Help

When your bag doesn’t make it at a destination, you’ll dutifully file your report with the airline in the baggage claim area. If this is a simple issue of delayed baggage, it should show up in the next three days. FAA data shows that delayed baggage usually arrives within 3-7 days. However, if the bag is truly lost, your chances of finding lost luggage after 30 days are cut in half.

Automated baggage tracking is hardly a science. Despite having bar codes, the baggage search process is largely a manual one. It requires an airline representative to manually search the WorldTracer computer system for misdirected bags. WorldTracer is a computer system used by practically every airline (over 440 worldwide) at over 2,800 airports. To get help with your lost bag, you need to find some way to get the airline to initiate this manual process. Complaining loudly and frequently is your only choice.

Large pile of delayed baggage at the airport

Time Is Not On Your Side

When your bag is lost, time is not on your side. There are a number of key deadlines that you’ll need to observe if you want to see your bags (or receive compensation). Here are the key deadlines:

  • 4 hours: Deadline from flight landing to file your complaint with the airline for lost baggage
  • 5 days: The time period when the airline transitions your case file from the local airport to the central baggage office. This is the start of getting someone to actually help you.
  • 45 days: Deadline to file the Passenger Property Questionnaire (PPQ) with the airline. This form is where you itemize your property and assign value to it.
  • 100 days: All bags cycle out of the WorldTracer system. After 100 days, your bags are likely lost forever and can’t be tracked. Luckily, only about 2% of lost luggage is missing forever.

Not All Airlines Are Equal

Some airlines have better luck than others. And some just have bad luck. I was flying on American Airlines. After returning home, I wondered just how often does luggage get lost? Airlines hype that the rate of lost luggage is on the decline, but they frequently overlook delayed baggage statistics (and a delay can be DAYS). The issue of lost vs. delayed baggage may play out in the statics, but the result is the same for the consumer.

In the course of my ordeal, I learned that in the year prior to my trip, American Airlines lost more bags than any other major carrier in the United States. Among top carriers, only discount Southwest lost more bags. [At Southwest, bags may fly free, but they don’t get there.] In fact, American and U.S. Air (now combined as American Airlines) lost more bags than all other major carriers COMBINED. Eventually, American Airlines surpassed Southwest Airlines in lost baggage.

Suitcase with a barcode luggage tracker and bag tags
Despite having a barcode, luggage tracking is still a largely manual process (Photo by Karl Baron by CC 2.0).

Automated Baggage Tracking Doesn’t Work

A number of airlines are rolling out automated baggage tracking features. American Airlines launched a feature on their app that allows passengers to “Track Your Bags.” You didn’t know about this feature? The AA Baggage Tracker hasn’t been widely publicized, but American Airlines spokeswomen Laura Nedbal is quoted in media stories saying, “It’s [the American Airlines Track My Bag feature] something our customers have been asking for a really long time, and we’re excited to make this available to them.”

Only there’s one small problem: it doesn’t work very well. During my AA lost luggage odyssey, the American Airlines luggage tracker in the app did not accurately show my bag’s location. [More on that later.]

Your Lost Bag May Not Even Be the Airline’s Fault

Most airlines, staff out their baggage operations to subcontractors. As I learned from my lost luggage experience, the relationship between airline staff and these subcontractors can be adversarial. As they argue and bicker over turf and relationships, you suffer.

Airline Staff Are Caring Professionals

During my experience, nearly every American Airlines employee I encountered was a caring professional. They were apologetic. They cared about me and treated with respect. It didn’t result in getting my bag back any faster. It didn’t stop the fact that nearly every American employee gave me incorrect information about my bag. But it did ease tensions and took a lot of steam out of the situation.

Your Bag May be Destined for the Lost Luggage Auction

Unclaimed baggage left at the airport is ultimately auctioned or sold at a lost luggage store like the mega-center in Scottsboro, Alabama. Only there’s one catch, sometimes it isn’t abandoned or unclaimed luggage that ends up there – it may be your lost luggage.

Airlines are murky on the data, but after discussing with airline employees, we’ve become convinced that many lost bags are treated as unclaimed bags and sold off. Seriously, who just abandons their luggage, especially after paying the airlines extra money to be able to check the bag in the first place?

In a way, this amounts to luggage theft by the airlines who sell your bags to these lost luggage operations for profit. Thankfully, the numbers are low, but it does happen.

Two carry-on suitcases in an airline overhead bin
The only way to prevent lost luggage is to pack carry-on only.

Travel Tips for Preventing Lost Luggage Problems

Carry On Only

If you truly care about your stuff arriving with you, pack carry on only. It’s the only way to guarantee that your luggage will make the flight. The minute you check that bag, you’re opening yourself up to lost or delayed baggage problems. Be sure to check our articles for Packing Tips and also Carry-On Essentials to make your trip go more smoothly.

Luggage Tags

Make sure you have a luggage tag on the outside of your bag. Also, make sure there is a business card or other address identification inside your bag. Remove all luggage tags and luggage barcodes from previous flights to avoid confusing ground staff or electronic bar code readers. This is especially important if the tags are for a different airline than the one you are currently flying!

Tight Connections

Flight connections are the death of bags. Over the years, the airlines have tightened connection times. Think about all the times you’ve had to run to make a flight. Now think about how your bag will get there. Chances are good that it won’t. If you really want your bags to get there, be sure to take non-stop flights (although, as my American Airlines baggage story below indicates, direct flights are not a guarantee that your baggage will arrive).

If you must check your bag and you must have a connection, consider taking a flight with a longer layover. Each airport has a published minimum connection time (called a “legal connection” time). That’s if everything goes according to plan. Now take into account weather, late crews, the ever-vague “mechanical problems,” and air traffic delays and you’re basically screwed. Don’t rely on the airline to plan your connection for you.

Keep Your Proof

When you pack your bag, take a picture of the inside contents. You may need this to prove to the airline what you had with you. It’s not unusual for the airline to lose the bag, and then add the insult in disputing your lost luggage claim. Also, keep your bag claim check separate from your boarding card in a safe place.

Some airlines insist on putting your claim check on the back of your boarding pass. Politely decline and take it with you. The reason is that if you need to be re-ticketed (upgraded to first class) or you miss a flight, you might not get the claim check back (it’s happened to us more than once).

As a pro tip, take a photo of your baggage claim ticket on your phone in case you lose your physical ticket.

A photo of a packed suitcase to prove its contents for a Passenger Property Questionnaire (PPQ)
Take a picture of your suitcase contents to assist in disputes with the airline

My American Airlines Lost Luggage Story

I recently flew on American Airlines from Philadelphia to Zurich. American is part of the Oneworld Airline Alliance, which sadly has poor coverage in Europe. I was ultimately flying onward to Albania, where I was going to meet up with Laura, but needed to fly on a different airline.

On arriving in Zurich, my bag never made it. Several other passengers also didn’t receive their bags. This was a non-stop flight and there were no tight connections (or any connections at all). I had checked in to the flight early, so it wasn’t a rush. There’s no excuse for my bag not to have made the flight.

According to American Airlines, my bag sat in Philadelphia for five days before being sent onward to Athens…not Zurich. Had AA put the bag on the next flight the next day, it would have caught up to me, but that didn’t happen.

Throughout the entire process, American Airlines customer service staff were extremely apologetic and polite, but I got the feeling they really weren’t doing a whole lot or trying to help. The compassion settled tensions, but did little to resolve the fundamental problem. Things improved slightly once I was put in touch with the American Airlines Baggage Call Center (1-800-535-5225 or Central.baggage@aa.com).

In the early days, the airline sent inconsistent and confusing updates. On the same day, different people in the American Airlines Central Baggage Resolution Office told me different things. One agent told me to submit the paperwork for an American Airlines delayed baggage compensation claim, and another told me to wait. One agent told me they would e-mail me the American Airlines Passenger Property Questionnaire and a different agent told me to download the file (you can download the questionnaire here).

To further add to the confusion, on one single day, different AA Customer Service agents told me that my bag was in Philadelphia, Zurich, and Tirana. Obviously, my bag couldn’t be in three countries on two different continents at the same time.

American Airlines luggage tags as my bag flew around the world
The tags as my bag flew around the world

I’ve been able to piece together the story of my bag. It sat for five days in Philadelphia before being flown to Athens, Greece, but I wasn’t in Greece. So the bag went back to Philadelphia, where it sat for a couple of weeks, before being flown to Zurich, who forwarded the bag to Tirana (but I was already home). Tirana forwarded it back to Zurich, who forwarded it back to Tirana, where it sat for a few weeks. Eventually, it flew back to Philadelphia…via Sydney, Australia. Ironically, the American baggage tracking app (AA Track My Bag) showed my bag never left Philadelphia for the entire time.

Yes, I got my bag back. It took 39 days (that’s more than 10% of the year that my bag was missing). Yes, I eventually got paid for the items that I bought while my bag was missing. But I wasted an immense amount of time. I spent over 3 hours on hold from Europe with AA baggage racking up some pretty serious phone charges (which were not reimbursed).

I spent hours following up again and again with American Airlines. That’s time I don’t get back in my life and there’s no compensation for wasted time.

Lost luggage with a delivery notice on it
Reunited at long last

To be honest, I probably fared better than most. I’m an American Airlines Platinum elite flyer. However, I’m not feeling the love from AA these days. I don’t really feel like my loyalty has been reciprocated. So yes, I probably fared much better than some victims of airline lost luggage. Unfortunately, there’s still very little recourse for passengers. And while the airlines claim they are improving, it doesn’t look like it to most frequent fliers.

Do you have an airline lost luggage horror story? Share your story below!

26 thoughts on “The Truth About Airline Lost Luggage And What To Do About It”

  1. There are things money cannot buy. One is lost time, the other is sanity, and when those get compensated, the airlines will not make so many mistakes.

    1. That is an EXCELLENT point, Nancy. We lost a lot of both in this fiasco, so our goal in writing this was to spare others a bit of the same fate.

  2. Hello All,
    What is the best way to deal with Customer Relations? I keep getting the same agent who refuses to investigate the entire situation. So frustrating. Aa A ruined my trip. Lost luggage, 36 hour delay and no response when calling or email for info. Please help! Thank you

    1. Try calling at a different time of day. Also, Tweeting at the airlines can be really helpful. It’s not exactly real-time (you tweet, you get a response 4-6 hours later), but it is light years faster than the call center.

      That said, in the world of airline lost luggage, a 36-hour delay barely even registers. If you’re still less than 2 weeks delayed, chances are still pretty good you’ll get the bags “soon” (which in the world of unionized airline employee-speak means generally within 30 days). I know that is deeply unsatisfying, but it is the reality of the situation. Inevitably with how much we fly, we have a 1-4 day lost bag situation a few times a year. The airlines claim they are getting better, but it just doesn’t feel like it.

  3. Hey Lance, great post! Our luggage has been missing since December 13th and AA has not been very helpful to be honest. Since it is international, it looks like the max they’ll compensate is $1,750. Our bag’s contents had way more than that. It was 2 surfboards, clothes, towels etc. Would they compensate us for 2 people or just one, since it was one bag, but the contents belonged to 2 people?
    Thanks 🙂

    1. I’m guessing only one person – since the bag was checked in only one person’s name (regardless of what was in it). The lost baggage allowance of $1750 is standard for airlines by convention (which hasn’t been indexed for inflation or adjusted in…forever). When I had my AA lost bag situation, I was kind of freaking out. I had thousands in photography gear in the bag. Lesson learned for me. I do hope you get your situation resolved. Drop back in and let us know how it turns out.

    2. Don, from all I have studied so far you can claim for 2 people IF TWO PERSON’s items were mixed in the luggage.

  4. Great education for me as I am just beginning to become a frequent world traveler. Thank you so much for posting this info. We luckily have been able to extreme-pack and just use carryon backpacks so far. Handwashing items in our room at night is worth the hassle of not having checked bags. We love our packing cubes, easy to get to items without disrupting the entire backpack. But when I need to check a bag I will be much more cautious to put only “disposable” items in it now. I was of the mindset that checked bags are a safe place for special items, but you have definitely changed my mind.

  5. Rafael Ruiz-Ayala

    Bet American Airlines continues to be the worst offender. They just lost ours a four days ago. Same experience with their useless call center. At this point we have decided not to waste any more of our time and invest that time in completing and filing the monetary claim forms. It is not our job to get them to do their job. All we can do is getting paid for their inability to do it. I am sure they will begin to care after they get our $7,000 claim for compensation. Never flying AA again.

  6. Great article, thank you !

    I am at the moment still dealing with my missing suitcase. Last time it was scanned was in Dallas DFW airport, while I went on to Europe. My husband’s suitcase arrived the next day, but mine is still missing – since May 1.

    Your post makes me still hopeful, as your suitcase took 39 days to reach you, while mine is missing 51. I have been looking at replacement costs of the clothing, in my suitcase, and it is a bit shocking, as I am hard to fit in clothes, and have to get them tailored.

    The time I have wasted on this is about full 2 work weeks, starting with reading online in Europe WHAT to actually do. I read the nightmares of other passengers. I daytime I purchased a few items of clothing, as I landed in cold Europe with clothes on my back, and an extra pair of socks, t shirts and underwear. One pair of shoes, and I need my orthotic design shoes.

    I want my suitcase back, as if I have to shop to replace all I had in that luggage it would take weeks of my time.

    1. Today is September 18, 2019,and my suitcase has been proclaimed lost by American Airlines a couple of weeks ago. Due to family medical emergency I could not immediately jump on final settling of this matter. American which re-opened the search with a photo of a ‘twin suitcase” my husband has finally dropped the ball on me, saying I have to finalize with British Airways.

      Has anyone had to deal with settling their case with a “One World” partner of American Airlines ?

      The amount of time wasted on this issue is now in couple of hundred hours, including my trying to locate replacements of items, including the suitcase itself, which Costco just stopped carrying , while I was waiting for results of searching for my lost bag.

  7. Thank you for your article, I’m just in the frustrating process of dealing with American Airlines who have delayed two suitcases, travelling from London Heathrow to Kingston Jamaica via Miami since Wednesday 26/6/2019. They give the run around by telling you its here or enroute to it destination. The problem is we didn’t self check in, it was done by an agent. We wait and see.

  8. Nicholas Sennett

    Sadly I have had a similar experience with american & Philadelphia. Landed from Montreal, plane was late, boarded plane, forced to check carry on, sat on plane for 2 hr, my bag sat visibly outside in the rain for 45 min. Exited plane, boarded plane, sat on tarmac for 3hr, exited plane, stood in line for 3 hr to rebook flight, waited in airport for 30hr, bag was transferred to departing flight before the plane had landed and then surprise the bag is missing!

  9. Eleven flights for me and lost baggage in nine of them… guess who? American Airlines. Oh the other two flights had “mechanical “ problems ( one of which my seat neighbor pointed out to them-missing screws on the top of the wing). . Now I only fly them if I have zero other choices to reach my destination. And I carry on only, even if I have to buy clothing at my destination ( which I then ship home by regular post.) I don’t care if they are the least expensive or most direct.

  10. My son just went back to Germany on the 21st of July and flew with AA. There was a severe storm in Iowa so his plane was diverted to Omaha for a few hours. Then to Chicago where he was supposed to land originally. He missed his connection and had to go on a later flight back to Munich. When he arrived his luggage was nowhere to be found. His last leg was British Airways but ticketing was through AA. He went to claims and they said it’s probably not there yet and they would ship it to him in 2-3 days. He called the next day which was 22nd of July and AA said it arrived and to call BA to let them know. Well, he was now dealing with the German customer service and when he asked if someone could check they said, “It’s not possible now.” He had his PT shoes in the suitcase and had to buy new ones at the PX. Is there any hope he will get his luggage back and reimbursed for his running shoes? I’m worried sick as a mom because there were so many things in there that are irreplaceable. Thank you for your time! My son just texted with the claim ticket from BA so I’ll see what I can do to help him out.

    1. Good luck Gina. One of the downsides of the Warsaw Convention is that they significantly under-estimate what things cost now days. The money recovered doesn’t fully compensate for actually replacing everything that is inside. The real lesson here is to not put anything in the checked luggage that you can’t stand to lose. Easier said than done obviously.

  11. We recently returned from an amazing Alaskan cruise, but unfortunately our trip memories are being tainted by lost baggage. We had a later flight out of Seattle and wanted to tour the city bag free, so we checked our three bags with Port Valet, which took them off the ship, straight to the airport and checked to our final destination. They did their job, AA did not. When we arrived home, one of our three bags arrived. One was mistagged in the Seattle airport, went to another state and thankfully we received it after two days due to a luggage tag with my cell on it. They are still locating the other. This article has given me great hope that we will see our other bag again. Hindsight is 20/20 though. In one of my many phone conversations with AA, one employee told me she cringed when I said cruise ship. She said she wasn’t making excuses, but with the volume of luggage that is delivered off a ship (and three ships finished their cruises that day), that human error occurs when all those bags are being tagged. I would do things differently next time on my end as well as utilize some of the packing tips you recommended on another post. Thanks for the helpful post!

    1. Many years ago, we had a bag lost on the way to Fort Lauderdale for a cruise. Thankfully, it showed up on the next flight, but we were very nervous. Good luck!

  12. Happening to this long time flyer and wife, both in our 70s. Flying FC does not help, as we checked in 2 bags on a AA PHL-SEA flight and one made it to SEA and one took a trip to ORD. Go figure. Great AA baggage agent assured me bag was on its way to SEA and would be delivered same night. It wasn’t and all day I’ve been trying to call local AA baggage claim and for 18 hours the line has been busy???? Tried the toll free and it is entirely automated and only tells me the bag is in SEA. Gave another contact which was via email but it times out if not sent in 30 seconds.

  13. 9 days ago, I checked two bags in the FC counter in Anchorage AA ticket counter. One bag arrived, of course the one without much in it except my hubby’s extra fishing gear. My bag with everything in it did not. A giant purple suitcase with a priority tag appears to be invisible or grew legs and walked out of the airport. To say this experience is fascinating is an understatement. No answers. I figured out myself that the ticket counter rep put the same bar code and same bag tag number on both pieces of luggage. So that presents the question, what happens when it tries to scan a duplicate number and where is that second bag. No-one can tell me, I have driven to the local airport every single day and Tony is trying to help but ” I cannot control” Anchorage, is the answer I get. I sent a friend to ANC with pictures of the bag tags and the rep said ” call the 800#”

    American Airlines is an epic fail and no-one can seem to tell me where my bag is or if it even left Anchorage.

  14. I just lost my luggage few hours ago and i Was travelling from Singapore to Washington DC transit at Boston, via American airlines/co sharing with Japan airline. I was still having my luggage at Boston airport. And not able to locate it when it reaches Washington DC. Checked in the webcitr and it said my luggage is still in japan. Filed a missing luggage , I’m still hopeful if they can locate it. There are many things of my personal belongings and some with sentimental value inside. Hearing from your comments above really worries me. Is this how American airlines’ way of doing things ?

  15. Same boat… American Airlines.. lost baggage… great customer service… poor results. No military uniform and no underwear… AA’s luggage tracker app says the luggage is still in DFW. Not sure what the hold up is. I only had one connection.

  16. How long did it take for AA to reimburse you for the items you bought? My bag was delayed and I had an interview the next day and I had to pay out of pocket for a whole new ensemble (suit, shirt, ties, shoes, everything.) I filed a claim 5 days ago but haven’t heard from anyone since.

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