ATW Editor's Blog

Bags and baggage


ATW recently polled readers on this website on what they define as a “serious delay” in the delivery of their checked baggage. The result, though not scientific, indicates one of the problems the US Department of Transportation faces if it tries to define and regulate this aspect of airline operations.

DOT, you will remember, has announced a proposed set of new rules governing US airline service which the department says will make airlines more competitive.

I argue the rules do nothing for competition – quite the opposite. But even setting that aside, DOT admitted it now must work out how to define a “serious delay” in checked bag delivery. The reason DOT wants to regulate this is because it wants to mandate airlines fully refund a customer their checked bag fee if the bag is “seriously delayed”.

As our poll question implies, the answer to that could be difficult to pin down. Given a choice of four time windows, the voting was pretty equally spread. 17% said they would define a serious delay if the bag arrived 24 hours or more after the passenger; 22% said 12-24 hours was the cutoff point; 27% said six-12 hours; and 34% voted for two-six hours.

So customer perception varies from two hours to 24 hours or longer in terms for when it’s enough of a problem to warrant compensation.

One possible reason for this is that those who voted had different travel scenarios in mind. For example, if you were flying into a port city and immediately going on to a cruise ship, a delay of even two hours might be meaningful. Let’s say the cruise passenger cut the schedule a little optimistically and his/her flight was supposed to arrive at the port city four or five hours before the ship sails. Then the flight is delayed by an hour or two. If, for some reason, the bag doesn’t turn up until two or three hours after the passenger arrived, then the passenger has the bad choices of missing the ship, or boarding without his/her luggage. Once the ship sails, it’s very difficult for the bag to catch up.

Similarly, a business traveler who flies a lot and typically wants to go straight from airport to a meeting won’t accept hanging around the terminal for even two hours for his bag (but is probably more likely to rely solely on a carry-on bag).

On the other end of the scale, someone returning home from a two-week vacation with a heavy suitcase full of laundry may be sanguine about a 24-hour delay; especially if the bag gets delivered to their house so they didn’t have to haul it home and begin the unpacking.

Whatever the reasons, different customers have different needs, are traveling for different reasons and have different requirements. Which is exactly why the government should keep its nose out of this non-safety aspect of airline operations and allow airlines to tailor compensation according to circumstance.

As with all service industries, most airlines are driven to keep or win customers. If a delayed bag – no matter the number of hours – causes significant problems for a customer, chances are the airline will not only refund any bag fee, but also add a sweetener.

At best, this also indicates that DOT’s “solution” will have to be multi-layered, with different time definitions and compensation awards depending on circumstance, which will be complicated and costly to administer.

But there’s another possible explanation as to why our voters varied so widely in their definitions of a seriously delayed bag; it’s a non-issue. If US airlines were routinely taking hours to reconcile bags to customers, this would be a hot topic and there would be a much more definitive swing to one answer choice. There’s no evidence of that whatsoever.

What DOT (and the White House) has done is cast out a populist “remedy” to a non-existent problem that will be difficult to define and which will bring little-to-no customer benefit.

Karen Walker

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