When mishandled baggage statistics lie, consumers, beware


mishandled baggageThe Department of Transportation (DOT) keeps statistics to track how well airlines are performing. These statistics include on-time arrivals, denied boarding or bumping statistics, consumer complaints, flight disruptions, and mishandled baggage.

The only problem is that the last category — mishandled baggage — presents a false statistic. When airlines are doing worse and fewer passengers are checking baggage the statistics appear to be an improvement. When they are not. The statistics collected and reported by DOT are misleading and deceptive.

The newspaper headlines after every quarterly Airline Quality Report shout out, “Bag-handling improves.” It has not. It seems that DOT and their airline cohorts have carefully read How to Lie with Statistics.

Here is how it works.

DOT’s baggage statistics reward airlines for bad checked-baggage service

The baggage mishandling statistics all work based on numbers of bags lost per 1,000 passengers. That means that even if the airlines mishandle baggage at the same rate but half as many people check bags, the mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers will go down. Therefore, if the airlines were to mishandle everyone’s checked baggage and no one checked a bag, the mishandled baggage rate would “improve” to no complaints.

Today’s DOT statistics present baggage handling like this:
• 1,000 passengers check 1,000 bags and the airline loses 100 of the bags results in 10 percent of baggage lost per 1,000 passengers.
• Or, 1,000 passengers check 500 bags and the airline loses 100 of the bags still resulting in a 10 percent of baggage lost per 1,000 passengers.

• This 10% of baggage lost per 1,000 passengers is obviously nonsensical when in fact the airlines have actually lost twice as many bags in the second scenario based on the actual number of checked bags.

When airline customer service gets worse, the airline statistics look better.

Click here to subscribeThis DOT statistic system simply rewards the airlines for getting their passengers to check fewer bags. When all checked baggage was free and included in the price of the airfare, this system made sense. In today’s world of checked-baggage fees where fewer passengers are checking in bags it makes no sense and, worse, it is misleading.

This situation with DOT statistical improvements has not gone unnoticed. Consumers and some airlines, such as Southwest Airlines, that does not charge baggage fees for the first two checked bags, have been pushing DOT to change the lost luggage statistics to base the “mishandled baggage” on the actual number of bags checked rather than on the number of passengers. However, after almost four years of study, DOT has not changed the system. I fear that DOT has become the poster child for regulatory capture. When common sense is denied and a flawed system is allowed to continue.

Only airlines can keep fees even when the service is not performed

In every other part of the US economy, if a customer pays for a service and the service is not delivered, the customer can get a refund. That is not the case in the world of airline baggage fees. Even if the checked baggage is not delivered for days or weeks, the airlines get to keep your baggage fees even though they did not provide the checked-baggage service for which you paid. Note: If the airlines completely lose your checked baggage, the airlines are required to refund their checked baggage fees.

In the upside-down world of airline baggage, passengers must pay checked baggage fees that sometimes soar into the hundreds of dollars. However, if the airline fails to deliver the checked baggage together with their passengers to the airport at the same time, the airline gets to keep the checked baggage fees.

Though the headlines scream “improved service,” consumers should beware. Plus, they should know the compensation for lost/delayed/damaged baggage enforced by DOT. At least those domestic rules allowing as much as $3,500 compensation per passenger are clear and part of the passenger contract with the airlines. International lost/damaged/delayed baggage rules are more restrictive.