The Baggage Situation at Many US Airports Is Getting Out of Control

An excess of cancellations and delays has resulted in literal mountains of suitcases at hubs around the country

Travelers surrounded by luggage in Chicago on Monday
Travelers surrounded by luggage in Chicago on Monday
Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times/AP

There’s nothing more anxiety-inducing than being one of the last ones waiting to reclaim your luggage as the number of bags coming down the carousel begins to dwindle. And, as many who share my apprehension will surely know, for the better part of the last few years, the lost (or damaged) luggage landscape has been…bleak.

The reason for that is, per a May study from aviation technology company SITA, staffing shortages. “Airlines, ground handlers and airports have downsized to maintain viability during the pandemic, which has impacted resources and expertise dedicated to baggage management,” the report reads. “Unaddressed, this challenge may see the mishandling rate continue to creep up and become much higher than it was pre-pandemic.”

In fact, in 2021, the global mishandled baggage rate spiked by 24% to 4.35 bags per thousand passengers, much of which the study credits to the resumption of international and long-haul flights. A further breakdown of that study shows that “transfer bags” account for the largest piece of the mishandled pie, with 41% of bags being delayed at transfer — up from 37% in 2020. Delayed bags accounted for 71% of all mishandled bags in 2021 — up from 69% in 2020 — while the number of lost and stolen bags both increased to 6%. In short, losing baggage has unfortunately become pretty par for the course, particularly when we’re talking about post-pandemic holiday travel.

All of that said — no study could have prepared me for the sight of the Southwest Airlines bag backlog at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, stemming from an operational meltdown that started Monday. Due to bad weather and a lack of staff, a surplus of flight cancellations has left baggage piling up, and hundreds of bags can be seen, left totally unattended, while passengers are left without answers. It’s giving Heathrow!

But it’s not exclusive to Phoenix, either (though most of the disruptions are exclusive to Southwest). According to flight-tracking site FlightAware, nearly 8,700 flights across the U.S. were delayed Monday, while another 4,000 were canceled. Yesterday those numbers dropped (albeit not very impressively) to 7,800 and 3,200, respectively, yet baggage continues to collect at airports around the country.

“With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable,” Southwest said in a statement. “And our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning.”

This apology off the back of reports that travelers aren’t able to get through to airline employees for help. Further, if there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s that T’s and P’s aren’t going to bring your lost bag home. So, if you were in the market for another incentive to carry on? Here it is. This is it.


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