The Baggage Situation at Heathrow Is Out of Control

Literal piles of suitcases are growing at Terminal 5 due to staffing shortages and increase in demand

Aerial view of luggage left behind
Luggage is piling up at London's busiest airport.

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 new 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%.

But no study could have prepared me for the sight that is the main terminal at London’s Heathrow International Airport at present. Due to lack of staff and a surplus of flight cancellations, baggage has been piling up for weeks, and hundreds of bags can be seen, left totally unattended, while — according to a report from Business Insider — passengers are forced to wait days to be reunited with their belongings.

“Staff were nowhere to be seen, everyone was pretty shocked. Abandoned luggage was left unsecured and could easily be stolen,” one passenger said.

For the uninitiated, earlier this year, British Airways stopped loading luggage and cleaning the aircrafts ahead of short-haul flights in a last ditch effort to keep up with travel demand, effectively telling passengers that their luggage would catch up with them “in the coming days,” and focusing instead on long-haul flights.

“Bags on the vast majority of our flights are being offloaded and returned to our customers as normal,” a spokesperson for the airline said. “On the very limited number of occasions when we experience severe operational challenges, we are apologizing to our customers and asking them not to wait for their bags.”

That said, the scene at Heathrow is a far cry from “normal.” So, if you were in the market for another incentive to carry on? Let this be it. And if you’re headed to Heathrow by way of British Airlines anytime soon, I’d also invest in an Apple AirTag, which can find items much further away with the help from the hundreds of millions of Apple devices in the Find My network. One Apple user even managed to foil a stolen luggage scheme thanks to his AirTag.


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