The airlines are losing a third less luggage! The reason why costs all of us

It's official: U.S. airlines lost 1.3 million fewer bags in 2008 compared to the year before. We ought to be rejoicing.

But look behind the figures. One reason why their track record has improved is because Americans are entrusting them less baggage to begin with. Last year, most of the major carriers started charging us to check luggage--$15 for the first one, and often $50 for the second one. How did Americans react? Quite sensibly, and in a way we should have years ago: We started packing less and carrying on more. Before the fees, the average was 1.2 bags per flyer. Now it's less than one bag per passenger.

Another factor diminishing freight is the fact that fewer of us are flying to begin with, thanks to capacity cuts. The airlines have parked 11% of their fleets. You can't lose the luggage of a passenger who isn't on board to begin with.

The airlines, like the TV networks, will pick apart any statistic to make themselves look like they're performing better than they really are. But Americans know the true state of the industry's service quality. We're seeing more valuables stolen out of gate-checked items. We're facing the increased likelihood of being charged for carrying more than one bag, a rule that Ryanair is now enforcing to make a buck. We're paying for something that used to be free, and the airlines are apparently getting out of paying tax on that.

The pay-for-baggage fees were implemented midway through 2008, so the new figures reflect only six months or so of customers' pullback from checking things. That means next year around this time, expect the airlines to make a big stink about how they lost even less luggage in 2009--but that will be purely because 2009 will be the first full year during which our new bag-checking trends (and the corresponding lose-less-luggage trend) will be tracked.

Fewer lost bags is bad news for at least one American business, too too. Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama is where lost luggage is unpacked, cleaned, and pawned to the public. Presumably, the airlines make money selling orphaned stuff to that depressing flea market. That revenue stream is dwindling, but I'm sure the major carriers are more than making up for the loss in passenger fees.
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