A Day In the Life of A Checked Bag

Checking a bag at the airport always seems like a gamble, and an expensive one thanks to the fees that many airlines have implemented. Even with sophisticated computer scanning technology by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the scanning, tracking and monitoring of countless checked bags, it's mind-boggling that a piece of luggage manages to make it from one end of the country to another in less than a day. Obviously some bags do go astray -- about 2 to 4 per 1,000, according to the Department of Transportation's monthly statistics. But the average bag does make it from traveler's hands to the final destination.

So what actually happens to your suitcase once you hand it over to the desk agent? We decided follow a (hypothetical) suitcase as it made its way on US Airways from Boston to Los Angeles, with a connection in Philadelphia. It will hop from TSA to airline personnel to plane to another plane before making its appearance on the baggage carousel in Los Angeles.

But first, the bag has to get loaded.

10 p.m. EST Dragged off the back of the closet shelf, the big, black bag looks like hundreds of other suitcases. It's about to go on a ride of epic proportions trundling through three airports, two security scans and dozens of hands, on its way across the country.

11 p.m. ESTThe bag is packed. Dresses and tank tops carefully protect an alarm clock, phone and computer cords, and a can of Boston baked beans, a joke gift for the owner's host in L.A. Medicines, camera, computer and cell phone all go in a carry-on. Nothing precious or truly breakable is going to go into the checked bag.

4:30 a.m. EST The cab driver honks, and the suitcase is zipped and locked. In an emergency, TSA can unlock a TSA-approved lock without breaking it, but hopefully that won't happen today. Soon the bag is in the dark, cold trunk of the cab, bouncing over bumps on the way to Logan Airport.

5 a.m. EST Great timing -- the bag arrives at the airport a little more than two hours in advance of the first leg of the trip, flight 1937 to Philadelphia. The owner checks in with the ticket agent, watching carefully as her bag is tagged with a bar-coded tag marked LAX. She heads off to go through her own scans at security, while her bag gets loaded behind the agent for TSA security check. She won't see her bag again for nearly 12 hours.

The bag moves along a conveyer belt to the TSA's computer tomography (CT) scan machine, which generates a 3-D image. CT systems "apply sophisticated algorithms for the detection of explosives," says Sarah Horowitz of the TSA's office of strategic communications and public affairs. Essentially, the TSA is looking for prohibited, illegal or dangerous items that might pose a security threat.

In Boston's Logan Airport, an average of 25,000 bags are checked per day through the CT machine. Today, this bag is about to get diverted. The reason: alarm clock, wires, hair spray and the can of baked beans. None of these items are prohibited, but the combination proves suspicious. (Check with the TSA for a list of what can and cannot be put in your carryon or checked bag).

A transportation security officer noting the wires, clock and can rotates the view on three axes for a more thorough look. The suitcase could have been opened, but closer inspection reveals what's inside, so the bag moves back into the queue, passing inspection and on to the airline conveyer system. "Depending on the type of threat, generally only one officer handles the bags after the baggage handling system sends it to the resolution area," says Horowitz.

5:45 a.m. EST A conveyer belt carries the bag on to US Airways, where baggage handlers scan the bag tag, the bag gets picked up by a fleet service employee, and is moved to a cart designated for the Philadelphia flight. This area is monitored by closed-circuit cameras in a secured part of the airport. With teams of handlers, the likelihood of pilferage is slim, says Nelson Camacho, US Airways director of international operations and catering. Our passenger's black bag is loaded on top of another bag, with more on top of that. The number of bags piled on top of one another depends on the size of the aircraft it's going into, says Camacho. Bags weigh an average of 30 pounds each, so the suitcase might get as much as 270 pounds on top of it in a worst-case scenario. Even so, Camacho says that they "don't see a lot of damage claims" to items in passengers' suitcases.

Nearly 60% of US Airways passengers who fly into Philadelphia's airport are connecting with other flights, and almost half of them have checked bags. To get these processed quickly, the bags need to get loaded into the aircraft in a 30-minute window before the flight takes off. US Airways uses scanners to track bags at each step.

6:45 a.m. ESTFlight 1937 closes, and an agent makes sure all the bags in the scan system for this flight are accounted for in the cart. The cart gets driven to the aircraft for loading bags into the belly of the plane. There are nearly 100 checked bags on this flight, with 10 heading to Los Angeles. Even though it's cold and windy out, the bag gets little outside exposure, just the short trip up the ramp from the trailer to the plane hold, where it is loaded into compartments, fore and aft. The cargo area is pressurized, with little risk for drastic pressure changes to affect luggage contents. "Our aircraft are equipped with amazing technology," says Camacho. "Bins have a fire suppression system and paneling that absorbs and contains [the effects of] some small explosive devices."

7:15 a.m. EST Flight 1937 takes off, bound for Philadelphia.

8:56 a.m. ESTThe aircraft arrives in Philadelphia, where gate crew immediately scan bags again and hand them off to an assigned bag runner. A wireless real-time tool links to scanning technology in a countdown clock mode, displaying the amount of time the bag has left to make it to the next step. In this case, the connection is to Los Angeles flight 1419, leaving at 9:40. That's just 44 minutes to move this bag off the plane with a hundred others, and get the 10 L.A.-bound bags over to the L.A. gate. The entire unloading of the plane takes a little less than 15 minutes, with some bags heading to the bag room, some for other gates.

Depending on the airport configuration, it may be a challenge, as aircraft moving in and out take priority over baggage carts, and sometimes they share traffic lanes, says Melody Andersen, US Airways director of customer strategy. In Philadelphia, there are three bag rooms, looking a lot like the baggage carousel waiting areas for customers, but secured and away from passengers. The assigned bag carrier has been dispatched from this area, and checks off the bags bound for LAX from his assignment sheet.

9:10 a.m. EST Los Angeles-bound flight 1419 closes, and bags arrive at the aircraft for loading. Once again, each bag is scanned as it moves up the conveyor belt into the plane. Each bag is checked in and accounted for via another real-time tool. On the A319 aircraft, an Airbus that accommodates 124 passengers, the loading is fast, under 15 minutes.

9:40 a.m. ESTThe flight takes off, loaded with bags and passengers.

3:50 p.m. EST, 12:50 p.m. PST The plane from Philadelphia arrives and is met by baggage crew armed with scanners once again. For those with L.A. as the final destination, the bags are put into a cart and trucked to another baggage carousel area.

4:30 p.m. EST, 1:30 p.m. PST Eleven and a half hours after the suitcase was turned over to the ticket agent, the bag has been touched by one ticket agent, two TSA security agents, one assigned bag runner, six gate crew members at three airports, and a half dozen or more baggage handlers within each airport. It's grabbed one more time, as the owner thankfully spots it on the carousel and tosses it on a cart bound for the parking lot. It's been a long day for everyone.

Go behind the scenes to see A Day in the Life of an Airline Meal.

For tips to help avoid checking a bag see Packing Light and Cheap.
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