A ramp agent on how luggage travels and what happens to lost bags

  • Matt is a ramp agent at LAX for a major airline working on Thanksgiving.
  • He’s worked with airlines for 27 years and says the day before Thanksgiving is when they hit.
  • His advice to passengers is to arrive at the airport early and anticipate delays in snowy climates.

This time last year, Matt had a lot of time on his hands. As a ramp agent for a major international airline based at Los Angeles International Airport, he was working Thanksgiving week — a year and a half after the pandemic upended air travel — and the work was relatively light. Most of his duties, from loading luggage to and from planes to transferring it between airlines and tracking down lost luggage, were routine. (Matt declined to share his last name and employer for privacy reasons, but both have been verified by Insider with documentation.)

But this year things are different. During this week, 200,000 people are expected to travel through LAX daily. Seventy-five thousand of them, Matt said, will be on his airline. According to AAA’s Thanksgiving forecast, air travel is up 8 percent from last year, with 4.5 million Americans flying to holiday destinations.

“Tonight is definitely our heavy night,” Matt told Insider. “They’re going to hit us here. The flights are going to be full. We just took power through it.”

Matt, who has worked for airlines for the past 27 years, said recent innovations such as barcode scanners and baggage tag scanners have significantly reduced the number of lost bags. According to an August report from the Department of Transportation, lost luggage in the second quarter of 2022 rose just 0.02 percent compared to the same time period in 2019.

Customer complaints, however, are up 270% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Matt said much of this angst stems from the way the media portrays airlines, effectively pitting consumers against the system. It may also stem from delays and travel disruptions caused by airline labor shortages following the pandemic.

But for him and his colleagues behind the scenes at baggage handling, the system of tracking, moving and, when necessary, transporting and returning baggage, is a well-oiled machine — or at least it’s designed to be.

How your luggage is tracked

An airline bag’s travel journey begins as soon as a customer checks in. After a customer service agent enters the traveler’s information into the system, they attach a tag with a unique tracking code to the traveler’s bag.

“From there, you say goodbye to your bag: It goes on a conveyor belt and that’s the last you see of it,” Matt said.

As the traveler heads through security, their luggage is directed to the X-ray machine at the TSA counter, followed by the baggage room. The luggage then goes to a baggage makeup area, where it is scanned a second time.

The bag – usually with around 100 others – is then loaded onto a trolley bound for the tarmac and taken to the waiting plane. Once the trolley driver arrives at the aircraft, the luggage is loaded onto a ramp that carries bags into the hold, where it is scanned for a third and final time.

When bags are lost: the reroute desk

Bag tags are not a perfect science. Because they are made of paper with a sticky backing, they can tear easily. A bag can also fall off a trolley, go unread by a scanner or be overlooked in a holiday luggage stampede. This is where rerouting comes in.

“Let’s say a bag tag gets cut off. Hopefully you have a little tag on the outside with your name and information on it,” Matt said. With this information, your bag can be searched in the system.

Once ramp agents and baggage handlers determine the owner and destination of a strange bag, they take it to a reroute desk. This is lost baggage headquarters – the room where agents will find the next flight headed for the owner’s destination and send the bag to meet the passenger there. This is also where timing, multi-legged travel and bum bags can converge into a huge headache.

There are several factors, Matt said, that affect how quickly a bag can be reunited with its owner, such as if a bag is lost late in the day and there are no other flights, or if the passenger’s destination is a place with no frequent flights. Or if it’s Thanksgiving and things are really busy.

“Maybe there were a lot of missing links that day and it just gets lost in the shuffle,” he said. “It’s not like it’s actually lost. It’s just lost in the mix. So they’ll get to it when they get to it.”

Handling holidays

This week, Matt expects to handle twice as much luggage as usual. For him and his colleagues, that meant having double the number of baggage handlers and ramp agents and paying more overtime to make sure baggage bays, loading and unloading machines and intermediate points are covered.

As for mentally preparing for this stressful time of year, he has a simple saying: “It’s all about time management, right? You create your own stress. That’s how I see it. So if there’s a flight leaving at 8:30, and I’m bringing you this flight on the 7th, there’s no reason why this flight shouldn’t be on time.”

His advice to passengers is, first, to get to the airport early. Second, if you are traveling to a place with snow or rain, be prepared for possible delays.

“When I see a couple getting close, fighting each other and being full of stress, I tell them to relax. Your vacation starts now.”

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