Mishandled baggage rates rise in 2021; SITA warns industry now ‘needs to do more with less’

1 June, 2022

Most business travellers will travel light and avoid having to check any baggage into the aircraft hold. It can escape what can be a long wait at arrival airports for bags to arrive (a current pinch point in the system as operations ramp up across the globe) and the risk that the bag may not have reached the destination. Although only a small number of bags are mishandled they are a massive inconvenience to those effected, and concerning for us all, the mishandled baggage rate was up almost a quarter year-on-year in 2021.  

At first glance the findings from SITA’s Baggage IT Insights 2022 makes scary reading. The global mishandled baggage rate spiked by 24% to 4.35 bags per 1000 passengers in 2021 as the industry recovers from the pandemic. For international travellers the chance of a bag being mishandled is more than four times higher than on a domestic journey.

Year-on-year baggage mishandling rate

However, we must observe that the year-on-year performance compares with 2020, a year when air travel – especially international flights – virtually stopped and covers the beginnings of the industry’s recovery where capacity pressures and changing rules have had a constant impact.

There has been a long-term decrease in baggage mishandling

It is also an improvement on the levels recorded in 2019 of 5.60 bags per 1000 passengers but on traffic levels double those recorded last year. Despite the uptick in mishandled bags from 2020, the 9.9 million bags mishandled in 2021 represents a -77% reduction from the 46.9 million mishandled in 2007.

Industry cutbacks have impacted resources and expertise dedicated to baggage management

Airlines, ground handlers, and airports have downsized to maintain viability during the pandemic, which this latest data clearly illustrates has impacted resources and expertise dedicated to baggage management. Unaddressed, this challenge may see the mishandling rate continue to creep up and become much higher than it was pre-pandemic.

“The industry now needs to do more with less,” says David Lavorel, CEO, SITA. As we emerge from the pandemic and the focus remains on safely managing the end-to-end transport of passengers' baggage, he identifies the industry must now also reduce the total cost and training required.

Increase in long-haul flights with connections in 2021 pushes up baggage mishandling

The SITA Baggage IT Insights 2022 report shows passenger traffic has evolved since 2020, with most of the 2021 recovery being driven by domestic travel, but the resumption of international and long-haul flights is contributing to an increase in mishandling.

Transfer bags continue to account for most mishandled bags. An increase in long-haul flights with connections in 2021 has pushed up the bags delayed at transfer to 41%, which is a 4 point increase from 2020.

There has been a long-term decrease in baggage mishandling

The mishandling rate at the global level on international routes is 8.7, yet only 1.85 for domestic routes. Put differently, at a global level, the likelihood of mishandling a bag is about 4.7 times higher on international routes compared to domestic routes.

Transfer bags historically and still account for most mishandled bags

Delayed bags accounted for 71% of all mishandled bags in 2021 – a 2 points increase from 2020. At the same time, the number of lost and stolen bags increased slightly to 6%, while those damaged and pilfered decreased to 23%.

Industry still sees technology advancement as key to reduce baggage mishandling

“There is significant pressure to increase operational efficiency, which is accelerating digitalisation,” says Mr Lavorel.

In 2021 investment in self-service initiatives continued to increase, reports SITA, with a large majority of airports and almost all airlines are prioritising touchless bag tagging options that rely on kiosks and passengers' mobile devices. Implementation of unassisted bag drop is also increasing, with 90% of airlines and three-quarters of airports planning to make touchless unassisted self-bag drop available by 2024, according to the IT specialist.

Digitalisation also “ensures that the recovery progresses efficiently, saving resources and ensuring operations can quickly adapt to fluctuating passenger numbers,” explains SITA. Clearly, there is no better way to ensure efficiency in baggage operations than to avoid mishandling in the first place – investing in such process would naturally prevent the additional costs and resources required to repatriate bags to their owners.