What happens to luggage after check-in?
Packing is often the last thing we do before running out the door for a flight. We take it for granted that our bags will accompany us the whole way and arrive in good shape—but there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes at airports to make sure this happens. At Heathrow alone, 1.5 million metric tonnes of cargo was shipped last year!
To better understand the ins and outs of this logistical nightmare, we interviewed some of the people who work on the front line – they’ve shared some insider secrets to help you (and your luggage!) navigate the airport with ease.
Matthew is a Check-in Agent working at Geneva Airport – he took us behind the scenes at the check-in desk.
“People do all sorts of dodgy things to try to get away with extra weight or extra luggage. Most commonly, we get people trying to haggle. They’ll come up to you and compliment you – ‘Hello, my friend!’ – and be too nice to be genuine.
“Trying to get away with extra weight or more bags than allowed is a bad idea; planes are often booked to capacity, and the bag requirements are set up to just what the cargo hold can carry.”
“The perfect passenger… well, that depends greatly on your mood. Sometimes you want to get it over with quickly, so you’ll enjoy having someone who’s organised and brief. Sometimes you’re a bit bored so you enjoy conversing with people – small talk or questions about their country or culture – it really depends.”
“My favourite type of bag would be the standard suitcase. Hard shell or cloth, it doesn’t matter, and preferably not too heavy. The worst ones are cardboard boxes (because you can’t send them on the normal belt, they go on a separate one) and backpacks because of all the loose strips and such – you have to make sure they don’t block the belt.”
“A chainsaw. It was packed as if it was a Christmas present. Not in a box mind you; the whole chainsaw itself was entirely wrapped up, so there was no doubt on what it was.”
Once the friendly check-in agent has processed everything, your bags begin the long journey along the conveyor belt.
At Heathrow, there are 30 miles of conveyor belts – that’s Dover to Calais and half way back again!
Depending on the airport, there are several baggage handling processes to get your bag from the desk to the plane in one piece. With 53 million bags processed every year at Heathrow alone, it’s quite remarkable that only around seven bags per thousand passengers are lost each year – worldwide!
Bryan works at the boarding gate for an airline in the US. His job includes handling baggage, greeting passengers and managing the boarding process. He let us in on a few secrets.
“Those weights do matter to help plan for weight and balance sheets. Accounting for around 10kg is easier than estimating if it was a free-for-all. Plus, it helps make it so a single person doesn’t use up the equivalent of two spots due to size.”
“Keep in mind that these sizes are the total physical area, so things like wheels do count. I can’t tell you how many times people say ‘but it’s just the wheels!’ – well, those wheels won’t let me close the overhead if they are in the way, right?”
“There was an older woman dressed in a homemade biohazard suit during the Ebola thing, who said ‘I ain’t gettin’ them Ebolas!’”
As well as dealing with carry-on luggage, VIP passengers and last-minute announcements, boarding gate agents also have to deal with delayed or cancelled flights. Bryan recommends buying refreshments for the staff who are dealing with cancellations.
“I had a passenger that actually helped hold back the line to give us space to make announcements and to process the passengers in wheelchairs first at the cancellation desk. He then bought all of us some water and a piece of candy. You better believe I gave that guy and his family the best hotel I had, an extra food voucher, and priority bags in the morning on his new flight!”
Airport ramp agents, also known as ‘rampies’ are the people in charge of getting the plane and your bags into the right place at the right time. We spoke to a guy who works as a rampie for a major airline, who agreed to share some tips to make sure your luggage gets from A to B in one piece!
“Overweight bags are one of the worst things I see. Massive bags that weigh 100lbs are just not needed, and with the extra fees involved it would make more sense to check another bag rather than just the one.”
“Also, bags that are already broken in multiple places tend to fall apart. Things like torn sides mean that the bag shouldn’t be used anymore – toss it. Otherwise, all your stuff is going to fall out, I’ve seen it happen. When it does, we do our best to toss everything into a plastic bag and attach it in some way to the luggage.”
“Actually, yes! I treat those bags awesome.”
“I’ll treat their stuff as best as I reasonably can – it’s an unspoken deal as the crew bring us food sometimes from the places they visit.”
Rampies and baggage handlers have their fair share of strange moments too; whether it’s buzzing suitcases to unexpected wildlife encounters, loading and unloading bizarre items is just part of the job.
So, what’s the strangest thing you have loaded onto a plane?
“Two options honestly. HR [human remains] or mannequins. HR is just a weird experience – there is a dead body in the box you are moving. Everything is packaged well, but it’s odd, it makes you stop and think for a moment the first few times you do it.
“Mannequins are just strange as they are hard to decide where to put as passengers tend not to put them in any packaging. Unloading them tends to freak out the agents as, if they look realistic enough, one might think someone died inside the pit if you only see the foot or hand. It’s hilarious to watch someone react to that.”
With so many passengers and even more bags, it’s no surprise that things get lost every now and then. But what happens next and what can you do to make sure you are reunited with your items? We spoke to a baggage resolutions specialist to find out.
“If your checked bag has never gone missing, you have no idea my team even exists.”
“When your checked bag doesn’t arrive and you file a report, it comes to my office and we do our best to track it down and get it back to you as quickly as possible.”
“Always keep a tag with your personal contact info on the outside of your bag – that one is obvious. What most people don’t know is, keep another one of those tags inside your bag. If you do that, there is a 99.9% chance you’ll get your bag back if it goes missing.”
“Nope – I don’t check [my luggage] unless I am bringing back wine or beer from wherever I travel.”
“On a flight to Brazil, a cat managed to get out of its cage, and darted out onto the tarmac when the door was opened. After 2 weeks of searching and posting flyers, etc. the cat was finally found and brought home unharmed.”
So there you go – the airport is a weird and wonderful place, made up of weird and wonderful people. Next time you check in a piece of luggage, spare a thought for those working tirelessly behind the scenes to get you, and your precious cargo, from A to B!