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Ask the Captain: Where does my bag go when I check it?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 21/12/2016 John Cox
Workers unload baggage from a Delta Air Lines flight at Baltimore/Washington International Airport on July 12, 2016. © Patrick Semansky, AP Workers unload baggage from a Delta Air Lines flight at Baltimore/Washington International Airport on July 12, 2016.

Question: I love your column and read it religiously. I have been lucky enough to go on some amazing trips and I always wonder about checked luggage and connecting flights. Can you please go into detail about how my bag gets from one airplane to another?

— Andrea, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Answer: The journey of baggage is a fascinating one. From the time a bag is checked in, a series of belts and carts transport it to the waiting airplane. If your airplane is a larger one, the bag will be loaded into a container to make it faster to load onto the airplane. Security screening of the bag occurs before loading to ensure the safety of the flight. When the loading begins, it is sent up via belt loader or in the container into the cargo hold where it is kept warm (sort of) and pressurized during the fight. At your destination, the reverse occurs. The belt loader or container loader takes the bag to a cart where it is sent to the terminal to meet you.

For connecting flights, most bags go back through the central bag processing facility at the airports where they are loaded onto carts for delivery to the departing airplane. But airlines realize that some bags will only make their connection if they are expedited, so they have a process that involves transferring the bags on the ramp and then sending them to the departing airplane by a dedicated tug and baggage cart. Larger airlines are using computer tagging to keep track of the bag's progress (there are apps that allow passengers to follow the progress too). Over the years this process has gotten much more reliable. 

In the near future new, id tags will better identify each bag further reducing the number of bags that do not meet their owner at the destination. When you consider the number of bags the airlines move each day the number that don’t make it is remarkably small.

Search on YouTube and you'll find some fascinating videos that follow bags through this journey.

Q: I have heard it is very important for the baggage and freight to be evenly balanced when it is loaded aboard, but it looks like the baggage handlers just sort of toss it in sometimes.  How critical is it for the baggage to be balanced?

— Danny, Athens, Ga.

A: Many airlines use standard weights for bags. This allows them to be loaded quickly and stacked in the proper place. Some airplanes are more critical on exact weights and location than others. This makes the answer to your question is “it depends.”

It is important to load the baggage in any airplane properly, but in some airplanes it is very critical.

Q: Since most travelers choose to carry their luggage on to the flight, why don't plane-makers add bins that accommodate more carry-on luggage? 

— Donald Spencer, St. Augustine, Fla.

A: Newer airplane interiors do accommodate more carry-on luggage. Compared to the older overhead bins, more modern ones allow roll-aboard bags to fit wheels to the back instead of sideways. That allows several more bags per bin.

The demand for overhead bin space seems to always exceed the supply no matter how large the bins are. Higher load factors contribute to the problem, with more passengers competing for bin space. 


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