Best and Worst U.S. Airlines for Lost Luggage


Nearly 1.8 million pieces of luggage were lost, stolen, or damaged by major U.S. airlines in 2012—and that’s just on domestic flights. While it sounds staggering, mishandling 3.09 bags per 1,000 passengers actually represents an 8 percent decline since 2011.

“The rate of mishandled baggage reports filed by carriers is at an all-time low,” says Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley. (The problem reached crisis level in 2007 when U.S. carriers lost or damaged more than 4.5 million bags.) “A number of factors are helping to reduce the rate,” he adds, including improved on-time performance and new baggage-tracking technologies.

Airlines can’t take all the credit, however. Changing passenger behavior has played a key role: as airlines have zealously adopted baggage fees, there’s been a dramatic drop in the number of checked bags.

Punishment has also helped. “Airlines face potentially greater liability for lost baggage today than in years past, giving them greater incentive to prevent baggage problems,” says Mosley. Since 2009, the DOT has increased baggage liability limits to match rising consumer prices; the domestic limit is now $3,300 per passenger.

One statistic that no one seems willing to gather or release is the amount that airlines spend each year to compensate passengers for lost or damaged baggage. “For me, the compensation figure is important because it means that the problem was so bad that money had to change hands,” says Dr. Todd Curtis of

Compensation is surely on the minds of those who still have the unpleasant surprise of arriving without their luggage. To avoid that fate, Sarah Schlichter, editor of, reminds travelers to carry on luggage and fly non-stop whenever possible; arrive at the airport early; display your contact information on your luggage; and consider slipping in a copy of your itinerary.

You can also invest in high-tech luggage tags with radio frequency microchips, such as the SuperSmart Tagand Rebound TAG. While both devices make it easier for an airline or airport worker to match a bag with its owner, they rely on the bag actually being found and reported.

Of course, the airline you fly also affects your chances of sticking with your bag. Regional airlines like SkyWest (ranked a lowly 13 out of 15) tend to have the poorest records, while budget carrier AirTran comes in at No. 2. Before you book your next flight, find out which airlines are best and worst for lost luggage.

No. 15 American Eagle

Regional carrier American Eagle has ranked at the very bottom of the DOT’s list in five out of the past six years. The Texas-based airline also came in last among all domestic carriers in the latest Purdue/Wichita State Airline Quality Rating.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 5.80

Total Baggage Reports: 105,564

Enplaned Passengers: 18.21 million

Baggage Fees: $25 for first checked bag; $35 for second

No. 14 ExpressJet

The world’s largest regional airline is one of the worst when it comes to baggage handling. In 2012, this Georgia-based carrier (a SkyWest subsidiary) mishandled bags at a rate more than six times greater than that of first place Virgin America. And that’s not the airline’s only drawback: ExpressJet also ranks among the worst domestic carriers for late and canceled flights.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 5.52

Total Baggage Reports: 169,566

Enplaned Passengers: 30.74 million

Baggage Fees: $25 for first checked bag; $35 for second

No. 13 SkyWest

Second largest of the regional carriers, Utah-based SkyWest operates short-haul and commuter flights to more than 150 U.S. cities for five larger airlines. And therein lies the major problem when it comes to luggage: transferring bags at so many terminals between six different airline entities including several with chronic mishandling records.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 5.26

Total Baggage Reports: 135,863

Enplaned Passengers: 25.83 million

Baggage Fees: $20–$25 for first checked bag

No. 12 Mesa

Good things don’t always come in small packages. Although Mesa is the second smallest airline on the list in terms of annual passengers, it consistently has one of the worst baggage-handling records. It’s also troubling that Mesa has the worst record among 15 major airlines for its percentage of bumped passengers (those denied boarding). Based in Phoenix, the regional airline operates under the names United Express, US Airways Express, and Go!

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 4.68

Total Baggage Reports: 36,416

Enplaned Passengers: 7.78 million

Baggage Fees: $17–$25 for first checked bag

No. 11 United

United flew about the same number of passengers last year as American Airlines but mishandled nearly 80,000 more bags. After rising to No. 4 on the baggage rankings in 2007, the Chicago-based carrier has plunged in just about every aspect of passenger service. The airline has struggled in the aftermath of its merger with Continental, with the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division receiving more than twice as many complaints about United than any other U.S. carrier in 2012.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 3.87

Total Baggage Reports: 276,875

Enplaned Passengers: 71.56 million

Baggage Fees: $25 for first checked bag; $35 for second

No. 10 Southwest


Although Dallas-based Southwest receives the lowest percentage of passenger complaints of any U.S. carrier, it continues to struggle on the luggage front. A major problem, according to some industry analysts, is Southwest’s unwillingness to extend scheduled flight times, which can leave handlers scrambling to transfer luggage at hubs.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 3.08

Total Baggage Reports: 355,149

Enplaned Passengers: 115 million

Baggage Fees: Free for first and second checked bags

No. 9 Alaska

In 2012, Alaska slipped to No. 9, two places lower than its previous ranking for luggage handling. It’s not that the airline is slow getting your bags off the plane—the airline is known for its 25-minute bag guarantee—but rather that your suitcase has a chance of ending up in Fairbanks or Nome rather than, say, Las Vegas. One of the major problems is its home base, the chronically bottlenecked Sea-Tac airport.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 2.93

Total Baggage Reports: 50,906

Enplaned Passengers: 17.36 million

Baggage Fees: $20 for first checked bag; $20 for second

No. 8 American

Rising to No. 8 in the rankings is a milestone for American—a vast improvement from the days when the giant airline ranked as low as No. 14 when it came to handling passenger luggage. American turned to technology to improve performance, including handheld scanners that can identify a specific bag on an airport carousel or airplane cargo hold, as well as touch screens on tarmac baggage vehicles that flash instant gate changes and other vital information.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 2.92

Total Baggage Reports: 198,501

Enplaned Passengers: 67.86 million

Baggage Fees: $25 for first checked bag; $35 for second

No. 7 Hawaiian

After many years at or near the top of the chart for fewest lost or damaged bags, the Honolulu-based carrier has nose-dived in baggage-handling proficiency. An aggressive expansion program over the past few years could account for the stumble—and the $3.4-million loss that Hawaiian’s parent company posted in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 2.88

Total Baggage Reports: 26,021

Enplaned Passengers: 9.03 million

Baggage Fees: $17 for first checked bag within Hawaii; $25 for first checked bag to mainland

No. 6 Frontier

Another small airline with a big reputation when it comes to handling baggage, Frontier has its headquarters and only hub in Denver. Although it serves primarily destinations in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, the carrier has extended its reach to both coasts and even Alaska. Since breaking into the top five in 2009, Frontier has consistently ranked among the best domestic baggage handlers.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 2.22

Total Baggage Reports: 22,618

Enplaned Passengers: 10.17 million

Baggage Fees: $20 for first checked bag; $20 for second

No. 5 US Airways

More than any other “big five” American carrier, US Airways has cleaned up its act in terms of both baggage handling and overall quality. Six years ago, the Arizona-based airline was among the worst for lost and damaged luggage. But US Airways has consistently climbed in the rankings since then. New technology, employee incentives, and a system-wide customer service campaign helped boost the airline’s numbers in baggage handling and elsewhere.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 2.14

Total Baggage Reports: 105,730

Enplaned Passengers: 49.35 million

Baggage Fees: $25 for first checked bag; $35 for second

No. 4 Delta

The best of the mega airlines when it comes to baggage, Delta carried more than 98 million passengers during the survey period and lost or damaged around 200,000 of their bags—a remarkable record when you consider the volume of luggage the airline is maneuvering through airports like Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest. Delta’s proficiency was given a huge boost in 2008 when it merged with Northwest, historically one of the nation’s best baggage handlers.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 2.10

Total Baggage Reports: 205,943

Enplaned Passengers: 98.07 million

Baggage Fees: $25 for first checked bag; $35 for second

No. 3 JetBlue


This pioneer of innovative in-flight entertainment also stars when it comes to baggage. Not losing luggage is one of several reasons that the Long Island–based carrier often ranks at the top of passenger satisfaction surveys. TheJetBlue blog contains a section where passengers can ask questions or make comments about lost or damaged luggage.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 1.88

Total Baggage Reports: 48,346

Enplaned Passengers: 25.73 million

Baggage Fees: Free for first checked bag free; $40 for second

No. 2 AirTran

The Dallas-based budget carrier had a checkered history of corporate operations (until it was purchased by Southwest Airlines in 2010) but has long had one of the best records when it comes to getting bags from one airport to another. AirTran consistently ranks as one of the U.S. airlines with the fewest baggage reports—and in two out of the last five years has been No. 1.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 1.58

Total Baggage Reports: 33,844

Enplaned Passengers: 21.38 million

Baggage Fees: $25 for first checked bag; $35 for second

No. 1 Virgin America

d3c875178fafa63b1cc5001ef1851d79For those who have flown small but efficient Virgin America, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. offspring of Sir Richard Branson’s empire is the very best at handling baggage. In addition to its small size (only 52 aircraft and 17 domestic destinations) Virgin America also has the advantage of youth: the airline celebrates its sixth anniversary in summer 2013. Even being included in these DOT rankings is a milestone. In 2012, for the first time, Virgin met the requirement of earning at least one percent of total domestic scheduled-service passenger revenues.

Baggage Reports per 1,000 Passengers: 0.87

Total Baggage Reports: 5,313

Enplaned Passengers: 6.07 million

Baggage Fees: $25 for first checked bag; $25 for second


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