How your checked bag gets to your destination and why some get lost, according to a ramp agent for a major airline

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

This time last year, Matt had plenty of time on his hands. As a ramp agent for a major international airline based out of Los Angeles International Airport, he was working Thanksgiving week — a year and a half after the pandemic radically altered air travel — and work was relatively light. The bulk of his tasks, from loading bags on and off of planes to transferring them between airlines and tracking down lost luggage, was a routine affair. (Matt declined to share his last name and employer for privacy reasons, but both have been verified by Insider with documentation.)

This year, however, things are different. Over the course of this week, 200,000 people are expected to travel through LAX daily. Seventy-five thousand of them, Matt was told, will be on his airline. According to AAA’s Thanksgiving projections, air travel is up 8% over last year, with 4.5 million Americans flying to holiday destinations.

“Tonight is definitely our heavy night,” Matt told Insider. “We’ll be slammed here. Flights will be full. We’ve just got to power through it.”

Matt, who’s worked for airlines for the past 27 years, said recent innovations like luggage-tag barcodes and scanners have greatly reduced the number of bags that get lost. According to an August report from the Department of Transportation, lost luggage in the second quarter of 2022 was up just 0.02% compared to the same time period in 2019.

Customer complaints, however, were up 270% compared to prepandemic levels. Matt said a lot of that angst comes from the way the media portray airlines, essentially pitting consumers against the system. It also may come from the delays and travel upsets that have resulted from the airlines’ post-pandemic labor shortage.

But for him and his colleagues behind the scenes of luggage transport, the system to track, move, and, when necessary, relocate and return bags, is a well-oiled machine — or it’s at least designed to be so.

How your luggage gets tracked

A bag’s airline travel journey starts as soon as a customer checks in. After a customer-service agent puts 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 to a conveyor belt, and that’s the last you see of it,” Matt said.

As the traveler heads to security, their luggage heads to the X-ray machine at the TSA counter, followed by the baggage room. Then the luggage goes to a baggage make-up area, where it’s scanned for a second time.

Next, the bag — usually with around 100 others — gets loaded onto a cart bound for the tarmac and driven to the waiting plane. Once the cart driver arrives at the aircraft, the luggage is loaded onto a ramp that conveys bags to the cargo hold, where it’s scanned for a third and final time.

When bags get lost: the reroute office

Bag tags are not a perfect science. Because they’re made of paper with sticky backing, they can easily tear. A bag can also fall off of a cart, not get read by a scanner, or get overlooked amid a crush of holiday luggage. This is where rerouting comes in.

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

Once ramp agents and baggage handlers determine the owner and destination of a wayward bag, they bring it to a reroute office. That’s headquarters for lost luggage — the room where agents will find the next flight that’s headed to an owner’s destination and send the bag on to meet the passenger there. This is also where timing, multileg trips, and vagabond bags can converge in a huge headache.

There are a number of factors, Matt said, that impact how soon a bag can reunite with its owner, like if a bag goes missing late in the day and there are no more flights, or if the passenger’s destination is a place without frequent flights. Or if it’s Thanksgiving, and things get very, very busy.

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

Handling the holidays

This week, Matt expects to handle double the volume of luggage than usual. For him and his colleagues, that’s meant staffing double the number of baggage handlers and ramp agents and paying more for overtime to make sure baggage rooms, loading and unloading machinery, and points in between are all covered.

As for mental preparation for this stressful time of year, he has a simple maxim: “Everything is time management, right? You create your own stress. That’s how I look at it. So if there’s a flight that goes out at 8:30, and I get that flight to you by 7, there’s no reason why that flight should not get out on time.”

His advice for passengers is, first, get to the airport early. Second, if you’re traveling to a place with snow or rain, get ready for potential delays.

“When I see a couple coming up, snapping at each other, and all stressed out, I tell them to chill out. Your vacation starts now.”