Airline travel has evolved beyond recognition in recent years. Where once it was a given that every traveller checked in a suitcase, the increase in low-cost airlines and the separate fees for hold baggage means these days less than 20 per cent of travellers check in bags because of high prices - five years ago it was 85 per cent. With excess baggage costs coming in anywhere between £10 and £30 per kg, travellers simply don't want to risk negotiating the increasingly complex rules adopted by each airline when it comes to their baggage allowances. So what does this mean for the future of hold luggage in airline travel?
It's really quite simple; airlines don't want your baggage. Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, stated this in an interview and even bemoaned the charges imposed by the airline he runs - saying it 'costs him a fortune' in excess baggage shipping charges when he flies with them! And it's not just the outspoken Ryanair chief that is of this opinion - even British Airways put out press releases at the start of the year about how people travel with 30 per cent of stuff they don't need. The overriding message seems to be 'it's not our fault when we charge you excess.'
The bottom line is runways are packed, hold baggage causes delays and missed slots, and airlines have to pay baggage handling companies for their services - it's a real headache for them. And now, although less people check in hold baggage, airlines still have to fork out for handling services despite the decrease in hold baggage. This is a worldwide problem; whilst we don't have stats for EU airlines, stats for US airlines are pretty shocking and show that in 2011, Delta earned $864M from baggage fees, this is nearly double what the whole industry made in 2007!
Tales from airline customers are testament to the sorry picture of the state of the industry and show just how frustrated travellers are becoming as a result of baggage shipping costs. The rise in social media means these stories are widely available and frequent on Twitter and Facebook as people use these channels to rant about the costs and spread the word about the airline perpetrators. A quick search using hashtags relevant to the topic or airline will tell you all you need to know about the situation, from stories about excess baggage fees being far higher than the price of the ticket (or indeed the value of the items being shipped!) to people 'layering' head to toe in clothes to avoid costs. Duty free sales have also taken a hit.
Excess fees aside, another big issue is the lack of care given to hold baggage. Around one in 50 bags goes missing, which is a worryingly high number especially given that increasingly, people tend to travel with electronic devices sometimes storing irreplaceable files, photos and entire music collections. In fact, one of Alabama's biggest tourist attractions is the Unclaimed Baggage Center, an auction house where lost luggage is offered to the highest bidder, attracting 800,000 people every year! How would travellers feel about a stranger rifling through their belongings? This is also available in the UK, with lost luggage hotspots including Greasby's in Tooting, London, where British Airways sells its lost luggage. Baggage bounties like this are available all over the country and can be found easily online - and are a real bonus for would-be Ebayers.
My guess is that we're not too far away from hand baggage only flights. As air travel increases but efforts of airlines to bring excess baggage handling costs into a reasonable price bracket remain non-existent, it can only go one way; passengers will stop checking in luggage and there will be no need for the airline to spend money on handling services. They will be happy to have rid themselves of a problematic process, but passengers will be left with fewer options to ship luggage they need. Independent carriers will increase and become a whole new industry in its own right - where more care is given to luggage and better technology in chipping and barcoding means tracking is enhanced and luggage losses infrequent. That's where I think the future of luggage shipping lies.