This is what really happens to your luggage at the airport

Suitcases at the airport.
-Credit: (Image: 2024 PA Media, All Rights Reserved)

As many of us prepare to jet off on our summer holidays, a well-earned week or two of pool-side relaxation is just what's needed. But for many, travelling to our destination - from racing through Gatwick or Heathrow with thousands of fellow holidaymakers to squeezing into an airplane seat - is the most stressful part.

Of course, there's nothing worse than arriving at your destination only to learn that your luggage has gone missing. The dreaded wait by the carousel never gets easier, but have you ever wondered what happens to your suitcase after you've checked it in for a flight?

It's a question that can cause a fair bit of anxiety. Will it arrive at my destination? What if it gets lost or damaged? If you are wondering just how safe your luggage is when you check it in, a travel expert has shared some insider info and explained everything you need to know.

READ MORE: 5 items you can't take on a flight at Heathrow or Gatwick that you might not realise

photo of a woman with a suitcase at the beach
Always pack some emergency clothes in your hand luggage in case your suitcase goes missing -Credit:2024 PA Media, All Rights Reserved

What does happen to your luggage at the airport?

According to Justin Penny, head of aviation at Flight Centre UK, at check-in, the traveller will weigh the item and the check-in agent will print a label which contains information on the traveller, the flight number, and departure and arrival airport codes. "It then goes on a conveyor belt where baggage handlers will inspect the items for security purposes and redirect them to the correct flight once cleared," said Penny.

He explained: "Once loaded onto the plane, they are stored securely in the hold which the passenger cannot access. On landing, they are unloaded from the hold, driven to the terminal, and unloaded onto conveyor belts which will emerge at the baggage reclaim section."

Penny continued: "If a journey involves a connecting flight that doesn't involve going through customs and re-entering airside through security, your baggage will be transferred to the next aircraft. However, for long international layovers, you may be temporarily reunited with your luggage before checking it back in for the next leg of the journey."

Why and how do items get lost?

Airport staff handle countless checked items daily, which inevitably leaves some margin for error. "Checked items often get lost during flight connections and this can be the result of either mislabelling at the check-in desk, or a lack of time to transfer the baggage at the connecting airport," Penny explained.

"While human error is the most likely cause, even a label falling off from the journey between check-in and collection can cause bags to go missing in transit. At this point, baggage handlers leave no stone unturned looking for clues to associate the item to its owner," said Penny.

How do they manage luggage?

Baggage handlers strive to transport luggage from point A to point B as swiftly as possible, often working under tight deadlines to ensure that passengers' belongings make their crucial connections. "Though highly uncommon, baggage can sometimes be damaged in the process, particularly hard-shell luggage with a thin casing, or luggage with handles left up or attachments that can get caught in machines," Penny noted.

Penny recommends that all luggage is folded away properly, so "handles, flaps and attachments don't get caught and broken while passing through the airport."

He said: "Try wrapping up your valuables or fragile items in pieces of clothes within your suitcase to add extra cushioning. For travellers embarking on a backpacking adventure, you may have to register your backpack with 'oversized bags'. But don't worry, this shouldn't incur an extra fee, so long as the dimensions fit with the airline's rules; this is to ensure any backpack buckles or straps don't become caught within the airport's travelators and cause a jam, and these items are instead loaded onto the aircraft by hand."

What should you do if it happens to you?

Penny stresses that the most important thing to do if luggage is damaged or missing is to notify the airline or the airline's handling agent before leaving the airport. He said: "Travellers should also contact their travel insurance provider. Flight Centre recently launched Captain's Pack, a range of benefits essential to hassle-free travel that offer peace of mind the lost luggage tracking and cover is undoubtedly the most popular add-on among our customers travelling long-haul, or with connections."

Is luggage all treated the same, or do priority seats or airlines receive different treatment?

When travelling internationally, all luggage passes through security and into the belly of the airport to be processed and sent to the correct aircraft. Here, baggage handlers and some machines process the luggage.

Penny explained: "For those travellers with airline membership status and/or flying in premium cabins, their luggage is prioritised and tends to be offloaded from the aircraft first, meaning speedy pick-up once at your destination."

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