Here's Why The DOT's Baggage Numbers Mislead The Traveling Public

Illustration for article titled Here's Why The DOT's Baggage Numbers Mislead The Traveling Public

Every month, the Department of Transportation compiles a report card for the U.S. based airlines — their on time performance, customer complaints, and baggage handling. The baggage report itself is misleading, and doesn't paint an accurate picture of who loses the most bags. Let's look at why this is.


For on time performance, they simply report the percentage of late flights, based on how many are late in comparison to the total number of flights, but get this — a flight isn't officially "late" if it arrives within fifteen minutes of its scheduled time of arrival.

The passenger complaints report is also pretty much cut and dry. The passenger complaint ratio is factored from the number of complaints per 100,000 enplanements. My spell check doesn't like that word, but it's the DOT's official term for an airline customer who takes a flight. If you have a single person who takes three flights in the same day on the same itinerary, that counts as three enplanements. Clear enough? Let's move on.

Illustration for article titled Here's Why The DOT's Baggage Numbers Mislead The Traveling Public

It's the parameters of the baggage report that don't really make sense. Well, they make sense in terms of accuracy, but they don't accurately tell the whole picture of who the best and worst airlines are. The report measures airlines' baggage handling by factoring the number of reported mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. At first glance, that seems pretty logical, but not all airline baggage policies are created equal.

When you have airlines who charge for checked bags, of course their passengers are going to check fewer bags. This makes it easier for those airlines to handle the fewer number of bags they're moving. Southwest, who allows two free bags per passenger, checked an average of 0.78 bags per customer in 2013, according to the Dallas Morning News. Assuming Southwest checked that same average number of bags this October (data contained in the recent December 2014 DOT report), that means they checked about 8.98 million bags. That's nearly 290,000 bags per day. The DOT says Southwest had 32,413 mishandled bag reports in October. That sounds like a lot, but out of 8.98 million bags moved, that is a 99.64 percent success rate. Something tells me the rankings might change if the same factors were used.

But like I mentioned yesterday, different people have different interpretations of what makes an airline great, and as long as you're not bad at everything on the list, you have a good shot at winning yourself a loyal fan base.


Images via Shutterstock

Paul Thompson is a aviation journalist with over 13 years of experience working in the airline industry, who maintains the website Flight Club for You can contact Paul to submit story ideas, your own "Plane Porn" photos, and comments regarding this or any other aviation topic via email at


cream wobbly

I couldn't find a single argument among your objections that would mislead the public about baggage handling:

1. arriving up to a quarter hour after the scheduled arrival time is acceptable when the flight takes several times more than that

If we were talking about trains or buses, sure, 15 minutes is an eternity. But in the context of 14 hour flights, 3 hour immigration lines, and one hour security lines, 15 minutes is neither here nor there. This does not mislead.

2. counting a passenger for each boarding on their journey when they're going from A to E via B, C, and D

(Let's call it “per passenger boarding”, and not encourage their stupid sounding word, eh?) If anything, counting a passenger multiple times on their journey gives greater room for failure. If A–B was on time, B–C was late, C–D was late, but D–E was an hour ahead of schedule, this only shows two failures, when in fact the full journey was a raging success. This does not mislead in a negative sense.

3. mishandling per 1000 passenger boardings

If an airline charges for checked bags it will likely handle fewer bags, with the obvious upshot that it will have a lower rate of mishandled baggage per passenger boarding. What does a passenger see? Paying to check bags buys you a better chance of it being handled correctly. On the surface that could be seen as misleading, since the chance of mishandling per item of luggage per flight is going to be higher than the mishandling per passenger boarding, but we don't have the first figure, so all we can do is speculate. For my part, I would speculate that an airline that handles a small amount of luggage per flight is going to be able to perform better than an airline that handles a larger amount. Again, not misleading.

4. mentions of Southwest

You defend them in your busiest paragraph, mentioning them three times in the text, and link once to a story with an postage stamp image showing their logotype, associating their name with the words “Best Airline”. Who's misleading now, eh?