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Afraid to check a bag? Canada's missing baggage woes explained

A mess of luggage and passengers at a baggage terminal inside Vancouver International Airport amid mass cancellations and suspended flights during a snowstorm on Dec. 19, 2022. (Supplied by Craig Minielly - image credit)
A mess of luggage and passengers at a baggage terminal inside Vancouver International Airport amid mass cancellations and suspended flights during a snowstorm on Dec. 19, 2022. (Supplied by Craig Minielly - image credit)

Deborah Cleary was exasperated.

When she landed in Montreal on Dec. 19, following a trip to Italy, she discovered her suitcase was missing. More than a month later, Air Canada still hadn't found her bag.

"I've spent so much time thinking about it, worrying about it, checking online, calling Air Canada," said Cleary from her home in Plattsburg, N.Y., on Tuesday. "I'm just sort of desperate to get my bag back."

The return to travel since the worst of the COVID crisis has been turbulent, plagued by mass flight disruptions and missing baggage piling up at airports. That has led to calls for airlines to improve their baggage delivery systems.

"It's broken, so I think they need to fix that," said Cleary, who visited the Montreal airport two weeks ago to search for her bag amidst a sea of unclaimed luggage. She didn't find it.

However, following a CBC News inquiry to Air Canada, Cleary learned on Friday that her suitcase is being shipped to her home.

"I'm very, very happy," she said. "I had almost resigned myself, I was never going to see it again."

submitted by Deborah Cleary
submitted by Deborah Cleary

Canada's first round of missing baggage chaos erupted in the summer, largely sparked by staffing shortages as airports and airlines scrambled to ramp up operations.

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There were high hopes the holiday travel season would go more smoothly -- until severe winter storms hit much of Canada, causing hundreds of delayed and cancelled flights, plus a backlog of lost luggage.

"In the airline industry, a delay of greater than 15 minutes generally results in missed connections," said former Air Canada executive Duncan Dee. "Delays equal missing bags."

CBC
CBC

Dee said airlines need to do a better job keeping track of luggage, and the federal government also needs to invest more in airports.

In late December, cold weather caused a baggage belt to freeze at Toronto's international airport; a fierce snow storm caused widespread flight delays and cancellations at Vancouver's international airport.

"There's obviously a need for better infrastructure, better resources for airports … to make them more resilient to these weather events," said Dee.

What about the airlines?

When asked this week about recent travel chaos, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said airports will get the tools they need, but did not elaborate.

On the baggage issue, he pointed the finger at airlines.

"I find it extremely frustrating when I hear stories of people not having their luggage for days on end," he said during an event in Hamilton. "Airlines should be doing more."

His comments follow several recent media reports about air passengers' struggles to find their missing luggage

They include the saga of Nakita Rees and Tom Wilson of Cambridge, Ont., who battled with Air Canada for more than four months to retrieve Wilson's missing suitcase.

WATCH |Ontario couple told their luggage was lost — but it wasn't: 

The bag vanished during their flight home from Greece in September. Because the couple had put an air tag tracker inside the suitcase, they were able to track its journey to a storage facility in nearby Etobicoke, Ont.

Even though Rees shared with Air Canada the whereabouts of the bag, the airline deemed it lost.

"The most frustrating thing about it was we had no way of getting it, even though we knew the location and we told the airline so many times," said Rees. "Because the air tags are newer, I just don't think airlines know how to even use that information."

The couple finally got the suitcase back this week — after their story was picked up by the media.

Airlines respond

Other passengers have also complained about similar experiences when tracking their lost luggage with air tags.

Former Air Canada executive Dee said airlines typically track luggage by scanning their baggage tags and that their systems currently can't accommodate air tracking technology.

"That's something where airline processes have not caught up to the technology that's available," he said. "No airline in the world has the ability right now to accept information from travellers."

Alghabra suggested airlines need to change with the times.

"We hear about how Amazon is able to identify where their items [are at] every moment," he said. "It's frustrating that airlines still have not modernized their luggage handling system."

Air Canada told CBC News it's constantly exploring new technologies. The airline added that its baggage delivery rate has returned to normal, following the stormy holiday weather.

Air Canada said that in Rees' case, the baggage tag had fallen off the suitcase. The airline didn't say how it eventually located the couple's bag, but did indicate that they get to keep the $2,300 in compensation they received for lost luggage.

WestJet said it has launched a strategic review to fine-tune its baggage systems. "[We] are committed to working together with our third-party service partners … to ensure we improve in this area," said spokesperson Madison Kruger in an email.

Baggage compensation

Travellers can claim up to approximately $2,350 for luggage that is lost or delayed on an international flight. For delayed baggage on domestic flights, the airlines design their own rules.

Alghabra's office told CBC News this week the government is exploring ways to strengthen rights for air passengers, including for delayed and lost baggage.

As for passenger Cleary, she had applied for compensation for a lost bag, but said getting it back is a better outcome.

"I would much prefer to have my bag back than any money from Air Canada."