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Luggage 'onslaught' poses latest hurdle to airlines, passengers

MONTREAL — It took Gloria Schwartz three days to retrieve her child's luggage.
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A passenger looks for his luggage among a pile of unclaimed baggage at Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport in Montreal on June 29, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — It took Gloria Schwartz three days to retrieve her child's luggage.

The Ottawa resident's son was returning last Tuesday to his hometown from Tel Aviv, where he had been studying medicine, before heading off to California for a practicum following a four-day visit with his parents.

On top of having the reunion reduced by a day after Air Canada cancelled a connecting flight from Montreal citing a lack of groundcrew, the carrier failed to get his bags to Ottawa on time, Schwartz said in an interview.

"All his clothing and all his worldly possessions were in a duffel bag, which the airline lost. We picked him up, brought him home and then the next day I had to take him shopping because he literally had nothing to wear but the clothing on his back."

Passengers preparing to run the gauntlet of Canadian air travel face a key obstacle on top of flight delays and cancellations: late luggage. In recent weeks, airlines have filled the country's biggest airport terminals with row upon row of belated bags, causing headaches for thousands of customers.

For travellers flying with Air Canada on Monday, the odds were their flight was delayed; 63 per cent of the carrier's trips landed late, the most of any large airline across the globe, according to tracking service FlightAware.

Some 52 per cent of all flights out of Toronto's Pearson airport were held up, more than any other airport in the Western Hemisphere, and No. 3 worldwide after Sydney and Frankfurt.

Flight delays mark a particularly sticky problem for luggage flow, with a shortage of baggage handlers to shuttle suitcases from late arrivals to connecting planes while also grappling with last-minute gate changes.

"There's a lot of behind-the-scenes work ... that requires some additional handling, particularly if you're connecting from a domestic flight or a U.S. flight to an international flight," said John Gradek, head of McGill University's aviation management program.

"Every bag gets X-rayed or examined ... There are chemical sniffers and explosive sniffers — detectors," he said, but nonetheless called the tarmac and baggage bottlenecks "a non-stop soap opera — it's nuts."

Airlines contract out suitcase delivery to courier companies who deliver luggage to passengers, costing Canadian carriers "millions" amid a rise in fuel surcharges by shippers, Gradek added.

Travellers are owed up to $2,300 from airlines for costs incurred due to baggage delays or lost items under Canada's passenger rights charter and the Montreal Convention, an international treaty.

“They may typically tell you that we are going to reimburse you only $100 or $250 for the first 48 hours, which is a lie," said Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group.

“It’s really an onslaught. It’s insane what’s happening ... these immense piles of luggage."

Lukacs recommends passengers buy any clothes and items they need as a result of the tardy portmanteau, keep the receipts and file a claim with the airline soon after, rather than waiting to get through to it to confirm purchases will be reimbursed. If the claims are rejected, small claims court is the next step, he said.

Airlines and government agencies have been scrambling to deal with an overwhelming travel resurgence in recent months.

Air Canada has hired more than 2,000 workers at airports and more than 750 in customer service centres this year for a payroll surpassing 32,000. That's 93 per cent of 2019 levels, even as its flight numbers fall below 80 per cent of pre-pandemic figures after the carrier last week announced cuts of 15 per cent to its summer schedule. The roughly 9,500 nixed flights in July and August affect hundreds of thousands of passengers.

Canada's airport security and customs agencies have also been on a hiring spree. More than 1,000 new security screeners came on board since April — though not all have clearance to work the scanners — and 700-plus student border officers took up spots at checkpoints over the summer, according to the federal government.

Despite the increased staffing, Schwartz said she was unable to get through to Air Canada customer service. She instead eventually received a call from the airport's lost and found.

"If you want your bag today, you'd better come get it, because if you want us to deliver it to the house it'll probably take three, four more days," Schwartz said, recalling the phone conversation.

"There were literally hundreds and hundreds of pieces of luggage and infants' car seats and all kinds of things piled up without any supervision or security. So anyone could walk in and steal bags.

"It's very upsetting for people," she added. "It really screws people around."

Air Canada did not respond to questions about baggage snarls.

WestJet said bags that go unclaimed are delivered to headquarters in Calgary for further processing and 90 days in storage. If the bag goes "unmatched," the items will be donated or disposed of, said spokeswoman Denise Kenny.

"Recognizing the current travel ecosystem, we are making every effort to connect our impacted guests with their missing bags and have not seen an uptick related to reports of baggage theft," she said in an email.

The travel turbulence prompted the Canadian Transportation Agency to post a notice on its website Tuesday advising passengers on what to do in cases of flight delays and cancellations and luggage problems.

The regulator suggests passengers file a claim to the airline within seven days of receiving damaged baggage, 21 days of receiving delayed bags or "as soon as possible" if it remains lost after three weeks. Travellers should then file a complaint to the carrier "if you believe that the airline did not follow its obligations."

"If you are not satisfied with the airline's response to your complaint or request for compensation, or have not received a response within 30 days, you can make a complaint with the CTA."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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