Baggage handling and regulations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Airline procedures and processes for carrying passengers’ baggage from their points of departure to their final destinations.

The Process

The baggage handling process begins when passengers present themselves to check in for their flights. Much like the passengers themselves, who receive seat assignments and boarding passes, baggage is also checked in. At baggage check-in, either computerized or handwritten baggage or destination tags are attached to each bag and a claim check is given the passenger. The baggage tag specifies the passenger’s airline, flight, connecting cities (if any), and final destination. Computerized tags may also display the passenger name, date, time, and reservation information.

At some airports, passengers can have their baggage checked and tagged in either one of two places, at skycap locations or at airline ticket counters. Skycaps are individuals stationed at curbside locations in front of airport terminals. They offer the convenience of immediate baggage checking, enabling passengers to proceed directly to their departure gate for boarding passes. Curbside checking was banned at many airports for security reasons in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Airline ticket counters offer all baggage, passenger, boarding, and ticketing services.

Both skycaps and airline ticket counter agents must follow certain precautions and procedures when checking baggage. For safety and security, they must ask all passengers whether anyone unknown to them has asked them to carry any items on their flight and whether any of the items with which they are traveling have been out of their immediate control since the time they were packed. To ensure that all of a passenger’s baggage arrives at its destination, skycaps and airline ticket counter agents use a procedure called “Ask, Tag, and Tell.” “Ask” reminds the skycap or agent to ask the passenger’s final destination and the number of bags being checked. “Tag” reminds the skycap or agent to produce the correct number of tags to the correct destination and to affix the tags to the bags. “And” is a reminder to ask whether each bag has a separate passenger identification tag. “Tell” reminds the skycap or agent to tell the passenger how many bags have been checked to their final destination.

After the bags are checked and tagged, they are usually put on a baggage belt conveyor system. Bag belt systems take bags from skycaps or ticket counters and transport them to the baggage makeup area. Airline employees in a baggage makeup area sort baggage by flight numbers and destinations and place them into carts or other conveyor systems to transport the baggage to the aircraft. At the aircraft baggage is further sorted for loading and unloading purposes. Bags going only to the aircraft’s destination are loaded in one section, usually called local baggage. Bags that are going to a connecting flight are loaded into another section, usually called connect bags. Messages are sent to the destination city after the plane takes off, telling where the different bags have been loaded.

Upon landing, the process is reversed. Local baggage is unloaded into specific carts or conveyor systems that transport it to the baggage makeup area. There it is placed onto other conveyor systems that transport it to the baggage claim area. In baggage claim areas, passengers pick up their bags. Connect bags are unloaded into other specific carts or conveyor systems that transport them either to the baggage makeup area to be brought back out to the connecting airplanes or directly to the connecting airplanes.

Missing or Lost Baggage

In the event that a passenger’s bags do not arrive with the passenger or a bag arrives without a passenger, airline baggage service offices in baggage claim areas handle missing, lost, or found baggage reports. These reports document how many bags are missing or found, the tag and flight numbers from the claim checks, descriptions of the bags and their contents, and passenger contact information. This information is entered into bag tracing systems that are intelligent databases. These systems constantly search themselves to identify and match missing or found bags to the passengers who checked them. The industry average of missing or lost bags is approximately 3 percent of every one thousand bags transported. Of that 3 percent, most are located and reunited with passengers within forty-eight hours.

Baggage Acceptance Guidelines

For the safety and security of an airline and its passengers, airlines have established baggage acceptance guidelines. These guidelines concern themselves with baggage contents, how the contents are packed, and liability for their damage or loss.

Baggage acceptance guidelines address what are known as acceptable, conditionally acceptable, and unacceptable articles. Acceptable articles are considered to be the personal property necessary or appropriate for the purposes of the passenger’s travel. Typical acceptable articles are clothes, shoes, personal, or business items. Airlines accept a liability of $2,500 per bag for damage or loss. Conditionally acceptable articles are those items considered irreplaceable, fragile, perishable, or improperly packed. Conditional acceptance also addresses the condition or quality of the receptacle containing a passenger’s contents. Any suitcase or box must be of reasonable durability, must stay closed or sealed, and must be able to withstand normal handling. Conditional acceptance limits the liability of an airline for damage or loss. Unacceptable articles are those considered hazardous to passengers or aircraft. At no time are they ever accepted for transport.

Other acceptance guidelines address airline and aircraft security. These include requirements that passengers cannot check a bag onto a flight for which they do not have a ticket. Bags may not be checked to a different destination than that of the passenger. For most international flights, bags are not loaded until it is known that the passenger checking them has boarded the aircraft. There are also time requirements that specify how early or how late passengers may check their bags.

Other acceptance guidelines address how many, how heavy, or how large baggage may be. Although each airline has its own specific guidelines, generally speaking, most airlines allow three bags per passenger, including carry-on items passengers keep with them in the aircraft. Most airlines do not allow any bag that weighs more than 70 pounds or that exceeds 60 to 65 inches in outside linear measurement. When any of these guidelines are exceeded, extra baggage charges, which may be significant, are incurred. There are exemptions to allow for special items, such as wheelchairs, or other devices a passenger may require.

  • America West Airlines. Basic Ramp Service. Phoenix, Ariz.: America West Airlines. Chapter 3 of this America West Training Manual outlines how to read, interpret, and handle different baggage tags and the order in which baggage should be loaded and unloaded.
  • Nichols, Wendy, and Stefano Sala. “Minimizing Connecting Times a Must for Airline Competitiveness.” In Handbook of Airline Operations, edited by Gail F. Butler and Martin F. Keller. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. An article presenting a model to reduce connecting times and outlining steps for ground handling companies to adequately schedule personnel and equipment.

Air carriers

Airline industry, U.S.


Source: Data taken from U.S. Department of Transportation.

Categories: History