What happens to your luggage when it goes behind the counter?

July 5, 2013 Janet Harvey

Do you know what happens to your bag after you check it in at the airport? As a baggage system designer, I can tell you.


As your bag goes into the back-of-house area, each bag is scanned by laser barcode readers that send the bag tag number to a computer that contains the information about where the bag is supposed to be delivered. After X-raying each bag, the computer then tells the baggage conveyor system where your bag needs to be directed within the system to make sure it gets to the right airline, hopefully to be placed onto your flight. If you have done a good job of putting on your own bag tag so that the barcode is not wrinkled, most conveyor systems will be able to track your bag until the airline baggage handler picks it up off the conveyor and puts it in the cart to be loaded onto the same aircraft that you are boarding.


There are a few different reasons why your bag might not be there when you arrive.

1. How you place it. Putting your bag on the conveyors with the wheels down can make your bag slip and slide, and the baggage system can lose track of it on the conveyor. It may then get caught up with the bag that comes along behind to push it– the system might send your bag to the following bag’s airline instead of to your own. When your bag arrives at a different airline’s area, it might not get the attention needed to be returned to your airline in time for your flight. And all because the wheels were down.

2. When you place it. If you are late checking in there might not be enough time for your bag to go through the X-ray and get to the baggage handlers before they bring the carts out to be loaded on the plane. Depending on what you have packed in your bag, if the X-ray finds dangerous goods, this will cause delays in getting you and your bag onto the flight. Air Canada recently increased the time required and now closes the check-in for a flight 45 minutes before the departure time – you and your bags will have to be rescheduled if you are late.

3. What’s hanging from it. Do you remember in the old days when they used to tell you to remove the straps from your bags? That rule still holds, although they don’t remind you anymore. Bag straps can get caught up in the conveyors and can cause a bag jam, which may also delay your bag (and others!) so that it misses your flight.

4. Where it’s going. My sense is that more bags are lost or delayed during connections. The more your bag is handled during the changing of planes, the greater the chance of having a late or lost bag. Each time the bag is handled, the bag tag gets more distressed and wrinkled. The automated laser barcode scanners may not be able to read the bag tag number and it will have to be looked at manually, which takes additional time when connecting. And if you are also changing airlines, it becomes even more complicated. Try to allow a minimum of one hour when connecting with checked baggage, and even more time if you have to go through customs and then catch a connecting flight. I’m sure you have heard the pilot say something like, “We are just waiting for the last bags to load and then we will be ready to go. ” That often refers to connecting baggage that is causing the delay.

Sorry to say, but if the barcoded tag  comes off of your bag, say good-bye to it…unless you have put your name and address on the bag. I even sometimes write my destination on the name tag, and I make sure that there is a second name and address on a card inside the bag, just in-case all of the tags get torn off.

As a baggage system designer for the last 18 years, I am used to being blamed, even jokingly, for lost luggage. I’m hoping some of these tips will result in your bag being there when you arrive at your destination. If you have a good story about wayward baggage, I would love to hear it.

About the Author

Janet Harvey

For over 20 years, Janet has designed baggage systems for airports from Vancouver, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia, from Iqaluit, Nunavut to Santiago, Chile, and has taken projects from conceptual design through RFP document preparation and process, to construction administration, commissioning, and completion.

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