Lose any luggage lately? Have you looked online?
There's a bizarre Web site called, "Is This Your Luggage?" It features pictures of supposedly "lost" bags claimed at auction -- and photos of the sometimes odd garments found inside. Personally, I think it's some sort of weird art project, but the author asks the public to contact him if anyone recognizes a bag.
But odds are, you won't recognize any of them.
And that's because chances are excellent that your bag won't get lost -- or "mishandled" as they say in the idiom of the airports. According to the Department of Transportation, the airlines are simply not losing as many bags as they used to -- and, more and more of their planes are on time -- plus, there are fewer customer complaints. Nice, huh?
Well … not so fast. Yes, the airlines are working hard to improve these figures -- and some, like United and US Airways, are even handing out cash bonuses to employees when their statistics move the right way. However, the big reason for all the good news is -- there are fewer passengers and even fewer checked bags.
It's a no-brainer. Consider that as recently as 2007, we had 680 million-plus domestic airline passengers. But oh, what a difference a year makes. By the end of 2008, that figure was down by 30 million and the 2009 numbers are already clearly trending down further.
So there are fewer passengers -- and fewer bags. Plus, thanks to those new fees, some of us are bypassing the check-in counter altogether.
So there are fewer bags to lose, which can mean fewer reasons to complain. And face it -- when there are fewer passengers, there are fewer boarding problems and delays, and that certainly helps planes leave on time. Fewer passengers are a recipe for better statistics.
OK, but why fewer passengers? Is it simply a matter of adding a few fees, taking away some elbow room, and -- wham! -- air travelers leave in droves?
No, sir. Passengers of today are a hardy breed, and will put up with a lot, including knees jammed under their chins, $2 Diet Cokes (well, until US Airways finally saw the light), plus dwindling snacks and fees for pillows. Travelers now pay for bags and so much more. Maybe they don't pay cheerfully, but -- they pay.
Recession Means Fewer Airline Passengers
However, one thing air travelers can't seem to do is fly when the economy is in chaos. Little things like job losses and the threat of layoffs get in the way.
So what are they doing? Turning their noses up at those incredibly cheap airfare sales, for one thing. Or hitting the road -- perhaps to view those competing "world's largest balls of twine" in Darwin, Minn., and Cawker City, Kan.
Or maybe they're visiting one of the nation's newer attractions -- airline boneyards -- those eerie desert "cemeteries" crammed with the metal carcasses of Airplanes Past (the ones the carriers can no longer fill up).
Business travelers, meanwhile, are falling out of the sky and heading back on the road again, as well -- which reminds me -- you know those guys who used to be Masters of the Private Jets? Well, they're not flying so much, either -- they don't dare allow themselves to be seen within miles of a "personal luxury aircraft."
But some have discovered bus travel.
No, not Greyhound. I'm talking "pimped out rides" -- the kind that Creative Mobile Interiors near Columbus, Ohio, fashions for rock stars and, lately, business executives -- with queen-size beds, tasteful dining rooms, wine racks and even DJ systems (in case a CEO decides to change professions, I suppose).
But let's get back to my favorite people -- airline passengers. My advice to them? Get out there and fly. As one airline likes to point out, some of these fares are cheaper than driving.
Starting this fall, that won't be the case, as the airlines start cutting capacity again -- remember, when seats are full, the airlines rule, and they will raise prices.
Plus, the economy will turn around sooner or later (sooner, please) and maybe it won't be long before we're grumbling again -- muttering the same thing we were saying a year ago when the economy was booming and so was the price of oil: "Flying is for the rich."
At the moment, however, flying is for everyone. And there's an added bonus: chances are good that, wherever you go, your checked bag will get there with you.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.