Understanding why bags get lost to begin with may help a bit. First, when big weather systems -- such as hurricanes, heavy thunderstorms or blizzards -- jumble flight schedules and cancel flights, bags and people get disconnected. That we can all understand.
Similarly, when your flight arrives late at a mega-hub airport such as Chicago and you barely skid into the connecting flight's departure gate in time to make it, the chances that your bags were treated to a similar level of determination is far less certain. A large number of so-called "misconnected" bags are left behind for just that reason -- a late arrival and not enough time to make the transfer to the connecting flight.
Sometimes the problem is you and the fact that you arrived at the airport too close to flight time. In most cases of late check-in, the airline will make a note on your tag and in the computer of your tardiness, which means that if the bags don't arrive with you at your destination, the airline isn't necessarily responsible for having them delivered.
But, too often, bags just end up in the wrong bin or otherwise placed on the wrong aircraft. Equally frequent are the instances in which bags "override" a station -- in other words, the baggage handlers failed to pull the bags out of the aircraft before it flew on to Mexico, leaving you suitless in San Diego while your bags enjoy Cabo San Lucas, presumably having more fun than you are.
Occasionally, bags are pulled off your airplane at too early a stop, and every now and then one is stolen from the carousel before you can find it. What's largely gone from the panoply of problems, however, is the unreadable baggage tag sending luggage to far-flung locations because the handlers couldn't decipher someone's handwriting.
But WHY do we put up with lost and delayed bags at all in 2005? Don't these carriers own computers? Don't they employ competent people? If FedEx can tell you what truck your box is on and which intersection it's passing through (ok, a bit of an exaggeration), why can't Monster Airlines Inc. use those ubiquitous little bar code tags to do the same thing?
Money. Plain and simple. While there have been great advances in tagging your luggage, there are tens of millions yet to be spent on the equipment necessary to track those tags and your bags as efficiently as cargo carriers track their shipments. And if you hadn't noticed, an industry that has now lost every penny it ever earned since 1928 plus more than $20 billion is not exactly looking for opportunities to add to its investment in baggage equipment anytime soon.
So, the truth is that while the entire industry is getting better and better at delivering your things as promised, bad things still happen to good bags, and your best defense is to adhere to Murphy's Law: If it can go wrong, it will. In other words, plan every time to arrive without your bags by keeping vital medicines with you, and by taking enough essentials in your carry-on items to get by if your Samsonite ends up in Singapore -- while you're in Savannah.