Shanin Specter’s flight from Atlanta landed in Philadelphia after 10 p.m. one August night, but his troubles from the flight had only just started.
The exhausted lawyer, who had a busy day ahead of him, wanted to get home quickly, but his black duffel bag wasn’t at baggage claim at Philadelphia International Airport. All bags from the American Airlines flight were missing, too. An hour and a half went by with no sign of anyone’s luggage.
About 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 22, the airline announced that there was a problem with offloading bags from the flight and suggested that travelers put in claims for their stuff, Specter said. American Airlines ultimately delivered his bag the next day, but never explained what happened that night, according to emails between Specter and the airline.
“People were dumbfounded,” said Specter, a partner at Philadelphia law firm Kline & Specter. “It wasn’t as if the bags were lost. They were a couple hundred yards away and we just couldn’t get them.”
American Airlines blamed the delay on nearby lightning that night. But Specter is not alone in having trouble with the airline’s baggage handling in Philadelphia.
In addition to a rough summer — including a spike in canceled flights and a fierce battle with union mechanics — one of the nation’s largest airlines has a baggage handling problem, too. American Airlines ranks near the bottom in mishandled bags this year among major airliners, according to federal data. Its baggage handling statistics are even worse in Philadelphia, a regional hub for the airline accounting for nearly 70% of the airport’s traffic.
“American does have a reputation for being slower than the other airlines in terms of getting your bag, but in their defense, they’re the biggest carrier,” said Jeffrey Erlbaum, owner of ETA Travel, a Conshohocken-based travel agency. “But an entire plane [not offloading bags] after 90 minutes? That’s really odd.”
The American Airlines Network mishandled roughly 11 checked bags per 1,000 boarded in June, the worst rate among 10 U.S. carriers ranked by the federal Department of Transportation. The airline network had 10.6 million checked bags on its flights that month. Key rival Southwest Airlines mishandled half as many bags — five missed bags per 1,000 enplaned — despite boarding more bags that month: 10.9 million.
Mishandled bags are checked bags that are lost, damaged, delayed, or pilfered.
The baggage problem is much worse in Philadelphia. American Airlines mishandled about 20 bags for every 1,000 boarded in August, which is an improvement from the 23 missed bag rate from the same month last year, data shared by the airline show. Year to date, America Airlines said it mishandled roughly 15 bags per 1,000 enplaned in Philly, roughly the same rate as last year.
Southwest, Delta, United, and Frontier airlines, which also operate flights out of PHL, did not provide baggage handling data for their flights in Philadelphia.
American Airlines has been under fire for a sharp rise in flight cancellations this summer. The carrier, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, had to take Boeing 737 Max aircraft out of its fleet after two fatal crashes involving the plane within six months, resulting in up to 140 flights being canceled every day. The airline is also locked in a fight with two mechanics’ unions over a new contract. Mechanics have been accused of conspiring against American Airlines, and one was recently charged with sabotaging a flight that was aborted. The airline has also blamed the weather for delays this year.
“Our biggest challenge in the operation continues to be out-of-service aircraft,” said American Airlines spokesman Andrew Trull. “This reduces our ability to react to and recover from unexpected disruptions like severe weather.”
American Airlines said severe weather limited the ability of ground teams to offload luggage on Aug. 22. But two other airlines operating in PHL, Delta and Southwest, said the weather didn’t affect their baggage handling that night.
Bad weather closed the ramp at PHL for 45 minutes shortly after 10 p.m., American Airlines said. Airlines close the ramp for the safety of ground crews when lightning is detected within three miles of the airfield. The ground crew began servicing the Atlanta flight after 10:45 p.m. and bags made it to baggage claim an hour later, or almost two hours after the flight landed, according to the airline.
Specter, the lawyer, called the bad weather explanation “absurd.”
“Some planes had their bags offloaded. Others didn’t,” he said. “Not getting our bags is bad, but getting baloney instead is worse.”