The U.S. Airlines Most Likely to Mishandle Your Luggage

Here’s our guide to the worst offenders, tips for protecting your belongings, and how to get reimbursed if the airline loses your luggage.

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Updated May 28, 2024
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Major U.S. airlines mishandled nearly 200,000 checked bags on domestic flights during the month of October 2021, according to a recent Department of Transportation (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report.

Out of the 17 major U.S. airlines, the report ranks the top 10 worst offenders for one month — October 2021 — by calculating both total baggage mishandled and the percentage of bags mishandled out of all the airlines’ flights for that month. Interestingly, some airlines on this list had a marked increase in the percentage of mishandled bags, suggesting that some companies are more equipped than others to handle surges in air travel.

American Airlines

Have a nice day/Adobe Inside an airplane

By far, the worst transgressor in the world of lost, stolen, delayed, or damaged luggage is the American Airlines network, which mishandled 65,553 bags — or 7.21 per 1,000 checked bags — in October 2021.

American Airlines and one of its subsidiaries, Envoy Air, are mostly responsible for these high numbers. When tallying the counts for American Airlines alone and not including their smaller partner airlines, that number goes up even further to 7.94 bags per 1,000. Envoy Air mishandled 7.71 bags per 1,000.

Delta Air Lines

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Coming in second place is the Delta Air Lines network, which mishandled 42,554 bags — or 5.54 out of 1,000 enplaned bags — in the reported month.

Compared with the previous year, Delta Air more than doubled the percentage of passengers’ bags that were lost, stolen, delayed, or pilfered under their care, which was only 2.42 out of 1,000 in October 2020.

Alaska Airlines

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Almost tied with Delta Air is the Alaska Airlines network. Due to the comparatively low number of flights, Alaska Airlines network only mishandled 10,757 bags in the reported month, but the proportion is similar to the Delta Air Lines network: 5.52 per 1,000 checked bags that were lost, stolen, delayed, or damaged. When not including their branded partners’ statistics, that number goes up even further to 6.07 per 1,000 checked bags.

Southwest Airlines

Viacheslav Lakobchuk/Adobe Women on an airplane

Next on the list is Southwest Airlines, which mishandled 41,245 bags — or 4.62 out of 1,000 bags — in October 2021.

This carrier’s numbers more than doubled from the previous year. In October 2020, Southwest mishandled only 1.83 out of 1,000 checked bags. If it had maintained those statistics this year, it would have been on an entirely different list: the airlines least likely to lose your luggage.

Spirit Airlines

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Although Spirit Airlines mishandled only 3,516 bags in the reported month, it’s mostly a reflection of their low flight numbers and the number of passengers actually checking bags. The share of bags lost, stolen, delayed, or damaged is 4.21 per 1,000 bags, which is similar to Southwest Airlines.

Spirit Airlines passengers also saw a substantial increase from last year. In October 2020, the airlines mishandled 2.66 out of 1,000 checked bags. This is despite the relatively high Spirit baggage fees the airline charges.

United Airlines

CasanoWa Stutio/Adobe Luggage on a carousel

Although the United Airlines network mishandled 22,696 bags — or 3.97 per 1,000 checked bags — in the reported month, putting it solidly in the Top 10 rankings but further down the list, part of this is due to its branded partners.

When calculating the numbers for United Airlines alone, the proportion of lost, stolen, damaged, or delayed luggage drops to 3.85 per 1,000 enplaned bags, putting it ever so slightly ahead of the carrier next on the list: JetBlue Airways.

JetBlue Airways

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JetBlue Airways mishandled 4,613 bags — or 3.88 per 1,000 checked bags — in October 2021.

Compared with October 2020, JetBlue passengers had about the same likelihood of having their luggage lost, stolen, damaged, or delayed: 3.22 per 1,000 bags.

Frontier Airlines Woman at airport

The next three regional carriers are the least likely to mishandle your luggage when comparing all 17 major U.S. airlines individually.

Frontier Airlines mishandled 2,391 bags — or 3.29 per 1,000 checked bags — in October 2021. This was very close to the previous year’s statistic of mishandling only 2.45 per 1,000 enplaned bags.

Find out how Frontier's baggage policy works.

Hawaiian Airlines

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The runner-up of carriers least likely to damage or lose your luggage is Hawaiian Airlines, which mishandled 882 bags — or 2.17 per 1,000 — in the reported month. That percentage was almost identical in October 2020, when it only mishandled 2.01 per 1,000 checked bags.

Allegiant Air

Finally, Allegiant Air is the carrier least likely to lose, damage, delay, or pilfer its customers’ luggage. In October 2021, it only mishandled 877 bags or 1.96 per 1,000 enplaned, which was very close to the previous year’s statistic of only 1.20 per 1,000 checked bags.

8 tips for making sure your luggage isn’t mishandled

EdNurg/Adobe Woman waiting at airport

Some of these figures might not seem like a lot; three to seven bags out of 1,000 checked bags, for instance, is less than 1%.

But for those of us who travel frequently, chances are, it’s happened at least once, whether it is a pair of supremely expensive designer shoes missing on arrival or a bag that is inexplicably split wide open and held together by airline tape when it arrives on the baggage claim carousel.

For those of you more likely to be on the unfortunate end of these statistics, here are our tips:

  • Resist the temptation to use luggage that has holes or is starting to split at the seams.
  • Make sure your name, current address, phone number, and email are on a tightly affixed luggage tag.
  • We know it’s often the most stylish and grime-hiding color, but try not to use all-black luggage, because guess what, everybody else is too.
  • Affix something to your luggage that makes it quickly and easily identifiable, such as a large, brightly colored ribbon or sticker.
  • Pack camera gear, jewelry, and anything irreplaceable in your carry-on.
  • Always always pack a change of clothes and set of toiletries in your carry-on — especially if you’re changing planes — because, Murphy’s Law.
  • If you end up in a situation where the airline is highly likely to lose your luggage, such as a tight connecting flight or a rebook on a different carrier, ask the gate agent to check if your bag made the flight. You may need to wait until everyone else has boarded and all the luggage is loaded, but if you’re in unusual circumstances, they may be able to check that your bag has been scanned in, or even radio down to the handlers.

Additionally, some airlines are stringent in their luggage liability policies, which means passengers aren’t always reimbursed for their losses. For instance, American Airlines, which topped the charts on this most recent DOT report, requires customers to prove the value of their goods in order to be compensated, and the airline will never cover loss of jewelry — or 20 other things listed on its conditions of carriage.

Instead of relying on the airlines for recompense that might never come, one way to make sure you’re always protected is to find one of the best travel credit cards that come with insurance and book your flight using that card.

Bottom line

ArtushFoto/Adobe Airport gates

The pandemic has been tough for airline personnel and general efficiency, and therefore, your luggage. But there are some things you can do to protect yourself. Use our tips above, and if you know you have to check something valuable, consider using an airline with a great track record and amenable liability policy.

And finally, compare credit cards and find one with travel insurance that covers your belongings. Although some items can never be replaced, using a credit card that will reimburse you for lost, stolen, or damaged valuables is one of the best ways to ensure adequate compensation.

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Becky Holladay

Becky Holladay is a finance and travel writer whose work has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and the California Business Journal, among others. She loves finding out what makes people tick and telling their stories, whether they're entrepreneurs, artists, or changemakers.