Where Your Luggage Goes On Connecting Flights

Have you ever wondered what happens to your luggage once you’ve fondly farewelled your suitcase containing all the dreams and expectations of your upcoming trip? On a simple trip, a single leg traveling from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ you can read my article titled 'What happens to your luggage after check in?’ and learn what happens to your luggage once it’s left the check in counter.

Howeverm in consideration of taking a connecting flight a more complex set of circumstances arise increasing the risk of parting company with your possessions forever.

Depending on the travel scenario, you may be traveling on multiple legs with the same airline, or traveling using two or more different airlines, some of which do not provide reciprocal or partner airline arrangements. As a rule, always check the terms of travel with the airlines prior to arriving at the airport to ensure you are not met with a series of circumstances you haven't yet considered. Let’s review the possible scenarios.

When it comes to luggage of the rectangular kind, the job of an airline is to:

1. Relocate bags from the check in area to the departure gate.

2. Relocate bags from one gate to another during transfer.

3. Move bags from the arrival gate to the baggage claim area.

4. Undertake these processes as quickly and efficiently as possible.


Most large airports today use some type of baggage handling system to transport checked luggage from ticket counters to a location where luggage can then be loaded directly onto an airplane. These systems have grown to become quite complex as they are required to meet a number of other demands aside from that of just relocating luggage from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, including;

  • detecting bag jams,
  • luggage volume regulation,
  • load balancing,
  • bag counting,
  • bag tracking,
  • redirection of bags using the push or diversion method
  • automatic tag reading.

Since 9/11 most airports around the world also utilize additional screening methods including the use of CBIS – which sorts luggage based upon an assigned security status, once the luggage has passed through the Explosive Detection System (EDS) machines. In the US these standards are reviewed annually in line with the ever-emerging risk and changes in society.

As automation processes have improved and will continue to do so, many large airports now utilize technologies including using Destination-Coded-Vehicles (DCV) – these are unmanned carts, propelled using linear induction motors mounted to tracks which load and unload luggage without stopping, unlike a human.

Automatic scanners scan the labels affixed to luggage, while the conveyors equipped with numerous junction points are fitted with sorting machines to automatically route luggage to the gate. These systems represent a huge investment towards airport infrastructure in an industry where time is money, and delay has the potential to cause a knock-on effect costing the industry millions of dollars. More and more airlines and airports acknowledge the importance of such an investment. One airport, Denver International, has more than 30 kilometers (19 miles) of track containing more than 8 kilometers (5 miles) of conveyors using 4,000 DCV’s – Destination Coded Vehicles.

During check-in, an agent will search for your itinerary on the computer, then print out the boarding pass and a luggage tag, containing all flight information including a ten-digit barcode number. This is the unique number assigned to each piece of checked luggage. The first stop for luggage after the check in process is completed is through the automated bar scanning station, where an array of 360 degree scanners are mounted around the conveyor to collect the data on the affixed tag.

It’s is accurate around 90% of the time in its ability to find and collect the tag information. Any remaining bags - 10% are then re-routed to another conveyor where luggage tags are manually scanned. Once luggage has been scanned its then able to be tracked to any location throughout the baggage facility. Each bag is routed to its appropriate designation, using the network of conveyor belt systems.


Luggage heading out on international flights are directed to areas for x-ray and other security measures. As luggage travels through the network of conveyors, they are routed through junction points at which time they pass through a pusher, which lets the luggage pass through, or pushes it onto another conveyor. Luggage may travel through hundreds of pushers during its journey to the gate where the plane is waiting.

Much like a highway off ramp, luggage is selected to exit the conveyor at the correct gate directly onto the DCV’s, which are favored by airports where passengers are able to quickly reach their assigned gate. A DCV can travel up to 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers) which is up to 5 times faster than the conveyor. Baggage handlers load the bags onto carts (sometimes special containers), which are then loaded manually into the hold of the plane.

Luggage which will transfer after the flight has landed are placed into separate areas than the bags destined for the baggage claim area on landing. Luggage which is transferred are again loaded onto conveyors, where they again travel through scanning stations, then routed onward using the DCV track.

The DCV then transports luggage to the correct gate, where they are unloaded and reloaded into the hold of the plane by the baggage handlers. Luggage destined for the baggage claim area are loaded into carts and loaded onto the baggage carousel for collection.

International Flights

Whenever a passenger flies internationally there are requirements to pass through immigration, customs and a number of security processes prior to departure. It's important for passengers to allow plenty of time to be processed as in these times of heightened security awareness, waiting lines (and times) can be both long and slow.

All luggage will be x-rayed, and bags searched during this process. When packing for a trip, ensure to check the luggage weight limits imposed by each airline in which you intend on traveling with. Additionally, passengers should familiarize themselves as to which items are classified as dangerous goods and prohibited items for travel.

Transferring - Connecting Flights

Passengers connecting with another flight to an onward destination, are ‘transferring’. If a passenger has been 'through-checked' they will have a boarding pass for your onward flight, meaning their luggage will be tagged through to their final destination.

On arrival, first check the departure boards then proceed directly to the new departure gate. If a passenger has not been 'through-checked' they will need to proceed to the transfer desk in the departure area where they will receive a seat allocation and boarding pass for the next flight.

Transferring - Non Connecting Flights

Passengers transferring from an international flight to a domestic flight or a non-partnered international flight, may need to clear customs and immigration then collect their luggage prior to proceeding to the domestic terminal, or the check-in area of the next international airline flying the next leg.

Some International airports have domestic transfer desks allowing passengers to check their bags in for a domestic flight before proceeding to the domestic terminal. Others may not.

Sandra Hawkins

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