By Karen Wilkinson

Triplicate staff writer

The first time Denise LaFave's luggage was misplaced when she flew from Ontario to Arcata, she wasn't too peeved.

After all, she had boarded four planes at four airports, and andquot;any one of those stops could have lost it,andquot; she said. andquot;I thought, let's give them a break.andquot;

The second time, when she flew from Southern California to Crescent City in 2005 to see her daughter and son-in-law for Christmas, she got andquot;a little ticked off.andquot;

But the third time, when LaFave traveled with her 70-year-old mother and both their belongings didn't show up at the Del Norte County Airport baggage claim, she didn't care, andquot;because it's normal.andquot;

andquot;I'm thinking it's more because of the amount of transfers,andquot; said LaFave, who took three flights to reach her final destination.

LaFave is one of thousands who've landed after flying to or from local airports only to learn their luggage was andquot;mishandledandquot; somewhere between their departure and final destination.

Lost, delayed, damaged or pilfered baggage has risen nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's latest report.

The 20 largest air carriers in the country averaged 7.51 reported cases of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers in October 2006, the latest data available.

That's up from the 4.96 figure reported the year before and the 6.5 figure reported in July 2006.

And SkyWest Airlines, the only commercial airline to fly out of Crescent City and one of the main airlines that flies in and out of Arcata and Medford, has jumped significantly in terms of mishandled baggage.

SkyWest ranked 15th worst of the top 20 main airlines, with 10.74 reported cases per 1,000 passengers in October 2006. The previous October, the airline reported 6.89 cases per 1,000.

Horizon Air spokeswoman Jen Boyer said the reports aren't an entirely accurate picture, as the last airline on a traveler's trip makes the report, even if a different airline was responsible.

andquot;It's very misleading,andquot; Boyer said.

Many factors result in these frustrating occurrences, said SkyWest spokeswoman Marissa Snow, including aircrafts' weight limits, passengers arriving late to airports and shorter connection times between flights.

andquot;To make sure we meet those safety guidelines, we may detain a (bag) for one flight,andquot; Snow said.

And to ensure enough time is available to check luggage, to go through security and to board the plane, andquot;getting to the airport in a timely fashion is your first priority,andquot; Snow said.

Though some passengers lag, they aren't the only ones who contribute to lost luggage.

SkyWest's partner companies United Express and Delta Airlines started tightening connection times in January 2006, leaving less leeway for bag transfers, leading to a higher likelihood of delayed luggage.

andquot;We don't have as much padding in our schedules,andquot; Snow said, though she didn't say the average time that's been shaved off between flights.

Also, more travelers seem to be checking bags, said Boyer, after the Transportation Security Administration in August banned all liquid and gels from one's carry-on.

Although the TSA eased its restrictions in September to allow some liquids on board, andquot;more and more people are checking bags because they want to pack liquids and gels,andquot; Boyer said.

The risks at smaller airports, however, appear to be less than those that are larger and therefore busier.

andquot;I would think your bags get more personal care here because it's not automated, it's handled one by one,andquot; Del Norte County Airport Manager Jim Bernard said.

In October, zero andquot;mishandledandquot; bags were reported at the Del Norte County Airport, Snow said.

andquot;It's a leap of faith when you check your bag over the counter, you're assuming it will be in the baggage carousel at the end,andquot; Bernard said. andquot;(But) they handle millions of pieces of baggage you can imagine the room for error there.andquot;

Though that room for error seems to have an affinity for LaFave during her travels to the other end of the state, she won't give up flying.

andquot;I'm not going to let it keep me from seeing my family,andquot; she said.

Next time, LaFave said, she'll be sure to pack her humor, andquot;because I now know it's going to happen.andquot;


Tips to avoid losing your luggage

?Pack only what you need. Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport spokeswoman Kim Stearns says andquot;if you can minimize what you're taking, that will eliminate the need to keep track of multiple itemsandquot; and lessen the risk that your luggage will get lost somewhere along the way.

?Label luggage with due diligence. Don't label the outside of your suitcase but also the inside, as tags can be ripped off. And cut off those old tags. andquot;I've seen people throw bags up to be checked with tags of an airline that is no longer in business,andquot; said Horizon Air spokeswoman Jen Boyer.

?Arrive at airport early. Security screening oftentimes is the longest part of the check-in process. andquot;I think sometimes people try to delay until the last possible moment to get to the airport,andquot; Stearns said. andquot;But it's never going to be what it was prior to 9-11.andquot;

?Keep essentials in carry-on. Keep medications, necessary personal hygiene items and other essentials in your carry-on, just in case a suitcase is mishandled, SkyWest spokeswoman Marissa Snow said.

?When possible, don't check a bag. If it's just a short trip and your belongings can fit into a carry-on, don't check a bag, Snow said.