By David Koenig, AP Airlines Writer

DALLAS (AP) — With fewer flights and less luggage to deliver, airlines are doing a better job handling travelers' bags.

That recent good fortune has been put to the test during the holiday travel season, as planes have been packed with passengers and bags. There are some things you can do to reduce the risk of getting separated from your luggage, and the most important ones must be done long before you get to the airport.

Flying nonstop will improve your chances of getting to your destination with your bag. If you must make a connection, allow enough time to catch the second flight. Don't be one of those people dashing through the terminal.

"If they have to run, chances are their bags aren't going to make it," says Bryan Salzburg of travel Web site

One small blessing for connecting passengers: At least you will have already gone through security, which is taking longer at many airports because of new security rules after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest jet.

Airlines did a much better job of handling luggage this year than last year, according to the Transportation Department. The rate of complaints about lost, damaged, delayed or stolen bags was down 26% through October, compared with the same 10 months in 2008.

It helps that airlines are handling fewer bags, because traffic is down and passengers are trying to avoid fees on checked luggage. For the year ended Sept. 30, the number of checked bags on U.S. carriers fell 20% from the year before, to about 540 million, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Bags still get lost, and the same airlines tend to wind up at the bottom of government rankings for baggage handling, month after month.

Through October, passengers on American Eagle and Atlantic Southeast Airlines were four times more likely to have baggage problems than travelers on AirTran or Hawaiian Airlines.

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Eagle and ASA are regional carriers that often whisk passengers from smaller cities to the hub airports where they catch flights on the bigger airlines such as American and Delta.

Tim Smith, a spokesman for Eagle's parent, AMR Corp., said the relatively poor bag-handling record of regional airlines is due to the typical flight on such carriers — frequent short hops to busy hub airports, with many missed connections to bigger airlines.

Smith says Eagle recently installed new technology on baggage carts at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to improve bag handling. Carts used to ferry bags from the terminal to planes now have computer screens that direct crews to planes leaving first. American planned to install the system at Chicago's O'Hare Airport as well.

"We're encouraged by the improvement we've seen, but we're not where we want to be," Smith says.

Kate Modolo, a spokeswoman for Atlantic Southeast said the airline gets poor scores because 85% of its flights start, end or stop at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, the world's busiest airport. She said that Atlantic Southeast, which operates Delta Connection regional flights, is working with Delta to improve bag-handling there.

Besides taking nonstop flights when possible and allowing enough time if you must change planes, experts have other tips to help you avoid becoming a lost-bag victim — and to cope without your luggage, if it does disappear:

  • Make your bag easy to identify by tying a colored ribbon to it to prevent mix-ups at the airport baggage carousel.
  • Print an extra copy of your itinerary and put it in your bag. It will help airline personnel reunite you with your lost bag.
  • Keep medicines and valuables with you.
  • Throw a change of clothes — and anything else you'll need in the first 24 hours — in your carryon.

If the worst happens and the airline can't find your lost bag, federal regulations say the airlines must cover all expenses related to lost or delayed baggage up to $3,300 per passenger on domestic flights.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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