airline service cutbacks and the airport security delays are bad
enough. But what really maddens many business travelers is the
knowledge that security guards are pawing through their checked
bags, and airlines are increasingly acting as if a checked bag is
nothing more than another brick on their load.
And therein lies a business opportunity that a handful of
companies are hoping to seize. Promoting themselves essentially as
long-haul bellhops — one, in fact, calls itself Virtual Bellhop —
they show up at your house or office, take your bags and ship them
to the hotel or wherever else you will be staying, before you get
there. Then, at the end of your stay, they ship them back home.
The most pronounced impetus for having someone else handle your
bags, some leisure and business travelers say, came on Jan. 1, when
federal law required the inspection of all checked bags, and
inspectors began literally breaking into bags that were locked. Most
bags are inspected by machine, but more than 10 percent of the
billion-plus bags checked on airlines annually in the United States
are now being inspected by hand, and complaints of theft or careless
handling are rising.
"A lot of hands are going through that luggage now," said Eric
Mautner, founder and president of Need It Now Courier Service, a
delivery and specialty freight company that has a luggage shipping
service called LuggageFree. "That has created a significant
marketplace for us."
Mr. Mautner's company created LuggageFree two years ago at a time
of chronic air traffic delays and mounting customer dissatisfaction
about airline service in general, including baggage handling. Today,
while both the delays and the complaints have plunged along with
airline traffic, the tighter security has bolstered the incentive
for some travelers to have someone else take their bags.
A further indirect incentive has come from the sharply increased
use by airlines of smaller, cheaper-to-operate regional jets, which
have limited cargo space. According to the Federal Aviation
Administration, domestic airlines had over 900 regional jets in
service in 2002, compared with 496 in 2000. As fleets shrank and
cost-cutting measures tightened, airlines began imposing extra fees
on overweight bags.
The delivery services that have sprung up to siphon off the
bag-weary have been generally dependable, if occasionally late on
pickup or delivery, business travelers who have used them say. In
November, this reporter used Sports Express — a Colorado company
that expanded into personal luggage delivery after establishing a
market in shipping sports equipment like golf clubs and skis — to
send a 45-pound suitcase from a hotel in Salt Lake City to a
residence in New Jersey. The bag, shipped the morning of departure,
arrived as scheduled the morning after, at a cost of $87.
"Shipping the family luggage was a lifesaver," said Alan
Gallanty, a Manhattan lawyer who used LuggageFree to send four golf
bags and two big suitcases both ways on a trip with his wife and two
young children to Florida during a snowstorm this winter. "The
airport was an absolute madhouse, with people lined up out the doors
and into the slush" to check bags.
"We sailed right through," Mr. Gallanty said. "There was a cost,
of course, but it was worth it to feel human and not to have to deal
with all that stuff."
Mr. Gallanty said the service made sense for business trips as
well. "If you're able to travel without checked bags, and you use
e-ticket kiosks, you can cut out two hours at some airports," he
said. "That's a significant amount of time for the business
For obvious reasons, airlines do not have any objections to
competition for handling luggage. As airlines remove big planes on
some routes and replace them with the smaller jets, "any bag we
don't have to carry is a plus," one airline spokesman said.
Many airlines have begun charging extra fees of $25 to $80 for
checking overweight bags, and Joe Brancatelli, the publisher of the
online business-travel site Joe sentme.com, said the industry would
probably like to extend the practice one day to making a separate
charge for all bags, just as some already do for serving an onboard
meal. "I think the future of the airline business is totally à la
carte," Mr. Brancatelli said. "So there's obviously a niche for
companies that will pick up and deliver your bags."
Giant shipping companies like United
Parcel Service and FedEx
have long picked up and delivered boxes containing luggage, but the
niche companies began carving out their space within the last two
years. None claim to be making money at it so far, and none claim to
be handling more than 400 deliveries a month. But all of them say
business has picked up sharply in the last six months as travelers
tire of all the commotion at airport baggage check-in counters.
Having a bag shipped one way costs about $2 a pound, or $70 to
$80 for a typical large suitcase. The luggage service picks up the
bag at a customer's home or hotel, and delivery is usually made the
next day, using a variety of standard shipping services, including
For now, the high cost is limiting demand for the service to
affluent travelers or business travelers carrying expensive gear
that they do not want to entrust to airline baggage handling, said
Richard A. Altomare, the chief executive of Universal Express.
Universal Express, whose main business is supplying services to
8,000 private shipping companies in the United States, provides
personal-luggage shipping through its subsidiary, Virtual
Because most travelers balk at the cost of shipping a bag, Mr.
Altomare said, the key to wider growth is developing marketing
partnerships with airlines, hotels, casinos, cruise ship lines and
travel package companies so that door-to-door luggage shipping will
eventually be routinely offered as options for customers. Last year,
Virtual Bellhop announced several alliances, including one with Fairmont
Hotels and Resorts. Fairmont said that under the agreement, it
would offer discounts for luggage delivery to members of its
customer loyalty program.
"I look at these partnerships as a marketing edge for hotels,
casinos and cruise lines to offer this as an add-on service: `Come
to our casino, we'll not only comp you, we'll pick up your bags,' "
Mr. Altomare said.
Universal Express is struggling. Its shares, trading all this
year at about a penny, were recently rated "speculative" by an
Investrend Research analyst, Jeff Howlett. He said, nevertheless,
that there was real potential for a turnaround if the company
succeeded in recent product and marketing initiatives, developed a
domestic delivery system using interstate buses, and firmly
established brand recognition for its subsidiaries.
But for the luggage shipping division of the company to prosper,
Mr. Altomare said, monthly orders will have to increase from a few
hundred today to "thousands and thousands." And for that, he said,
reducing the price by creating promotional partnerships with hotels,
airlines and others is crucial. "I can talk to people like my
parents and say, `You should use this luggage service,' " he said.
"But they say, `Well, we're not going to pay $70 for a bag.' But $30
or $40? `Hey, now we're interested.' "