Your bag's winding journey through Tampa International Airport

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The holidays are here, and that means packed airports, longer lines, and a lot more luggage moving around. The last thing you want is to deal with a lost bag. Luckily, there are teams of workers and high-tech computers at Tampa International Airport watching closely to make sure that doesn't happen.

When you check your luggage, take your boarding pass, and walk toward your gate, the long, winding journey has just begun for your bag.

Behind those curtains at the ticketing counter, into which luggage disappears, is a hidden world of computers and conveyor belts tasked with getting every single bag from A to B.

On average, Tampa International Airport handles around 600,000 to 650,000 bags a month, and up to 9 million in a year.

"We take the bags from the airlines at the ticket level, bring them down here through an automated system to the TSA screening area, where the TSA in their equipment will screen the bags for explosives," said Paul Ridgeway, director of maintenance for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

Oversized bags make their way to Edgar "Tito" Vargas.

"If they get stuck, jammed, trapped, I make sure that it gets to where it has to go," Vargas said.

Though he handles thousands of items a day, for him, it's personal. "I look at if it was family," Vargas said. "You want to make sure they have whatever they need for when they get there."

After bags are TSA-cleared, they're sent through a four-mile network of conveyor belts, with 2,000 motors, toward the airside terminal.

"There's about 70 servers that run this baggage system," said Ridgeway.


Any clogs in system are bad news.

"The pink indicates that the baggage system is stopped in that location because of a jam," Ridgeway said, pointing to a large computer screen that monitors the entire system.

Crews have minutes to get things moving again.

"If we delay the departure of an aircraft for that day, then it's delayed seemingly for the whole day," Ridgeway said. "They go into action, clear the jam, reset the overload, keep the system running. We could have hundreds of occurrences a day."

With all systems go, bags arrive at the airside sort facilities. The baggage ID plays a big role in that.

"It's a 10-digit number," explained Sam Ensell, maintenance manager of systems engineering. "The first digit explains what type of bag that it is. The next three explain the airline code. And, the remaining six is actually a serial number for this individual."


Bags are then loaded, one by one, into the belly of the plane, and away they go.

Baggage fees have led to a decrease in bags moving through TIA. But for the airlines, it's big money.

Last year, U.S. Airlines collected nearly $4.2 billion in fees, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. American Airlines brought in the most at $1.1 billion, followed by Delta and United.

Fee or no fee, that's no guarantee airlines won't occasionally misplace passengers' luggage.

"The quantity of baggage they're dealing with, it's bound to happen," said passenger Matthew Borges.

The good news is, the number of lost or delayed bags continues to drop. A report released by airline information technology company SITA found that less than six bags per 1,000 passengers were mishandled last year, worldwide. That's down 12.5 percent from the year before.

The bad news is, if you're making a connection, your chances of having a bag go M-I-A are higher. The report found 47 percent of mishandled bags were in the process of being transferred.

"We make a point not to lose bags here," Ridgeway said.

Tampa International doesn't host as many connecting flights as airports like Atlanta or Miami. So, your checked bags are more likely to meet you once you're on the ground.

"It never stresses me. I just assume it's there and if it's not there, it'll get there eventually," said passenger Martina Owen.

And, when it does, "I guess the best word I could say is, relief," said Borges.

So, next time you tag your bag and watch it disappear under the curtain, you not only know its destination, but also its journey.