What Happens to Luggage After A Plane Crash?

Picture this: you’re flying back from a holiday, but things don’t quite go to plan when your plane skids off the runway and into an adjacent field. After the Captain’s “easy victor” command, the Cabin Crew springs into action: opening doors, shouting commands, and inflating slides. However, some passengers are holding up the line and wasting precious time by opening overhead lockers or taking their bags with them. They’re worried about what might happen to their belongings because they don’t know what will happen to their suitcase after the crash. If you read on, you will!

A Hong Kong Airlines A330 being loaded © James Shliu
A Hong Kong Airlines A330 being loaded © James Shliu

First of all, let’s state the obvious. It is important to note that the amount of baggage that can be recovered depends on the severity and extent of the crash. If the crash involves a high-velocity impact, where there’s a large fire and explosion, you or your baggage likely won’t survive. So, after that has been ruled out, we look at fatal crashes, but where the aircraft is still largely intact, and simple runway excursion. According to statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the odds of your survival once the aircraft hits the ground is 95%. 

Luggage Recovery After A Plane Crash

After an incident, fatal or not, an investigation will take place to determine the cause of what happened. Once the investigation is over, the airline is responsible for returning passengers’ belongings, not the authority investigating the incident. Typically, airlines hire third-party agencies to clean the belongings of passengers. This is because airliner wreckage is generally considered a biohazard site, depending on the circumstances. For example, USAir Flight 427 was considered a biohazard by the NTSB due to the fragmented body parts caused by the impact.

Baggage from the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 © Madgy Saaman
Baggage from the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 © Madgy Saaman


Once the luggage has been recovered and cleaned, it is delivered to the passengers and their families. However, if the passenger has perished in the crash, the baggage is given to the passenger’s next of kin. If ownership of baggage is unclear, airlines will usually send photos to passengers so that possessions can be identified and collected.

US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson river after a dual engine failure © Bebeto Matthews
US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River after a dual engine failure © Bebeto Matthews.

On US Airways flight 1549- the “Miracle on the Hudson”, after the plane was recovered from the river, US Airways hired Global-BMS to retrieve, sort, clean, and restore more than 30,000 passengers’ items. US Airways also gave passengers a $5000 USD check.

What Happens If The Airline Can’t Find Your Bag?

What happens if the luggage has been destroyed and damaged beyond repair? In most instances, according to The Consumerist (2009), passengers fill out a claim form within 45 days of the incident and can be compensated up to $3,300 USD worth of their lost luggage. However, some airlines do not compensate for certain items, such as money, documents, jewellery, antiques, among others. 

So. Now you know what happens to your bags if the flight you’re travelling on doesn’t go to plan. It is also important to note that plane crashes are very rare. In fact, statistics estimate that the chances of your aircraft going down due to an emergency is 1 in 11 million! 

If you find yourself in an evacuation situation, remember to listen to the cabin crew as they are there for your safety, and leave all luggage behind, as these can damage and tear the slide and obstruct other passengers’ evacuation. If you enjoyed this article, check out more on our website.

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