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This airport has never lost a bag. For one chief handler, it's all about respect

The Kansai International Airport boasts a remarkable record since it opened 30 years ago.
Tomohiro Ohsumi
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Getty Images
The Kansai International Airport boasts a remarkable record since it opened 30 years ago.

As the summer travel season begins, thousands of bags will go missing at airports all over the world. It's a given at this point. But not at one particular airport in Japan that makes a stunning claim: it has never lost a piece of luggage.

Kansai International Airport opened in September 1994, on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, and its records state it has maintained a perfect baggage streak since.

That's a lot better than the U.S. can claim, with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics finding domestic flights lose 3 million bags every year.

Kansai Airport serves the city of Osaka and welcomed nearly 14 million passengers last year. It's also no stranger to accolades, having won an international award for best baggage delivery eight times.

For Tsuyoshi Habuta, who oversees baggage operations for one of the handling companies at Kansai, the record is a shared milestone.

"It requires responsibility and teamwork, and as a result, when the aircraft leaves on time, there’s a great sense of achievement," he told NPR through an interpreter.

Habuta has been working at Kansai Airport for 17 years. He says there are multiple layers of checks to ensure luggage doesn't go missing and that his team has a precise system for arranging bags before a departing flight.

Yet if you’re looking for a rousing inside scoop on Kansai’s baggage operations, you likely won’t find one. The airport insists there isn’t a secret sauce.

“It would be the result of the daily efforts and careful work of everyone involved, including airlines and handling companies,” airport spokesperson Momoka Wakabayashi said in an email. “We apologize if this would be not a specific answer.”

Kansai Airport is expecting an influx of travelers next year.
Buddhika Weerasinghe / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Kansai Airport is expecting an influx of travelers next year.

For Habuta, the prospect of losing bags simply comes down to right and wrong. He says it should not happen because luggage is precious to passengers. And while travelers may not see him, he still feels a strong commitment to their wellbeing.

"It's not the kind of thing that's in the limelight. It's more like a backstage role," Habuta says about his job, adding that he has made it his mission to keep passengers coming back to the airport.

"We are working hard to study and learn more each day so that we can make the passenger happy. I really think this is the spirit of Japanese hospitality," he says.

A hospitality, he says, that is about thoroughness and an attention to detail.

One of those details occurs when arrival baggage is brought to the carousel. He says his team places each suitcase with the handle facing outward, so that passengers can more easily grab their bag.

Next year, Kansai Airport is expecting the number of travelers passing through to nearly triple — to 37 million people. Osaka will host the World Expo in 2025, and is expected to draw more than 20 million visitors.

Habuta appears unfazed by the potential influx of additional luggage, and what this means for the airport's clean record.

"We are expecting a lot of growth of passengers," he says. "We want the airport to be an exciting, active, vitalized place for everyone to come and use."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.