Can You Find Your Own Lost LTL Freight Shipment?

A recent phone call between myself and an LTL freight carrier:

Me: Hi, I’m trying to find this shipment that is missing and wondering if your terminal has searched it’s storage trailers for it?

Her: Okay, can you give me the pro# and a good description? Pictures if possible?

Me: No problem [description given & pictures sent]

— 5 minute hold —

Her: Oh! I have this! It’s on our storage trailer, we didn’t know what it was but it’s definitely it!

Me: That’s great! Can you send it out tonight?

You can find your lost freight if you know where to look. Here’s how…

How LTL Freight Works:

This is how LTL Freight carriers work

This is how LTL Freight carriers work

So how can your shipment can POOF! disappear all of a sudden? LTL shipments do not move in a straight line from point A to point B. They are processed through a system known as “hub and spoke” (pictured right) where there are often hundreds of “spoke” terminals at the end of the line (EOL). These local operations handle the pickups and deliveries for a specific area. This same daily operation happens at EOL’s all over the country and each night the shipments picked up are consolidated onto “outbound” trailers. Every day an “over the road” driver based near the closest hub brings trailers loaded with local freight out to the spoke, sleeps at a nearby hotel then picks up the outbound trailers and hauls them back to the hub for distribution. Trailers are unloaded at hubs and reloaded with other freight to the correct destination where they continue their journey.

So, where do shipments go missing?:

LTL freight shipments only have the opportunity to go missing when they are moved. Here are all the opportunities in order:

  1. Offload at local terminal.

  2. Offload at Hub

  3. Reload at hub

  4. Delivery location

Here is what can happen:

  1. Comes off the truck at the local terminal, set aside on the dock or (worse) in the storage trailer and left behind. 

  2. Offloaded at the hub but moved to the wrong area or put into another trailer.

  3. Reloaded into the wrong trailer at a hub.

  4. Delivered to the wrong customer

 In ¾ of these scenarios your shipments ends up at the incorrect spoke terminal. Often it arrives there “unmanifested” because the tracking system used by the freight carrier was told it went somewhere else. So the computer says it’s at point B but really it’s at point C. There can be hundreds or thousands of shipments moving through these terminals on a daily basis and the folks there likely have no idea what it is. We’ll get to strategies to prevent this in just a sec.

The Search:

Once the carrier realizes a shipment is missing (industry phrase is “All Short”) they start a search. This is designated to different people depending on which freight carrier you used but it’s almost always handled by the destination terminal’s “OS&D” person (short for Overages, Shortages & Damages). If something is lost, that’s the person who can help you find it. 

 Their first step is to contact the terminals the shipment “touched”. Any terminal that had contact with the shipment, especially if the shipment was unloaded and reloaded including the origin terminal. The second step is often putting out a “BOLO” (Be On the LookOut) for the shipment that goes out to all the terminals in the system. Lastly, they will make some more calls to likely terminals and then put out a final BOLO. And then, it’s time to file a claim.

“Bird-Dogging” Your Lost Freight

Bird-dog: a gundog trained to hunt or retrieve birds.

 What I’ve started doing is what I call “bird-dogging”. Instead of waiting around and hoping the freight carrier is working on finding the missing goods, I make the calls myself...and you should too. Out of the last 4 bird-dog attempts I’ve come back to the camp with a bird twice...that is to say I found the missing freight. That’s 50%! While I’m sure my record won’t stay in tact at that level, the hour or so invested in this (when it works) pays huge dividends! 

  • Our customers save a ton of time filling out claims forms (which they love to do)

  • They save a lot of time and money not having to re-make or purchase another shipment

  • Our customer’s customer is happy because they get their product

  • Even the freight company is happy because it’s one less unknown shipment off their dock.

 In the end, everyone wins. 

who do you call?

I have followed the carriers’ own formulas only since I am much more motivated and knowledgeable about that particular shipment, I have had better success.

  • Always start with the origin terminal’s OS&D the freight on a storage trailer? On my last bird-dog that was it, 5 minutes and we found the freight.

  • Next, call destination OS&D

  • Check the transit notes on the website, what terminals did it stop at? Google those numbers and call them next

  • Then, call customer service and ask them to read you all the terminals the shipment reloaded at and where was it last “manifested”. In other words, find the scene of the crime then call that terminal

  • When you get to the crime scene terminal, ask them what other terminals they loaded out to that night and call them.

 Before you go completely Nancy Drew on me, I would suggest only sinking about 1 hour into this. You should be able to cover all your terminals in that amount of time. Beyond that you are spinning your wheels.

Closing Argument

 Your best bet to prevent missing freight is proper labeling. Make sure there are no old labels on the pallet or crate and no old pro stickers! That one gets me every time. If you see your shipment stall in transit or move in a strange direction, don’t hesitate, just make a call and start asking questions. You might catch the problem before it develops into an All Short situation. If all else fails and the freight has vanished, file a claim and go through the process.

 If you would rather have someone else doing this for you and tracking down your lost puppies, well I would be honored! It is my mission to simplify freight. I make my clients’ businesses run smoother by heading off these issues in the background so they can focus on growing (and shipping more 😜). 

Can I setup your next shipment?