The affair of my bags: love, loss and general tumult (cont.)

The last flight of the chain of flights necessary to get me home was from Sydney to Auckland, which ended up being delayed by 2 hours due to a late detected flaw in the plane’s cockpit windows. After getting through passport control whereby there was one immigration official taking care of the kiwi contigent versus the four taking care of the visitors (and there were more kiwis than visitors on this flight), I happily made my way over to the luggage carousel, loving the fact that I only had one bag to pick up and then I was outta there!

Hmmm……… hmmm…..

You know….. I have a feeling it’s not going to come…..

Mmm………………………………………………..

Yeah…..

Suddenly bag after bag is flying off the carousel, and the crowd around it is thinning out drastically as clumps of people at a time make their long-anticipated escape.

And I’m standing there all alone. In my now blatantly lame strategically-chosen luggage-lifting spot. Peering down the conveyer belt as if actively looking for my bag on this empty stretch of black ribbon would be any more effective than chucking the occasional glance from thirty feet away.

So I made my way to baggage services, where a nice woman informed me that it seemed that my bag was still at Heathrow… *cue jaw dropping in Susan’s mind –> “It’s still on the other side of the world?!? It’s still only completed 1 hour and 20 minutes of my 25 hour journey?!?”*

Okay, it’s late at night, I’ve just completed 25 hours of flying and around 16 hours of waiting around in airports; my mum has been waiting for me in the arrivals hall for way too long already; and I’m sure this thing happens often enough and that it’s essentially straightforward to get the bags here soon. There’s nothing more to it than tags and barcodes and sending bags down the right streams is there? So someone made a mistake or the airline decided to put my bag on the next plane, there are so many flights going on everywhere at every hour these days that it can’t be too long until my bag catches up.

The woman confidently assured me that the bag would arrive in two days time, and as per my request, would be sent down to Christchurch where I was heading.

A day later I got a call from the same woman to tell me that my bag was at that point in Sydney but wouldn’t arrive in Auckland the day she had said it would because Sydney Airport had just experienced a power failure. Our flight to Christchurch was at lunchtime the day after the next, and on hearing this the woman told me that my bag should be at the airport waiting for me by then.

It wasn’t. What was waiting for me was the breezy response of the baggage staff at Christchurch airport of “Well it’s still in Sydney, but it should arrive by tomorrow. There’s a flight coming in tonight! We have your number right?”

Later on my mum discovered that while we were on our flight to Christchurch Auckland baggage services had called and left a message on her mobile twice within the space of a few minutes. The message? No one will ever know. The man’s voice was barely audible (I had to stuff the phone into my ear, plug up the other one and scrunch up my face in order to make sense of his sounds) and when I did decipher it, found out his message got no further than “Hi, this is Auckland airport baggage services, regarding your luggage…….” before cutting off. The same thing happened both times, yet they weren’t duplicate messages.

The next day it turned out that yet again, my bag didn’t want to make the dreams of the airport staff come true. Curiously enough while I wanted simple facts and contact information for people who had a better chance of confirming where my bag was and what was going on, the airport staff preferred their wildly hopeful predictions “It should be here tomorrow!” and their reassurances sturdy as soggy paper “Yeah we’ve sent messages to Sydney. We’ll send them some more messages. And keep sending them messages. Though they’re not responding to our messages.”

I didn’t need or want a hollow promise. If it’s not based on real information then don’t tell me what is going to happen. It’s like telling me of course I’ll be able to ride a pegasus and interview the easter bunny to find out how he managed to hijack Christianity to get into the chocolate business. Earth to people who are doing their jobs: TRUTH, TRUTH, TRUTH! REALITY! TRUTH!

After a few days of calling up the airport (actually, of calling up all three airports: Christchurch, Auckland and Sydney) I decided that I needed to physically make a showing in order to get something more than easy fob-offs and various automated machines that never seem to be partnered with a human who could have called me back/taken my call in the first place.

I went in and talked to a man who finally attempted some detective work for me. My file was “suspended”, he said, which though sounds bad is a good thing because it usually means that the bag is on its way. He left to check through the luggage room in case my bag had been sent through without prior notice. Nope, not there. He looked through the pages on his screen again. It is how you described it? It’s definitely a large green rucksack? Yes. Yes it is exactly how I described it the first time. Hmmm… he scrolled and scrolled, went back and forth between pages. Tried new things. Then made the fatal error of telling me that he couldn’t actually see a bag of my description as being present in Sydney airport.

Cue the point when thin thread of reasonableness and sanity is broken and lost to the wind. “SO…………. my bag might not even be in Sydney like you guys have been telling me all along? It might STILL be in Heathrow? Does anyone ACTUALLY KNOW where it is??? HOW DOES NO ONE KNOW????? AND HOW COME I CAN NEVER REACH ANYONE ANYWHERE TO FIND OUT??? I LEFT A MESSAGE ON YOUR ANSWERING MACHINE YESTERDAY AND YOU NEVER CALLED ME BACK!!!”

At this point man sobers up considerably and realises that not taking me seriously and not taking care in what he does is to his detriment. He got me to wait some more as he checked through again and told me that he was pretty sure it was in Sydney because it had definitely been on a plane from London to Sydney. He then explained to me that British Airways (the airline I had used) used to use Qantas to handle their baggage in Sydney, but at some stage changed to a separate ground baggage carrying company called Menzies. I hadn’t heard of Menzies before but that’s to the advantage of both Menzies and British Airways because from what the airport man told me, they have a very poor reputation for baggage handling. They’re notoriously slow and inefficient, and it can take days and days for them to sort through messes, he said.

Great. Now this fact itself doesn’t exactly please me but the honesty and insight into the realities of how airlines operate and can make bad business choices like anyone else made me feel a whole lot better. Now I could actually put some faith into the idea that my bag was in Sydney, and that even if it was M.I.A. (missing in action) there was a plausible explanation for why no one had any answers and details. People really were playing the avoidance game because there was no good explanation – there was only incompetence, which is not something anyone wants to broadcast to their clients.

The man’s next move then was to look up the number for Menzies and place the call… which of course went unanswered. At this point I knew he had done about as much as he could do from his position and therefore asked him if he knew there was someone at British Airways that I could get in touch with, after all the accountability should lie primarily at their feet. He replied that I wasn’t going to be able to get anything out of them, that they would say that there’s nothing they could do and that it was out of their hands.

Remember this little eye-opening fact folks. The airline you pay to carry you and your luggage across the world…. do not need to know how they are going to get your bags from A to B, and they certainly do not need to be able to answer your questions about the process. Or maybe I need to rethink that statement a bit…. is that “the airline, any airline, you pay” or “the airline called British Airways”?

I found this ludicrous and stated so. Then my mum, who had been standing back while I was carrying out my line of inquiry joined in with one of the smartest and coolest interjections I have heard all year: “But they can’t contract out of their liability, can they?” To which the airport man had to plainly admit “No, they can’t.”

Although I no longer had any query left with airport man, I felt compelled to outline my argument clearly to him so that he could get a better understanding of why this actually was a real problem:

Perhaps to most travellers it seems like magic, how bags turned invisible manage to make it through all those same flights that you do (that you have to be vigilant about keeping up with – right time, right gate, right terminal) to finally pop up in front you at your final destination. Given the improbability of this process working when such distances, such time adjustments, and such a great volume of luggage is involved, maybe a regular traveller would mutely accept that their lost bag was simply “somewhere out there”; and maybe they would cheerfully wait for the aviation gods to finish having their fun and leave the bag on their doorstep.

But to me, this is a system. This is about a business, or a set of businesses working together. There are steps and checkpoints all throughout this process that ensure that the bag a) is moving in the right direction and b) can be identified as being in a particular location at any given point in time. This is not magic. The bag is a discrete object, and it is sitting there somewhere in a discrete location in the airport unless someone has stolen it. The information about where it is and why it is there does exist somewhere.

This is where I stopped with the airport man. But I’ll continue on a little more here.

The big, fundamental point here is that British Airways is a business. It provides a service to clients in return for money. If it wants to do well – attract more clients and make more money – it needs to be providing a good service. And if on occasion its service does not run well, it should be doing its utmost to respond to clients’ concerns and keep them informed on what they can expect.

I don’t care how big it is or how many other companies it works with. A business is a business, and if they want me to contribute to their revenue and keep up their good name, they actually have to deliver.

I just wanted to know what was going on. I wasn’t demanding “GIMME BAG NOW! NOW! Closing my eyes… and if I don’t see it gimme’d when I open them up in 5 seconds I’m going to be like a tornado in your office!!” I just wanted to know where the situation stood so that I wouldn’t have to spend every day checking up on them myself, waiting and wondering, “Will it be today?”

That routine continued after my outing to the airport however. Everyday, once a day, I would make my phonecall to the airport to try and find out whether my bag had regained physical form yet.

—-a bit more to come—-

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