Correspondent Report: Lost Baggage Part 1 – where the fragile trust of checked baggage is broken and I struggle to accept it

RTC Correspondent JB of Capital One car rental fame, contributes this piece on lost luggage, he buys artwork that often cannot fit carry-on, so not comments from the “I never check bags” scolds. His story is both entertaining and extremely useful – we learn by what goes wrong as much as what goes right.
Recently the wife and I flew a United Award ticket from the US to Africa and back to South America.
I was on a South African airplane in Nairobi and I watched the ground crew wheel away 3 huge bins of luggage – not a good sign. I asked the flight attendant to check with the captain and confirm our bags were onboard – she did not get back to me and wouldn’t make eye contact the rest of the flight.
I wish I had pressed it more.
I had a bad feeling there was going to be a lot of missing luggage and angry people at the baggage carousel, so when I landed in Johannesburg, I located the lost baggage counter and kept an eye on the South African airways baggage helpers. They are the ones that grab bags and passengers that have to make flight connections (and our flight was 90 minutes late). A paltry few bags came out on the carousel and over half the plane was waiting for bags when the baggage carousel stopped. I made a run for the lost baggage desk. Within 60 seconds there were over 50 people in line behind me, and by people I mean irate mob. A few people tried to cut in line and the mob was yelling so loud, I had trouble hearing the agent 3 feet away from me. He gave me a lost baggage locator number and said he had no update on my baggage. My Americanized customer service conditioning was still in place so I felt some comfort that he would be handling things.
Details:
  1. No reimbursement until after 24 hours without my baggage! What?
  2. They would deliver it.
  3. I could check on the internet and/or call in for updates
  4. The baggage would likely be put on the earliest flight from Nairobi to Joburg which was a Kenyan Air flight.
I went home and called the next morning when I saw there was no update on the online system. The agent said the bags were not tagged in Nairobi “because there were so many” so there was no way to know what flight it was on. What? I realized then that the level of customer service was “you should be grateful if you see your bag again.” They gave me a direct line to baggage services and I started calling it at 2pm and called maybe 35 times that day and night. No answer.
checked all flights from Nairobi to Joburg for that day and saw South African only flew 1 daily. I was now in “trust no-one/don’t take no for an answer” mode so I figured the baggage would come in on SAA’s flight and would maybe be sorted through tomorrow. I had materials for a business meeting the next day so I resigned myself to spending the evening at the airport and got in the car.
The next mistake was not bringing my passport.
I arrived at the airport and was directed to a security area where they theoretically would let me go in to baggage claim and get my bag. I had my baggage claim ticket but no passport (they don’t take any other form of I.D). South African airline’s baggage service is located inside the secured international area so I went up to the ticketing area to see if they had another number for baggage services. A ticket agent there suggested I go to the domestic side baggage service desk which is not in a secured area. After talking to two people at domestic baggage (who tried to give me the same baggage desk number I had been calling all day) I almost gave up. They almost had me convinced that it was not possible for a SAA employee to bring me my bag. Something like “they would be accused of stealing and lose their job.” Very moving stuff. But then I thought, didn’t they say they were going to deliver it to me? I dug in my heals and told him that I was not leaving without my bag and wanted to talk to his supervisor. Finally, one of them took some initiative (when he saw that I was not going away) and called a supervisor on his cell phone in international baggage services.
This was the guy. He tried to tell me that the bags hadn’t arrived – I said the plane landed 20 minutes ago and they would be on the carousel in 10 minutes at the max. He said it would take 2.5 hours to sort them- I said I am sure it would but it would take him 5 minutes to pull mine from the carousel and walk it out to me. Actually, what I said was, “You know how you are going to deliver it to my hotel an hour from the airport? How about you just deliver it to me in the lobby of the airport instead. Something clicked for him and he said he wouldn’t make a promises – and my bag might not be on the plane anyway. He said he would call me in an hour. He called me in 10 minutes and I had my bag.
Lessons:
  • If you see your bags pulling away from the plane – get into it. Ask to see the Captain, get the other passengers into it.
  • Pack an extra set of clothes in the carry-on.
  • Bring your passport when you go to the airport.
  • If you think your bag is arriving at the airport – be there in person.
  • Don’t be an asshole but don’t take no.

Comments

  1. Very enlightening. I travel more in developed rather than developing countries. Do you think there are any elements of your experience that are more likely to reflect on where you were traveling to and from, or does this seem like it could have happened in a similar fashion anywhere in the world?

  2. @SgFm – RTC here, seems I recall a Las Vegas multi-day experience that had quite a few similarities. There are elements and problem solving that I think are universal and then each place adds its local spice.

  3. A very nice post, though I’d say we learn more by reading about what goes wrong than by reading about what goes right!

    It helps if you can get a direct number to the baggage claim office in the airport. Often times they won’t give you the number, but if you’re polite and tell the staff working the desk that it isn’t really their fault (which it isn’t) and that your wife wife really wants her own things etc., you’ll get it.

    Or that you want to call and commend the agent for being so calm and professional in the face of the angry mob (which is also a good way of getting the agent’s name!)

    Every one of those 50 people will be upset and taking it out on the rep, so be nice to them and they will help you to the extent they can.

    Another big difference is to read the reps body language and pay close attention to verbal cues. Has he/she been typing for 20 minutes and is now frowning? Or do they know that your bag is on the ground in Frankfurt? Outside the US, no doesn’t mean no, and yes doesn’t mean yes (that’s true within the US as well, but more so outside).

    Yes, to bring your passport when you go to the airport and always pack 1 days clothes in the carry-on, since you can usually get the toiletries in the hotel.

    I don’t know about going back to the airport though. Often they really do deliver it to your house via a courier, and attempting to find someone in the airport to help you once you’ve left can be hard.

    But glad it worked out!

  4. Had our one checked bag (with 8 bottles of sun screen) miss a very tight connection in Qatar last summer. We had another connection in Kuala Lumpur to a different airline (different ticket) too soon for the bag to catch up with us.

    The bag was received in KL, forwarded by air the next day to Denpasar, and delivered to our guesthouse in Ubud, an hour and a half from the airport, without commotion. Fantastic service.

  5. Just an FYI for everyone. Okoban stickers are another option for this problem plus they protect your stuff no matter where it gets lost, even non-airport situations. They allow someone who finds your lost stuff immediately contact you directly without exposing private information. I use them on almost everything I take when I travel after losing my passport in Rome one time. You can get them at mystufflostandfound.com

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