Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day + Wessen Gepäck Ist Dieses?

To all the readers who are fathers, grandfathers or daddies of any sort, or mentors and guides who serve in a fatherly role, Happy Fathers Day!


One of the things I periodically heard growing up was not to assume that everything was okay because it appeared on the surface to follow your usual routine. If things were going too smoothly, perhaps check them out. This bit of advice would have come in handy yesterday when I flew back home to New Jersey from Chicago had I thought about it. But I didn't, and so I had one of those adventures that are, from what I can tell online and friends' anecdotes, not so uncommon. Though the outcome was fine, it could have turned out very badly. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Here's how it went down: on Saturday morning I headed to O'Hare, and go there without a problem. I had already printed out my boarding pass, but since I realized I had too many bags to carry on the plane, decided I would check one. It turned out I had to check two. The second, I learned from the Continental check-in rep assisting me, would cost an addition $25. Perhaps Continental had announced this new fee somewhere, but I'd missed any mention of it on their site, which I'd visited the night before, or in my correspondence with them, or in the news, so I pressed the check-in agent, who proceeded to tell me, somewhat defensively, about the other airlines' new, exorbitant fees, all of which I was aware of. Soon, I thought, we'll be charged to use the bathroom or get a drink of tepid water. He added that Continental had only just initiated this change for everyone who wasn't a gold or silver elite member (or, I assume, flying first or business class), which was real consolation, since I am neither. As we were having this conversation, I gave him the boarding pass I'd printed at home and my passport, and he rechecked me in, processing the additional fees and confirming my seat. He tagged both my bags and handed me back my new boarding pass, and I carried my two bags over to the x-ray machine, where I saw the first of them sent through the scanner. After I passed through the TSA screening area, I found my gate, eventually boarded the plane, and in a little under a two hours, arrived at Newark Liberty Airport. C called me and I told him I'd be picking up my bags in just a few minutes and would be outside in no time. So far so good.

As soon as I deplaned, I hurried through the circus of Terminal C, where Continental has moved their flights to and from Chicago, to the baggage carousel to collect my bags. My flight's luggage trove appeared fairly quickly, but my two bags weren't among them, so I waited and waited. Then the carousel stopped. I waited a few minutes for it to restart, but it remained still. A feeling of dread rose in my throat. There was a Continental employee standing nearby, so I asked him if all the bags had been sent forward, and if the carousel was finished for the flight, and he told me they had and it was. For a second I looked at the carousel as if I expected my bags to appear by magic, then I showed him my two baggage claim stickers, which were on my boarding pass envelope. He replied, "Well, you'll get your bags at your final destination. In Zurich." In Zurich? ZURICH? "But I'm not going to Zurich!" So I focused on the claim stickers, and sure enough, my two bags were tagged for a final destination of Z(U)R(IC)H, under the name of...someone else! This other person's and my last name are similar, same length, even phonetically close, though still distinct enough that it would have been hard to mistake them. Did I read the tags when the check-in agent put them on my bags? Did I look at the stickers on my boarding pass envelope? Have I regularly done so in years? The answer to all three questions is no.

Once the vision of my bags circling a carousel in Zurich faded, I rushed over to the baggage claim area, where I found a claims agent to whom I unloaded my problem. Although I could already hear "Wessen Gepäck ist dieses?" and "À qui ce bagage appartient-il?" and a vague outline of the Italian version of this question being barked out before the bags were consigned to a holding area before they were opened, emptied, and tossed into a trash bin, I remained calm. The agent, who keyed in my name and told me that I had no bags checked whatsoever, then listened to me repeat my story. This time he grasped what I was talking about, telling me that since the flight to Zurich didn't leave until the evening, they could pull the bags off the new plane (or from a holding area) and deliver them to me at the last, distant carousel, which was usually reserved for golf clubs, skis and other large cargo. He cautioned that he couldn't take care of my case right away, however, so he suggested I get back in line and he'd handle it when he was done. Almost as soon as I got back in line, another claims agent beside him called me to her desk, and she said she'd assist me.

We soon ran into a problem when I explained the issue to her. I described what happened, and told her that my bags had been tagged under this other person's name, and were being sent to Zurich. She looked at my boarding pass and the claims stickers, typed something into her computer, and replied that no bags turned up under my name, so she wasn't sure what we could do. I repeated that my bags were under this other person's name, and pointed to the two baggage claim stickers. She still appeared confused, looking again at my boarding pass and her screen, until the first claims agent explained to her, almost verbatim what I'd just uttered, about what had transpired, and then she got what was going on. She punched in the request to have my bags, tagged under this other person's name, sent to the distant carousel. At this point, I tried to call C, whom I figured was circling the airport and burning gas, but I couldn't get a signal, so I headed outside, finally reached him, and told him what was going on. He decided to park the car and then met me outside. We headed back over to the claims area, and I told him not to get upset, and he remained calm, as I had, while the first claims agent conversed with him about what was going on.

Then we walked over to the distant carousel. We waited. It didn't take long, but two bags appeared. The first was one of my bags, tagged "XBAG" under this other person's name. The second was...another bag, a black, rolling suitcase, also tagged under this other person's name. But it wasn't my suitcase! So C and I waited a bit more, until nothing appeared at the distant carousel except large plastic baskets. Curious to find out if perhaps more bags might be arriving, C and I asked the baggage attendant about the carousel and tried to explain what was going on, but we very well could have speaking German, or Arabic, or gibberish to him; he had no clue what we were talking about. At this point, C went to check the original carousel, and I decided to look at the luggage tags on my one bag and the other person's bag again closely. My one piece of luggage which had appeared had the same claim number as the sticker on my boarding pass sleeve, but the other person's bag had a different number. So now, I realized, was that all Continental had to do was deliver the right bag. I told C this when he got back, and then I headed back to the claims area. The first baggage claim agent was again busy, as was the second one, so I spoke with a third person. Her first response was that we could put in a claim, and since I lived in New Jersey (and Chicago), I could easily be contacted whenever my bag was found. Aware from friends who'd had luggage "misplaced" and spent entire trips washing out underwear and then returned home with the hope of finding their bags waiting for them only to learn they were irrevocably "lost" and that a battle with the airlines would ensue--that is to say, aware of how that narrative usually turned out, I gently dissuaded her from this route. I noted in the kindest and most helpful voice I could muster that since the Zurich flight didn't leave until the evening, my bag could still be pulled from wherever it was. At that point, the first claims agent noticed me, and I explained to him what was going on, so he said to the new person I was speaking with, "Mis-tag," which seemed to contextualize everything I'd just been saying in such a way that it was utterly clear. I pointed to the claim numbers and added that instead of pulling bags by this other person's name (because who knew how many bags he had going to Zurich), perhaps she might try the claim number itself. So she carefully typed it in, and said that if this worked, it would take about 20 minutes. She tried to call the baggage handlers to alert them, but no one picked up. No problem, though; if after a half my bag did not arrive, I could then return to the claims desk, and ask the first agent or someone else to call the baggage handlers again to see if they could make another effort. I was praying that things wouldn't come to this, but the phone non-pick up didn't augur well.

I headed back to the distant carousel, where C was sitting with all the bags, and I told him what had happened. We waited. Then, after about 20 minutes, the carousel began humming, turning, and there appeared, tumbling down the carousel's chute, my other bag. Tagged to this other person, of course, and formerly on its way to Zurich. I pulled it off the rolling track and almost wanted to hug it. As we headed out, I made a point of thanking the Continental baggage claim people for salvaging what had been a fairly routine trip until my discovery that my luggage (which included several irreplaceable times, including a few of the university's books) almost had an unexpected Swiss holiday.

As for the other person with the phonetically similar last name, I sincerely hope his bags did arrive where they were supposed to, especially that first bag that appeared on the distant carousel and then mysteriously disappeared during one of my trips to the baggage claim desk. ("Wessen Gepäck ist dieses?")

I now know that I will always look carefully at the checked baggage tags, both the ones the agents place on my bags and the claim stickers on my boarding pass sleeves. I also know that if I have to, I'll cram as much stuff into one bag to avoid the extra $25 fee, which I'm sure will be $50 or even $100 if oil prices keep rising. And I know that despite my firm, experiential and empirical knowledge that flying has become an ordeal since 9/11, and is never routine, I will not ever assume, especially if things are going really smoothly, that it is.


  1. John, that story just makes my stomach do flip flops. I travel alot on business and thankfully have never had any episodes worse than a delayed flight. But that is also in marked contrast to the wonderful experience I had a week ago riding the train between NYC and DC. Such a civilized way to travel.

  2. I never thought I'd be looking to the trains to replace air travel. But at least on the east coast, it's the better option.

    It's a shame how bad the (American) airlines have become and how far they've fallen.

    I must say though, in all our travels, this was a first. Who checks their baggage claim stubs? We do now!