Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lost In Transit

This morning I was reading the free newspaper(and I use the term loosely, but you'd have to be familiar with the thing to know what I mean) AM New York, and saw a blurb about missing baggage at the airport, and how to reduce the time factor in the return of the prodigal duffels.... The article said that in August of this year, passengers filed 437,141 reports on mishandled baggage. Or 7.55% per 1,000 passengers. The "good news" is that the number is down, from 8.10 per 1,000 for the same month last year....

Of course I recalled(how could I forget!?) the debacles that have been my lost bags over the years. But particularly irking have been the ones since I started climbing(and carrying attractive-to-thieves gear, I'm assuming).

On my very first excursion where I was responsible for the cooking gear, my brand new, never been used, Brinkman two-burner stove was removed from my checked bag. When I went to make dinner - and we were in a wilderness area miles form even the nearest small town - rummaged to the bottom of the bag, and there was no stove.

I distinctly remembered placing it in the bag, along with most of the other items, because I fit things together like I was completing a puzzle, adding the extra component of weight restriction to the equation. I could see it with my mind's eye. It did not make me happy to hear my partner bitching that I'd friggin' forgot the stove.....

Then I noticed something. There, upon the top of the bag's contents, sat a rectangle of paper. A notice from the Department of Homeland Security. It said my bag had been randomly chosen to be inspected. It also said that if any items had been removed during the inspection, they had been replaced. I could rest assured of that fact, because if they hadn't been replaced, it would have been because I'd have been pulled from the flight and taken into questioning about the confiscated item.

The notice gave me a phone number to call if I had an issue.....But when I went to make that call, the run-around I endured was an engineering masterpiece. As designed, I eventually gave up, never receiving so much as an acknowledgment I was attempting to deal with a problem, much less compensation for or return of the stolen goods.

Another time, my entire bag went AWOL, never to be seen again. This time I don't think it was the contents the person was after, but a disgruntled skycap. I unfortunately had not remembered to have cash for a tip, and only had twenties in my wallet. I thought it would be stupid and irritating to ask for change(especially if he didn't have it), and the better way was to do nothing. A big mistake.

That bag simply vanished, and when I looked for it at my destination the baggage claim personnel were of stalwart resistance. They had the system down. Of course, I filled out the paperwork. They insisted the bag would most likely show up on the next flight, or soon thereafter.

But it didn't. And when I would call the toll-free number to check status, all I could get was "We have no information on this item. please check back in a few hours."

This went on for a day and a half, and since the luggage contained ALL my camping gear(except the stove, which my travel mate supplied....), we could not head off to our destination.

Finally I went back to the airport, to talk to someone in person. Alas, the system is not set up for that. And all I received was surliness. yet, the phone number I'd been given had no option whatsoever, except to hear the repeated "no information, check later." Even calling the various numbers for the airline were useless, as there was simply no way to reach a human. The one option for lost baggage did politely explain(in a recorded message) that it was the "baggage handlers" who were responsible, and that they were not affiliated with the airport, who was not liable.

Plenty of ageda later, I realized that my bag was not coming, nor would it ever arrive. There was nothing to be done but to go to Walmart and buy a shirt to replace the one on my back, a few pairs of panties and some cookware, and get on with my climbing trip.

I was, of course, furious, but the airlines are used to it. They must just go to their happy place whenever a customer finds a chink in the electronic armor and they are actually forced to endure some form of complaint. The most I could get was to be told to fill out a form describing in minute detail what the bag looked like and the exact contents. This would be entered into a system.

Apparently, if I am to believe what I was told, there is a sort of morgue for unclaimed luggage, and that was probably where mine had ended up. Hundreds of bags, warehoused - somewhere - with their person left waiting for the hookup that will never come......

You can bet I made the most of my compensation claim. After all, my entire climbing wardrobe had been lost, as well as all my camp supplies(except the stove which had not yet been replaced). I will admit that Delta(carrier in question) did not give me any problems with the claim, although part of it entails advising if one has ever made a claim for lost luggage before, and the details of the claim(date/airline, etc.). I can't help buy believe that if I ever make another claim, it will be flagged as suspect.

And so - I have come up with some ideas to minimize the trauma of lost/delayed luggage. Since the local climbing season will soon be over for many of us here in the northeast(and Ice is not an attractive/viable alternative), we will be loading up and flying out often enough in the upcoming months.

The article I mentioned at this post's beginning did little more than suggest being expedient about going to the baggage claims office as soon as you see your luggage hasn't come off the carousel, and being able to accurately describe the bag's appearance. But little more. What good will that do? When you are on a climbing trip, perhaps without the funds to replace lost gear immediately?

Offense is the best defense, and that's applies throughout life, not just in football. Here's my list of offensive tactics, when it comes to flying with climbing/camping gear. If you have a trick or tip to add - feel free to leave it in the comment section below. I'm off for Joshua Tree in a week, and I can use all the help I can get!

- Write your name and cel phone number in LARGE print on a sheet of paper or cardboard, and place it atop your bag's contents in the main compartment. If your outer tag has come off, this may at least get the bag returned to you....some day.

It goes without saying to have the outer tags as well. But make sure the information is legible, and the tag securely attached.

- When you arrive at your destination, do a quick bag check BEFORE leaving the airport carousel area. I always do this now, and you can bet the first item I look for is my stove! If something is "missing," time is of the essence.

No - I don't mean in the hopes you can get the airline/baggage people to fess up and hand it over. Face it - your goods have been stolen.(At JFK last week, a ring of baggage handlers was arrested in a long term operation as assisting drug smugglers in the import/export business. Not all who work in this field are criminals, of course. But it's no secret that there's an underground market for stolen goods and some handlers participate.

The crucial timing I refer to is the trip you are on. Most of us leave the airport and it's environs and high-tail it away from the metropolitan area. We gas up with provisions and go! So, if you find your (whatever) has left the premises, at least you have more options about replacing it, whereas once you're ten miles into the backcountry, your choice are pretty much limited to going without.

- DON'T PUT irreplaceable items in checked baggage! I carry on my harness, shoes, and climbing gear, including guidebooks. And my camera. I do check my rope, as I don't know if security would allow it on the plane.

I know someone who has successfully carried rope on, but I am guessing it's not a gimme, and if worse comes to worst, you can probably climb on someone else's rope if you are desperate. But, by the time you're headed through the carry-on checkpoint, you and your checked bags have parted ways long ago. To get that bag out of the system to add the item, you will consume time that may not be available before your flight departs. The airlines do not care. You will have the option of missing your flight or throwing away the item. They will not be able to offer an alternative.

One benefit of carrying on my rack is that it takes some of the weight off my load! What I mean is that, instead of being part of the 50 lbs. Allowed in a checked bag, the gear goes on for free. Carry on bags are not weighed; they are restricted by size(well, maybe they do go by weight too, but I've never had my carry on weighed. It just has to fit in a little cube near the gate).

So, I use a soft duffel for my gear(rack, harness, shoes, guidebooks) and other heavy items. As long as the thing isn't stuffed so well that it can't "mold" to a cobe-shaped facsimile, there's no problem. I would swear that my carry-on has often weighed more than my checked bags.....

And don't put items in your carry-on that have potential for confiscation! My last flight, it hadn't occurred to me that my suntan lotion was more than the 4 oz allowed on planes. They threw it in the trash in front of me. A $35 bottle of Origins. Not only that, but they took my toothpaste, too. It was down to the last eight of the tube - just enough to get me through the trip. But....the original size was more than 4 oz, and that, I was told, was what they went by.

- Tip the skycap, if you use them. If you don't want to do that, go to the check in counter inside. Tips may supposedly be optional here in the US, but just try stiffing a waitperson or a cab driver, and you'll quickly see that is not the case. Though I don't doubt skycaps are used to not receiving the suggested dollar a bag, they also have the power to ruin your trip. A misdirected bag, and a quick snap of the id tag, and your bag will wind up at the luggage morgue.

- Be courteous to those who handle your bags. They have a sucky job. Sure, it's their choice,certainly some people would say. I'm not here to get into arguments about socio-economics; I'm here to tell you that it's not unreasonable that some people may not be the happiest with their lot in life. Perhaps, for whatever reasons, they cannot see themselves ever being able to afford the vacation you're about to embark on. Perhaps they have a jerk for a boss, but a family at home that depend on them, and cannot quit. Maybe you remind them of that jerky boss, talking on your cel phone instead of interacting with this person left holding the bags.... That can be annoying. Aggravating even. And even infuriating, to someone who feels unappreciated....

Remember that these people are people, and that they are doing a service for you. Everyone likes to be appreciated. Unplug the Ipod, close your damned phone for christ's sake(I hate cel phone blabbers, in case you haven't guessed), and look the person in the eye while you're there. Don't be a jerk, and thank them for handling your bags, with words as well as a cash tip. They'll feel better, and so will you.

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