“But why didn’t they load it on the flight?”
I was at Orly Airport, at the luggage desk for Vueling Airlines, or more properly speaking, at a desk that serviced 6 different airlines, one of which was Vueling, which if you don’t know, is one of the European ultra-low-cost carriers. I was beginning to understand a number of facts about lost luggage, particularly when that luggage is lost by a budget airline, though I had no idea how much longer it would be before I would see my trusty Samsonite.
The flight left early…
This all started after a few days away in Copenhagen, which I deeply regret not visiting sooner. The city, and the country in general, is the embodiment of hygge, which is a concept of enjoyment wrapped within characteristic Danish “unhurriedness” that all of us could use more of in our life. But on the way to the airport, I missed the train that would have gotten me there 2 hours early, and while the trains to the airport normally run every 20 minutes, the next one was delayed for a lengthy interval, so I took the one after that, which was 40 minutes after the train I originally wanted. When I arrived I also had to make my way to a different terminal, so as it was I was barely able to make the cutoff for luggage checkin. Unfortunately, the flight crew was anxious to pull back and we left 8 minutes before our scheduled departure, which would normally be great, except this is probably the primary reason that my bag did not make it onto the flight.
I have traveled a fair bit in my life, but I haven’t often experienced that unique dread that hits whenever you realize all the bags have been unloaded and your bag wasn’t among them. What made this more worrisome was that fewer than 72 hours from that moment, I was due to leave for America for a three week stay. While I waited in line I googled “Vueling lost luggage” and read through a bunch of horror stories, mostly around luggage getting lost around their hub in Barcelona. I was given a claim number and a website to log into to check the status.
What’s interesting is that while this website is ostensibly supposed to give you the most up-to-date information, you could always get the most current information by calling Vueling. But that wasn’t free…
The reason previous lost luggage situations felt so different for me is because they were almost always with a legacy carrier, like Air France or American Airlines, which have their own departments and teams that handle luggage and have at least a vague idea of where a bag is at any given moment. Budget carriers don’t have such teams. They outsource this function to private companies that handle luggage for many such airlines. Needless to say, the phone numbers I was given were busy day and night. But, I could call Vueling’s customer service number, for 15 cents per minute, to find out what was going on. Sometimes the wait was a few minutes, sometimes 30 minutes, but this was the only way for me to get any kind of information, as the website was always updated 24-48 hours after events occurred.
I called everyone I could – Vueling in Spain, as well as Menzies, the company that loaded the luggage in Denmark, as well as the Copenhagen and Orly airports, trying to get more information. Every time I made it through to someone who had access to my record they added notes to my case number, which I hoped at some point would allow me to underline the urgency of getting me this luggage before my trip to the States.
I eventually discovered that the luggage was not “lost,” merely delayed, and was there in Denmark; however Vueling only had one inbound flight to Paris per day, and though I landed on Saturday evening and immediately filed a claim, the luggage was not loaded onto the Sunday or even the Monday flight. I was told that luggage sometimes didn’t make it on because of weight restrictions. Practically speaking, that meant that luggage that is already delayed has less priority than luggage accompanying actual fliers. The airline would rather continue to upset someone who has already lost luggage than create a cascade of complaints by loading my luggage and bumping someone else’s, etc.
There Is No Phone Number
Showing my age, I constantly asked for a “telephone number” to the luggage “departments” of these airports, imagining a phone ringing somewhere in a vast warehouse space. But there was no number. The luggage tracing system called “World Tracer” has an internal messaging capability only. You can continue to update a file that baggage handlers can read, but there’s no way for you to know that they’ve read it, and there’s not an immediately available way for you to use another means to reach them.
This dance become more complicated the minute I left Europe because Vueling isn’t in the US, which meant they would need to hand the luggage to another carrier. The luggage did actually make it to Paris, about six hours after I left the continent. I was headed to an event in Southern Utah, which meant that if they got the luggage to Las Vegas, which was the airport I flew into and was flying out of, within six days, all would be well. But you can guess by now what happened.
As was the case before, when my luggage sat in Copenhagen for three days before being loaded onto a flight, this time it was two days before the bag made it to Newark, New Jersey. Vueling told me that it was scheduled to come to Las Vegas, but they couldn’t tell me who would bring it, so I had to do my own detective research and called the airport in Las Vegas and asked for the numbers of the three big US legacy carriers: American, United, and Delta. I guessed that the carrier would be United, as they hub out of there and were the most likely to have a direct flight to Las Vegas. After calling a few times and getting busy signals, I finally got through to someone and they read through all the notes.
“It says here that the bag was supposed to be turned over to us by British Airways yesterday and should have landed here last night. But we haven’t taken the bag from BA yet.”
“So you don’t have possession of the bag?”
“No sir, I’m sorry we don’t.”
Going to an internal place of zen, I thanked him and went about trying to find a telephone number for the British Airways luggage office in Newark. The number is not publicly available, but lest all this learning go to waste, it is +1-973-849-0562. I only found this out because the day before I was to take my flight out of Las Vegas to my next destination, they called me with a visible caller ID, ostensibly using the number I had on file in my claim.
“Mr. Heiner, it says here in our notes that you’re leaving for Kansas City tomorrow, is that true?”
“Yes,” I smiled. “What were you thinking?” I assumed they would be sending it via another airline.
“Can you give us an address that will accept a Fedex delivery? I think that makes the most sense at this point.”
I audibly breathed a sigh of relief and gave her just such an address in the KC area, and hung up the phone, almost in disbelief. She called back a few minutes later with a tracking number.
Patience and perspective
Several times during this process I realized that not only was there nothing I could do, but nothing the staff could do either. Lost luggage inhabits a strange universe in which hope is actually a strategy, and only the most tenacious people get answers, or know at any given time where their luggage actually is.
When the luggage arrived in Kansas City on Tuesday, a full eight days and thousands of miles from when I saw it last, I smiled in quiet relief. I had spent intervening days reading up on Quora and other sites that explained how luggage got delayed, how unlikely it was that the bag would be permanently lost, etc. That said, most bags are delivered within five days of being “lost” and I was at nearly double that number, though a continental change probably contributed to that.
Further, I realized that had I simply been at home in Paris, I would have gotten that bag just three days after it had been left in Denmark. It wasn’t the airline’s fault that I had chosen such a short interval between travel, nor that I had arrived a little late that day and that the flight had left a little early. Sometimes it’s just a combination of factors that makes the bag(s) miss a flight, and then continue to elude you over days.
I was grateful not to have permanently lost a trusty suitcase that had served me well over a decade, as well as some important and expensive items inside it. I remain grateful for all the people who helped get the luggage back to me, despite what my “why isn’t it here now?” desires might have been. I am most grateful to even have the first world problem of delayed luggage, as it implies being able to travel somewhere because of my own desires and on my own means.
I’ll be even more patient and understanding the next time this happens. That will serve you well if and when this happens to you too.