The lost luggage of the airport travel mess
In cases like these, our physical baggage becomes our emotional baggage.
A nation’s belongings, squeezed and chained and then entrusted to the delicate ballet of air travel, have been misplaced and orphaned this week. All those wrapped Christmas presents. All those cotton blend underwear. All the wrinkled, different, intimate objects we need, but not enough to hold our person.
In rectangular oceans across the country, luggage handles are clicked up, as if raising their hands to be claimed by frantic parents.
God, what a mess. Tens of thousands of flights were canceled last week due to apocalyptic weather and a human systems breakdown. As of Wednesday, there were more than 2,800 canceled flights within, in or out of the United States, according to FlightAware. Tuesday — with more travelers (2.16 million) passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints than on the same day in 2019 — there were more than 3,200 cancellations. It’s impossible to say how many bags were lost, even at the moment, but consider this: On a typical day, the TSA checks about 1.4 million checked bags.
On Sunday, Christmas Day, one of those bags belonged to Jazmin English, a 26-year-old paralegal from Old Bridge, N.J. Her evening United Airlines flight from Newark to Tampa was delayed three times, then canceled. She says she waited in line for customer service from 11.44pm on Sunday until 10am on Monday, only to be told the bag could not be tracked. She joined a throng of other travelers searching through piles of bags that airline workers were unloading from canceled flights. She waited another four hours at a baggage handling counter, only to be told that: She. Bag. it was. In. Tampa.
I said, ‘Sir, how can my luggage be in Tampa if I’m here? There’s no way you guys are sending an empty plane to Tampa with bags after being told all my flights are canceled,’ says English, who spent 26 hours without sleep at the airport before leaving.
“In general, I’m not an emotional person,” she says. “But after I finally got home on Monday night, I literally broke down. I had an anxiety attack. I was exhausted. It’s not like I was sitting around. I ran from terminal to terminal. I took the AirTrain maybe three times. I was literally depleted on every level.”
On Wednesday afternoon, her bag was still missing.
The vast majority of canceled flights on Tuesday belonged to Southwest Airlines, whose antiquated crew scheduling and baggage control software was responsible for the cascading delays and cancellations.
It was a dismal performance at an already stressful time, says a former senior executive at American Airlines, who spoke on condition of anonymity to criticize the industry and its passengers.
“In the holiday season, where you’ve got your presents, packed extra diapers and baby formula, and are bringing grandma’s special scarf for the family photo, the emotional aspect of not being with your luggage at this time is higher than any season other”, says the former manager. “And seeing those photos of lost luggage would give me a heart attack if I thought grandma’s scarf was in there somewhere. I think it will be weeks in some places before people get their luggage back.”
“And the people who checked their house keys and medicine? I want to say to the customer: You have to take some ownership of this, says the former manager.
The will of airline technology was exacerbated by the precision of iPhone technology. A family from Chattanooga, Tenn., went to Vail, Colo., for a ski vacation, but their goggles and gaiters didn’t. They knew exactly where the luggage was — at the baggage claim center at the Denver airport — because the father had tagged it with his iPhone. It appeared in its Find My app as a heart-eyed emoji plotted on an aerial map of the airport.
“I can see where our luggage is in the DEN, why can’t you hand it all over?” the father tweeted Wednesday.
“The team at DEN is working to get the bags where they belong as soon as possible,” American Airlines responded. “Thank you for your patience.”
Patience! We also lost it in transit.
Also AirTagged at the Denver airport: a bag belonging to Jon Ostrower, editor-in-chief of Air Current. At Christmas, he flew his family from Seattle on Alaska Airlines. Three of their checked bags arrived on time. One, inexplicably, does not. But it’s there now, there stillin baggage jail because the people running the operation are too overwhelmed to figure out how to make it available to its owner.
This is the painful paradox of the moment: One of the greatest modern conveniences is capable of spreading mass discomfort.
Air travel “is so unimaginably complex,” says Ostrower, who estimates he flies between 75,000 and 100,000 miles a year. “Nobody can wrap their head around it all: whether it’s the airplane, the baggage system, the networks that exist to operate the airlines, the finances. If people knew how complex the system was and what it takes to get an airplane off the ground, they would either not complain or never fly.”
“But when you get to your destination and your kids are tired and you haven’t eaten in a while and it’s cold outside and it’s a holiday and you just want to get where you’re going, the last thing anyone cares about is miracles complex of the American airline system.”