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A Tale of the Lost Carry On

Written By Scott Joseph On December 29, 2010

Or Why I’ll Never Fly Lufthansa Again

Ever since I took a trip wherein I arrived in Paris but my luggage did not, I’ve traveled with carry on bags only. And I haven’t really had to sacrifice any conveniences, other than not being able to bring home liquid souvenirs that would violate the ridiculously arbitrary three-ounce limit rule. All the clothing I need for a trip can be packed into a rolling case that fits neatly into the overhead bin with supplemental necessities stuffed into my under-the-seat satchel that also holds the laptop I’m writing on now. “But you’re going to be gone for two weeks,” people say when I tell them I’m not checking a bag, “you’ll need more clothes.” Actually, the longer the trip the fewer clothes I require — I simply build a couple of hours at a laundromat into the itinerary and have clothes just as clean for the second half of the journey as they were for the first.

And besides making sure my bags go on the same trip I do, I waste no time waiting for them to twirl around luggage carousels. Why is it my bags were always the last ones out? The baggage wait is especially annoying when returning from an overseas trip to Orlando International Airport where passengers must wait for their luggage on the airside of the terminal to go through customs, then give the suitcases back to bag handlers only to have to wait for them again at the terminal side carousels. It’s annoying enough to stand there and have your bags be the last ones out; worse when they don’t come out at all. So I’ve always kept them with me.

Until the hellish trip from OIA to Vienna via Frankfurt.

Making Other Airline Food Look Good

We were flying Lufthansa, first time on that airline, which so many friends had praised for its service. Sorry, folks, I saw service that not only wasn’t exemplary but didn’t even rise to adequate. Attendants were curt and largely absent. And we were served the worst airline food ever. Ever! I realize that bad airline food may sound redundant, but this was truly horrible. The evening meal was some sort of fish that had largely disintegrated from the steaming it received under its foil cover. It sat next to a dark green glob that I can only guess was once spinach. The salad was a sad dish of limp greens, nothing else, and the roll was stale enough to be from the Clinton era. Let’s not even get into the  rubberized omelet that greeted us for breakfast. Not that there was any sleeping in the cramped seating.

The flight arrived in Frankfurt behind time. Our connecting flight was not listed on the monitors when we exited the plane, and there were no attendants to ask where we should go. We found our way to passport control, then finally found an airport employee we could ask. He directed us to a line, the length of which would look right at home at Walt Disney World. We had to go through security again to get to our connecting flight to Vienna. Which was scheduled to leave in 10 minutes. We flagged down a security agent and showed our tickets to her. She took us to the front of the line, but it still took five minutes to get through the screening.

And of course the gate we needed to be at was in the next concourse, down a flight of stairs, through a tunnel, back up the stairs, then down the long passageway to the gate, now unattended and empty. By the time we got there, the flight had departed.

After the O.J. Simpson-like run through the airport, we stood there sweating under our layers of clothing. (I forgot to mention that wearing extra clothes on the plane is another trick to not checking a bag. And since we were headed to Austria, Czech Republic and Germany in December, I was layered with undershirt, shirt, sweater, sport coat and overcoat.)

After another hunt for a Lufthansa official — why do these people hide so much? — we were told another flight was available in two and a half hours, and we should just go directly to that gate. Which of course was back in the terminal we just left. There was another hassle there as we tried to secure seats from uncaring Lufthansa staffers. But we eventually did get boarding passes, and after another delay, boarding was announced.

Bye Bye Baggage

But as I handed my ticket to the attendant at the door, I was told only one bag per person was allowed because it was a small plane. We were directed back to the gate counter. There was really no choice to be made as to which of my two bags I’d check. Although it held nearly all the essentials — clothing, pharmaceuticals and such — the roll-about was the one to check. It was sturdier than my soft-sided leather carry on, which, I should mention, fits safely beneath the seat in front of me on every plane I’ve ever been on. But even more important, the leather bag is where I carry my laptop; there’s no way that is getting checked.

So I handed the suitcase to the gate agent, who wrapped a tag around the handles and handed me a claim check. Rick did the same thing with his roll-aboard, which, with the exception of the bright orange luggage handles — mine has two; his has one — are virtually identical. The agent calmed our concerns that the bags wouldn’t get to the plane by telling us he had just called a baggage handler who was on his way to pick them up; they would be taken immediately to the plane and would be waiting for us at the regular bag claim carousel in Vienna. We made our way down the stairs and on to the waiting bus. (Because of limited gates for airplanes, passengers have to be bused to planes that sit surprisingly far from the terminal.)

I should mention at this point that we spotted several of our fellow passengers with not just two carry-on bags but also three and four. Why we were singled out to follow the one-bag rule was curious. Of course, one immediately assumes a nationality bias but there’s no way to be sure.

And I was put somewhat at ease as I sat at my window seat on the plane — which was nearly half empty and had plenty of overhead bin space to spare — and saw the bright orange handles of our two bags as they were driven to the plane in a trolley. But then I became anxious as the bags just sat on the trolley, even after the door to the plane had been closed. Just then, a man came over to the bags and looked at the tags. Finally, I thought, someone will notice that those bags belong on this plane. But after looking at the tags, the man turned away and left them there. The engines revved and we started to taxi. Before I could get the attention of a fight attendant it was too late.

Could it have been more ironic? One of the main reasons I do not check luggage is that I don’t want to lose a bag. On the other hand, I knew that when we arrived in Vienna, there would be no need to stand at the carousel to wait in vain.

Where Luggage Goes to Die

The baggage claim area in the Vienna airport was an astounding sight: hundreds and hundreds of unclaimed suitcases of all sizes filled the spaces between the carousels. I assumed it was the pile-up result of canceled flights and redirected flights from a massive snowstorm a few days before. But it’s impossible to adequately describe the sea of luggage.

I found the office where I could put in a claim for the lost luggage — it wasn’t lost; it was sitting on the tarmac in Frankfurt! — and got in line behind three other people. Within minutes there were 10 people behind me. This, apparently, was the cue for one of the three agents taking claims to go on break; she never returned.

It took nearly 50 minutes for my turn to file a claim, and by that time I was fuming and saw myself having a stroke as I voiced my complaint. The woman who took my claim was smug and uncaring. And every now and then she took a sip of white wine from a plastic cup next to her keyboard. I don’t know if sipping wine on duty is standard operating procedure or if it was something associated with the holidays.

It was December 23, after all, and that was part of the growing concern. Christmas Eve is the beginning of the holiday for Viennese, and for many that day is even more important than the 25th. Things start to shut down on the 24th, and that extends to fewer flights and skeleton crews of workers. Our tippling agent told us that the chances of the bags arriving the next day were slim. Slimmer on Christmas Day. And on the 26th our plans called for us to board a train to Prague, then on to Berlin. I now had visions of our orange-handled suitcases chasing us through Europe.

In the meantime she found the reason the bags were not put on the plane: the gate agent who had filled out the luggage tags that were wrapped around the handles failed to write our names on the tags. Without the name of a passenger on the manifest, the baggage handlers would not put the suitcase on the plane. It’s a reasonable security measure. Now that we had filed a claim, a name would be attached to each bag, then it could be put on a plane to Vienna. Under ordinary circumstances that would be the next day, if the next day wasn’t a holiday.

So what could we do? In the past when an airline had lost luggage it was expected to deliver the bags to the hotel when found. One look at the mounds of bags sitting in the claim area told us that no one would be delivering our suitcases. Not, at least, during our three-night stay. You can come out to the airport and try to find your bags, the agent told us, but don’t come out until after the last flight arrives tomorrow, after 2 p.m.

Hoping for a Christmas Miracle

We grabbed a cab to our hotel, now an hour and a half after our arrival — longer than the flight from Frankfurt itself — dispirited at the ignominious start of what was to be a special trip. And without necessary toiletries, not to mention the extra clothing that would make walking around a cold and snowy Vienna easier to endure. And favorite items that might possibly never be seen again. We kept thinking of things that were packed away, possibly lost forever.

The next day we went shopping for some things that needed to be replaced — not the way one wants to start a vacation. And then, midday, the stores started to close down for the beginning of the Christmas weekend. Lufthansa was continuing to ruin our vacation.

After 2 p.m., we arranged for a cab to take us back to the airport and drop us off at baggage claim. Chances were slim, but it had to be done. But once inside the terminal, we couldn’t find the entrance to baggage claim. After twice circling the area we thought it should be in, I spotted two workers pushing a train of luggage carts. They lifted a low gate and through the opening I could see the luggage carousels. So Rick and I followed them through. And were promptly stopped by security. The luggage claim is in a secure area.

Which immediately made me nervous because I had forgotten to put my ID in my travel wallet, and my passport was back at the hotel. We were taken to their leader, who first looked like he would take us into a room for questioning. But when we told him in our broken German that we had lost our luggage and had just taken a cab back to look for it, he apparently took pity. “Go look,” he said with a tinge of futility in his voice. I think he figured our search in vain would be punishment enough.

Rick started at one end and I started at the other, moving from carousel to carousel. There were even more bags stacked up than the day before, and we were joined by other hopeful seekers who moved among them as though they were searching among the dead in a makeshift morgue.

I spotted the single orange handle of Rick’s bag first, and ran to grab it. And there, three rows over, I saw my orange handles. We were complete. We did a little happy luggage dance in the middle of the claim area, not caring if the security folks would see. Then we extended the handles and walked to freedom. And another cab ride back into town.

No one checked the names or numbers on our bags. For all anyone knows we could have left with someone else’s suitcases. And for all Lufthansa knows, we never got our bags. But then, with everything I’ve seen from that airline, they wouldn’t care one way or the other. I won’t be using them again if there is any other choice.

I’m on a train at this moment, inching along snowy tracks through whitened woods into Berlin, after a lovely three days in Prague. We have three more nights to put the lost luggage incident behind us. We’ll celebrate New Year’s Eve at Brandenburg Gate. Then we’ll go to the airport for our flight back to Orlando.

Through Frankfurt.

On Lufthansa.

I’m taking my own food.


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