Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Hello JFK. Now where's my luggage?

It's bad enough arriving in New York for a long weekend knowing that you're going to have to face interminable queues and the rigours of immigration before you can really begin to enjoy yourself.

But when your luggage goes AWOL, it can really shed new light on the whole experience.

Perhaps though I should have seen it coming.

After all earlier this month the international press was full of some frightening statistics as to the frequency with which airlines manage to "lose" passengers' baggage.

Plus there was an anecdote from a journalist on French radio just last week responding to the figures with his recipe for ensuring that his luggage always arrives.

Apparently he sends one suitcase as a back-up a week in advance to his destination and then actually travels with a second one.

In addition he takes all his "essentials" with him in his carry-on.

"A bit extreme," I thought as I only half-listened to his advice, but perhaps I should have been paying a little more attention at the time.

Ah the wonders of hindsight.

Arriving Stateside can be a bit of a nerve-wracking experience for any tourist and since my last trip across the Pond a year ago, security certainly seems to have been stepped up.

Back then it was “Left index finger on the digital fingerprint screening pad, followed by right index finger. Look into the camera and don’t smile too hard. And when asked the purpose of your trip, don’t even think about a clever reply.”

Now it's "Four fingers right hand - pressed against the pad - followed by thumb right hand.
And then four fingers left hand and thumb left hand. That's all topped off with the all important and serious (don't you dare smile and remember to take your spectacles off should you be wearing them) photo and the purpose of your visit."

Once again, no smart answers.

Oh yes and that's not forgetting the visa waiver application which has to be filled out "correctly" before you make your way to immigration, containing exactly the same information you've had to complete at least three days before your flight leaves for the United States in the online Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA).

The welcome may be somewhat surly and the wait seemingly endless, but after all they're only "doing their job" and once through it's time to find your luggage - which was where I was headed.

All right, so I've rather given the story away in the opening sentences of this piece, because of course when I pitched up at the carousel my trusty Samsonite was nowhere to be seen and the belt introducing suitcases was no longer moving.

Even though I knew there was no point, I still continued to look, until finally I turned to a member of the ground staff to ask whether there was still luggage expected from the Paris flight.

"Is your name on that list sir?" he asked pointing to a nearby whiteboard.

I scanned it quickly and sure enough, there third from bottom was my surname "Summerton" and initials "JG."

"Yes it it," I replied. "So what does that mean exactly?"

"It means sir that you are in New York," he responded. "And welcome by the way. But unfortunately your luggage is still in Paris."

Of course I knew that was what he was going to say, but it didn't stop my heart from sinking.

Everything I needed for a four-day stay in the Big Apple, clothes and all my toiletries were packed in my suitcase, and carry-on had consisted merely of an overweight laptop, a pen and a notebook for scribbling longhand.

"How useful would that be for cleaning my teeth or providing clean underwear for the morning," I wondered.

"So what do I do now?" I asked rather lamely.

"You'll have to go to the Air France office just after customs," he replied, giving directions on how to get there.

So no suitcase, but there was still there was an upside to not having any luggage to speak of.

Customs was a breeze.

"Nothing to declare sir?" asked the puzzled officer. "No suitcase?"

"It's still in Paris," I replied with a shrug. "I need to find the Air France office."

"Oh," she responded.

"Turn right along the corridor on your way out and they'll be able to help you. Good luck, sir. "

I thanked her and sped towards the exit, made a right and pushed open the door....to discover that I was far from being the only one to have arrived without their baggage.

And joy of joys after the wait at immigration, I now had another line to join at "baggage-not-yet-here!" inc.

This is where it has to be said that in spite of the obvious bad humour of most of the passengers, the staff was immensely helpful, apologetic, efficient and friendly.

Clearly none of them was French!

And it more than drove home the point as to how service-oriented Americans normally are - certainly in comparison with their European counterparts.

The baggage, I learned, would arrive on the next 'plane - approximately four hours later.

It would be delivered directly to my hotel and all I had to do was provide a description of it and leave the key with them as it was locked.

Any unaccompanied luggage arriving in the US, I was informed, is automatically searched.

There would be a "four hour delivery window" after it arrived, and I was asked for my name and home address so that "compensation could be arranged.

Now that really was service - I hadn't even thought about requesting it.

While the staff clearly knew what they were doing, the same couldn't have been said for the unlucky passengers who still seemed somewhat dazed from learning the fate of their luggage.

When asked to "describe" my suitcase for example, I was somewhat flummoxed. "Er, medium-sized and black," was all I could manage.

But somehow the clerk managed to tease the size, brand, shape, colour and material out of me, and done and dusted, I was presented with an "emergency" pack of toiletries and assured that, "everything would be with me by the morning."

And what do you know, true to her word, that's exactly what happened as the hotel lobby rang me at 7.00am to inform me that my suitcase had been delivered.

So in a sense "All's well that ends well" and one person in particular had learned a valuable lesson the rather hard way.

I'm not sure that in future I'll resort to having a second case sent on in advance, but I might give some consideration at least to taking on a few more essentials in carry- on rather than stuffing everything into my suitcase.

And I should be thankful of course that mine was not among the reportedly 1.2 million (and rising) irretrievably lost each year.

1 comment:

Paris-Insider said...

Wow! What a mess! It seems that baggage being left behind so that planes are not overloaded is becoming a common theme. As you discovered, it's always best to pack toiletries and at least one or two outfits in a carry on bag when embarking upon international travel. This way you are prepared no matter what!

Everyone should read this blog and take note!

Thanks for posting!

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