Monday, 22 March 2010

On bags and bungling

When you travel as much as I do, it’s not surprising that, occasionally, a piece of luggage fails to arrive when it is supposed to.

In thirty years of travel writing, my checked in bag has failed to appear on the carousel on no more than three or four occasions. With one exception, they reappeared within a day or two and were promptly delivered to me at a convenient location and time. Apart from filling in the form, no further action was required on my part.

But when United Airlines managed to lose my suitcase between Chicago and Lansing, a distance of just over two hundred miles, you would have expected the matter to be resolved quickly and efficiently.

After all, after the carousel emptied after the 29 minute flight to Lansing, they KNEW that the bag was still in Chicago. The lady on the United ticket desk said it had just been sent to the wrong pier and would be arriving on the next flight, three hours later. Not a problem, especially as they had a courier service scheduled to depart at 10pm. I filled up the appropriate form, and departed with the promise that ‘someone would call’ with the delivery details. Reassuringly, my copy of the delayed baggage report told me that United was ‘doing everything possible to quickly reunite me with my property’.

Just after 11pm, I thought it wise to check the status of my baggage online. But not only was the wrong type of bag listed, they were apologising for the fact that the bag had still not been located.

The number to call for assistance required much button pressing and voice recognition before I got through to a human being. The guy had a lot of trouble understanding me and I him. I put it down to the lateness of the hour and the fact my brain was locked into a time zone five hours ahead. But eventually, I was reassured that my bag was in fact in Lansing and would be delivered ‘first thing in the morning’. The wrong entries on the online web tracking service would, he assured me, be corrected.

When, by 8am the following morning, the bag had still not arrived and there was no message on either the house phone or my mobile, I checked online again. My silver hard shell suitcase was still being listed as a grey zippered bag. Worryingly, it still reported that they had not located it. I was not reassured by their statement that ‘most bags turned up within 24 hours.

So I initiated another phone call. The voice recognition they use is pretty clever. It finds out your name, your bag tag details and, having ascertained all of that, tells you it will pass that information on to their baggage agent. Well it doesn’t. You have to go through the whole rigmarole again.

The bag is at Lansing airport waiting for me to collect I was cheeringly told. I took a deep breath, asked why such a simple job as delivering my suitcase was being so incompetently handled and was reassured, after much apologising (but not a great deal of sincerity) for the inconvenience, that it would be delivered to my address as a priority.

Two hours later, I emailed another department at United, guest response, who’d been very helpful and efficient prior to my trip. The lady called me within a few minutes, apologised profusely and promised to sort it out. Apparently the driver who was supposed to be delivering to me had been sent north and would not be back for some time. But she had the agent at Lansing airport on the other line and the bag would ‘certainly be delivered by lunchtime’. As I was heading out to lunch, we agreed that I’d leave a little note on the door telling the delivery service where to put it and my cell phone number so they could confirm that they’d found the house and the case was there.

Returning home at 3pm, there’d still been no call and no sign of the bag, so I emailed guest response again who responded by return, saying they’d been told the bag was on its way and that the delivery company had been told to ring me by return.

At five, having heard nothing, I went online, nothing updated there, so I rang the baggage number again. This time I discovered that all the button pressing and voice recognition was a complete waste of time. Apparently the systems don’t pass on all the information you have so painstakingly entered.

After a lot of waiting, repeating information, spelling out details in the International Phonetic Alphabet which is clearly not taught to the baggage agents, I asked where my call was being handled. ‘New Delhi’, I was told.

After about twenty minutes, the man handling my call decided that the incident was above his pay grade, so I was passed to Vipul, his supervisor.

As I had been waiting for so long, I asked if he would call me back.

It’s now 24 hours since I arrived in Lansing, Michigan. There’s been no call from the courier company. No call from Vipul. No call from United Airlines at Lansing airport.

And there’s still no sign of my bag.

Very occasionally things go wrong.

But what credence do you give United’s claim that ‘they are doing everything possible to reunite me with my baggage’?

I rest my case.

Well I would, if I had it.


At 7.15pm, 24 hours after I had arrived minus bag, I rang Vipul in New Delhi. After an interminable wait, he came on the line. ‘Why did you not ring me back?’, I demanded. ‘I couldn’t get hold of the courier company he said. His fortune well and truly read, he range me back 15 minutes later. ‘Your bag will be picked up at eight and delivered by midnight.’
At ten past eight, a jolly man in a woolly hat arrived at the front door. ‘Sign here’, he said.

I enquired when he first new about my bag. ‘Ten mminutes ago’, he replied. ‘They didn’t answer their door at midday. It happens a lot’

I asked him how much he was paid for delivering this ‘priority’ service’. ‘Four dollars’, he replied.

You might think that’s not very generous for an eight mile ride and certainly not the rate for a ‘priority’ service.

I’ve been looking at United Airlines’ impressively worded 12 point ‘customer commitment’. Here are extracts from points 3 and 12.

‘Once your belongings are located, they will be returned as quickly as possible’.

‘Our Customer Relations representatives have one goal: to acknowledge customer questions and complaints and provide prompt resolution’.

Now I DO rest my case.