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 The Brancatelli File

joe DUMB AND DUMBER
AT THE AIRPORT


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

November 6, 2003 -- Riddle me this, frequent flyers. Who's dumber: The business traveler who can't work or drive his car because he packed his keys and laptop computer in a checked bag that an airline has lost? Or a lost-luggage clerk who, after locating a "mishandled" bag at an airport just 75 miles away, proposes returning it to a traveler via a two-flight, 1,160-mile, bad-weather journey through the hub airport that misdirected the luggage in the first place?

This dumb-and-dumber tableau is not hypothet-ical, my incredulous fellow flyers. It unfolded in front of me yesterday while I was minding my own business travel at Newburgh/Stewart International in New York's bucolic Hudson Valley.

Since we often chronicle the serial stupidity of the airlines, let's focus first on the blockheaded traveler who packed his car keys and laptop computer in a checked bag.

I ran into the feckless flyer as I was following the lost-luggage clerk for Delta Connection back to his tiny combination office/storage space near the bag-gage carousels at Stewart. The befuddled, bedraggled business traveler was staring balefully into the clerk's locked, darkened office.

When he saw us approach, he intercepted the clerk and called out: "You have to help me. You lost my bag and my computer and car keys are in there. I can't even get my car out of the parking lot and I need files that are on my laptop."

What came next was simultaneous: The lost-luggage clerk, struggling mightily not to laugh impolitely, rolled his eyes in disbelief. Your thunderstruck scribe couldn't help but blurt out: "You did what?"

"The airlines lost my bag and my car keys and laptop are in the bag!" he responded.

The lost-luggage clerk unlocked his door and ducked behind the computer terminal to sort out my problem, but I couldn't help but follow up with my hopeless brethren.

"What where you thinking?" I asked. "Why would you put your keys and laptop in a checked bag?"

The business traveler mumbled something convoluted about a cancelled flight the night before and an overnight layover in Cincinnati and...

"But I can't understand why you would pack your car keys and computer in a checked bag," I responded. "That's just crazy. I know the airline lost your bag, but you can't put yourself in the position of letting them be in control of your life."

At that point in our dialogue, the lost-luggage clerk popped out from behind his screen, looked up at me and said, "I found your bags!"

Which means, for the purposes of today's dumb-and-dumber exercise, I must digress.

In point of actual fact, I was only at Stewart yesterday to pick up my father-in-law, a retired frequent flyer who was coming to the visit the vast JoeSentMe compound on the Hudson River.

Because no travel expert is without honor except in his own compound, my father-in-law did not consult me when he booked a tortuous itinerary on Delta and Delta Connection that originated in Tucson and changed planes in Dallas and Cincinnati before ending at Stewart Airport. And as befits such a bizarre journey, there were problems.

Right at the very beginning, in fact. When my father-in-law arrived at Tucson Airport on Tuesday morning, Delta informed him that his flight to Dallas was cancelled. They rebooked him on an American Airlines flight to DFW and American checked his bags all the way through to Stewart.

Upon his arrival at Dallas/Fort Worth, my father-in-law caught up with his original Delta flight to Cincinnati. But when he arrived in Cincinnati, Delta had another nasty surprise for him. His Delta Connection flight to Newburgh was cancelled due to the foggy, rainy weather in the bucolic Hudson Valley.

Then my father-in-law made a crucial error. Several, in fact. First, he didn't press Delta to immediately reroute him to any of the four other New York area airports that were not crippled by the weather. Then he accepted Delta's contention that he'd have to pay for his own hotel room in Cincinnati. Worst of all, he believed a Delta gate agent who insisted that he didn't need to reclaim his luggage because the bags were already on the plane bound for Newburgh on Wednesday morning.

Sadly, my father-in-law didn't communicate any of this information to me until after he checked into his airport hotel. As a travel expert without honor in my own compound, I knew a little determination would have gotten him to the New York area that night. And I certainly would never have accepted Delta's claim that he'd have to fund his own overnight lodging. Most of all, I would have at least insisted that he get his checked bags back from Delta. When schedules are scrambled at a hub like Cincinnati, the hubbing airline logically redirects the aircraft on hand to other destinations. There was no chance that the equipment that didn't fly to Newburgh Tuesday evening would stay on the ground in Cincinnati until mid-morning Wednesday.

Fast forward to yesterday, shortly after noon, in the foggy, rainy bucolic Hudson Valley. The moment I saw my father-in-law sitting in the baggage area with no luggage, I knew we had trouble. I grabbed his claim checks and headed to the baggage office. Closed. So I went to the ticket counter, where I ran into the lost-baggage clerk.

He looked at the tags, saw that they bore the proper SWF code for Stewart and said, "Uh-oh."

We headed toward his office, encountering the keyless, laptopless feckless flyer along the way. I was impressed with how quickly the clerk located my father-in-law's bags.

He said buoyantly: "They're at LaGuardia Airport," which is about 50 miles as the crow flies and 75 miles as the delivery truck drives south of Newburgh.

"Hey, that's not so bad," I said. "Can you arrange to have them delivered?" I asked the clerk.

"Sure, no problem, just give me the address and phone number," he replied while furiously entering data into his computer.

"Could you put a rush on them?" I said. "My father-in-law has already spent the night in a hotel without a change of clothes."

"Well, it could be late tonight or even tomorrow morning," he said earnestly.

"What?" I said. "From LaGuardia? It can't take that long."

"I have to ship them up here first. They have to go back to Cincinnati, then get here before I can get them on a truck. So it might be tomorrow morning."

I was, I admit, flummoxed. In all my years as a business traveler and all my years as a business journalist covering the airlines, I had never heard of anything quite like this. This lost-baggage clerk, undoubtedly following some bizarre Delta dictum, was actually going to fly my father-in-law's bags more than 1,100 miles--from LaGuardia to Cincinnati and then from Cincinnati to Stewart--to connect two points 75 miles apart.

I was about to regroup and demand some sanity, but the keyless, laptopless feckless flyer was getting panicky. So I said nothing as the lost-baggage clerk handed me a baggage-service folio with a tracking number and a toll-free telephone number.

"Call them if you have any other problems," he said politely.

Three calls and my rigid insistence on logistical and geographic sanity convinced Delta to truck my father-in-law's bags to my house. They arrived about 8 p.m. last night.

I can only imagine what happened to the keyless, laptopless feckless flyer.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.