Monday, 31 March 2008


An article on the recently opened Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport had me zapped. Sixty six flights cancelled, and 16,000 pieces of luggage waiting to be reunited with their owners. 16,000! The mind indeed boggles!

How will they ever clear the backlog, one wonders. It might take over two weeks, the authorities say. The terminal apparently has people sleeping anywhere and everywhere waiting to travel, rather like our railway stations, I thought. Read about it here.

My mind went back to our first trip to the USA to visit our son and his wife in Seattle – and our four boxes I was so worried about! It was 1998. The dreadful 9/11 hadn’t happened, and as far as we could tell, everything was going to be smooth. We were to change flights at Singapore, and then fly east over the Pacific to get to the west coast of the US. We landed peacefully at Singapore, and spent the night at a hotel in the airport, booked so considerately by my son. Next morning we were to board an American airline. Because we had checked our luggage through to Seattle, we were carefree and relaxed - till at the counter of the American airline, someone mentioned that the airline we had travelled by to Singapore was careless about transferring baggage to connecting flights.

And that started me off. I kept pestering my husband, who is generally a very patient person, with my doubts and suppositions of the luggage not being loaded. He reassured me as much as he could, and I managed not to give voice to my ‘what if’s. I remembered my friend who had flown to the US 30 years ago, soon after her wedding, and whose baggage did not land with her, but caught up with her much, much later.

After a longish flight, with a halt at Narita airport in Tokyo, we landed safe and sound at Seattle. The immigration people were so sweet and courteous. The person who interviewed us asked us the usual questions, and when my husband told him our son was working with Microsoft, wanted to know if we would ask him ‘to get my computer fixed’. With a smile, he waved us in with a six month visa, (no fingerprinting, and no gruelling sessions then) and we went to collect our baggage.

We waited for the baggage to come in, and waited, and waited. People who had reached the belt after us had started moving away with their baggage, while we continued to look for ours. With great foresight (we had then thought) we had marked our boxes with huge Xs, like Marjiana did in the Ali Baba tale, for quick identification. We waited, and waited, and waited, till all the boxes had come and were collected, and there was only the conveyor belt left. I was horrified. Apart from all the stuff we had brought for the children, all our clothes were in there.

What would I do? I wear only saris, and my daughter-in-law might have a couple of them. But what about blouses – she is petite, and half my size, and I had visions of myself in ill fitting tight clothes. For my husband, I calculated, some quick shopping might have to be done, but for me, I doubted that I would get my requirements that easily. Dismally I looked on, while my husband went to check with the officer on duty. He waved him on to look at some boxes which belonged to the first class passengers, and had been deposited separately. And there nestling among them were our boxes. My fears having turned groundless, we stepped forward cheerfully with the baggage into what turned out to be a very happy six weeks.

That my husband swore never again to travel with me, is another matter.

On the same trip we went to visit friends in Lake Charles, via Houston. Upon landing we found that our luggage was missing. We had traveled in one of the small planes where if you ask for an aisle seat, you get the window seat as well. I was sure the boxes might have got lost in Houston, a huge airport almost as large as a town, where we had changed flights. But to our very pleasant surprise, we found our boxes - they had arrived ahead of us in a previous flight!

That was one trip that had no baggage problems, and to be honest, only once in the following few trips, was one box misplaced. But it was delivered to us the following day at home, intact, except that it had got wet somewhere along the way – not Chennai, because it was not raining here then – and ruined some of the stuff in the soft box.

Horror stories of misplaced-then-turning-up, and lost-forever luggages are aplenty in our family. No amount of compensation from airlines will really recompense the true losses. Especially now that post 9/11 you are allowed hardly anything worth mentioning in your hand baggage.

But there is humour everywhere – I remember this particular cartoon, of an annoyed passenger standing in front of an airline counter, demanding to know why they are refusing to send his pieces of luggage, one to London, one to Melbourne, and the third to Houston, when they did it perfectly well the last time.

But of no comfort to those waiting interminably at Heathrow’s prestigious new terminal T5 for connecting flights and lost baggage.


Kat said...

Read the linked ET article too. Was tickled to learn that it was touted as their national showpiece..... and it became a showmess.

All husbands seem to be the same? Swearing that they'll never travel by bicycle/train/air with their "what-if" asking spouses :-))))

It's prudent to travel with one set of dress in the cabin baggage.

Lucky you people. The luggage had reached safe in Seattle.

Mine didn't in Chicago. And they were yelling and informing in the public address system to one Mr.Dharmalingam that his luggage never left Madras.... while I was waiting forlornly at an empty conveyor..... and a smartly dressed official came running to me and asked "are you Mr D?"

And then it struck me that they had been calling me by my father's name :-)))))


Yes, Kat. Rather like the Titanic -touted as the unsinkable....

And good advice about travelling with a spare set of clothes in the hand baggage - we always do.

Gowri Mohanakrishnan said...

So now BA stands for 'Baggage Ahoy!'

Indrani said...

you were really lucky to get your luggage back and more because you were in US.
Here in India the experience would have been different, don't u think so?

Anonymous said...

I have very little sympathies for Indians and their baggages. Heavy Samsonite suitcases by those going to USA or coming from there
are essential status symbols, and usually these are lost or stolen!They bring check in suitcases so big the size of our living room that two persons can easily sleep in them. Once two Indian women were asked to open their suitcases at Minneapolis airport and I looked in amazement as the hapless custom offcial kept on stacking up their sarees around him and he disppeared behind them after some time! Another time, I was requested by an Indian passenger to include one of his as mine which I exercising the usual caution refused, much to his annoyance. I welcome the 9/11 cabin baggage restriction. It prevents Indian passengers bringing in suitcases to the cabin
ignoring the objections from the check in assistants, perching them on my legs! In fact I particularly welcome the post-9/11 immigration and custom checks in all Western airports. The latter has provided me relief in many ways. For example,I can refuse gifts to brand conscious Indians in Mysore and elsewhere blaming the 9//11 restrictions. Finally,I quite welcome the Heathrow terminal5 fiasco. It keeps those large Samsonite suitcase owners tied up looking for their suitcases, while I who travel light skirt around and go on my way. May this faisco last long!


Phew, Guru!
That merits a blog by itself. Well Indian women do wear saris, and we have to travel with them. And the allowed baggage to the USA is two big boxes per person, the cost of transporting which is included in the ticket. I do not think there is anything wrong in travelling with big boxes, if they are our own (I draw the line at carrying others') - we need our comforts even if we are going to the other part of the world. And do you mean to say that you have never seen travellers of other nations carrying big pieces of baggage? I have, and bulging cabin bagggage too.
And no matter how many pieces or what we have in our baggage, airlines have a moral resposibility to restore them to the owners at the end of the journey. The chaos at Heathrow was the result of inept handling by staff who were not sufficiently trained in the new luggage handling system.

BTW, it is only to the USA that we are allowed two boxes - every other country allows only one box.

Maiji said...

Guru, I too have been to many parts of the world, and I have no bad feelings about other Indians travelling with big boxes of luggage. And I have travelled with non-Indians who carry equally big pieces of baggage.

Anonymous said...

I live in the West since the last 35 years,and travel very often and very many places. I have yet to come across any one (I should hasten to add, do not travel to Islamic countries as a mark of concession to my friends in Israel)who carry as many pieces of luggage and as obstructive as Indians in the cabin. The new cabin rules would suit me fine. Hence I stand by my comments.

Unknown said...

I have travelled to the US, Canada and UK several times, and have observed that it is the American passengers who have the biggest luggage pieces - and that includes guitars, drums, golf clubs and pets. Sometimes they insist on occupying the seat directly next to the Emergency exit, and once one of them held his sports kit (I think it was a baseball kit)right in front of his leg space. Their baggage is, like their servings and hearts - 'large', and nothing less.

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