The Ballad of Lost Baggage
It's a constant with airline travel, an inevitability that fliers accept: my bags are going to be late, damaged, or completely lost at some time. It could happen on this flight or the next one, or maybe some flight in the distant future when I least expect it and cannot afford it. Acknowledge this and maintain a state of grace. In the words of a TSA agent a couple of years ago, when I mentioned that he was taking an awfully long time to examine my carry-on bag, "Don't like it? DON'T FLY!"
Friday, February 27. I'm flying from Orlando, Florida to Des Moines, Iowa on American Airlines. I only mention the airline because in order to get to Iowa I'll be connecting through their hub in Dallas, an epically Texas-style airport that sprawls in every direction and takes up miles and miles of real estate. It's so big that a highway actually runs right down the middle of the terminals, requiring a labyrinth of trains and shuttle buses that cross the road and each other in a crazy curly-q of cement and steel. I've never liked it, beginning with the one-month run I did at The Improv Comedy Club in Arlington with musical genius/impersonator Mark McCollum back in the 1990s. Marsia and our boys, then pre-schoolers, shuttled back and forth from L.A. to Dallas a couple of times and the airport was too big and cumbersome then.
It's worse today.
We take off from Orlando on time. I'm not really cognizant of anything, having done the late show on the Disney Dream Thursday night, then packing the 3 cases I use for the theater shows, and finally finishing a long letter to my sons. I didn't sleep much, not unusual in my line of work, but it means I'm in a daze when I get to Orlando's airport, check the three big cases (I don't pay excess fees on a regular basis because I fly so much - the definition of a "perk"). I get into my First Class seat, we take off on time, I doze for a few minutes then do some writing. We land in Dallas.
I get a notice on my iPhone: "Your flight to Des Moines has been delayed."
There's a blizzard at the Dallas airport, a place so unaccustomed to yearly snow and freeze that it feels as if the airport and airline execs revel in it. "Yeah, we know it snows here. We don't care. We're not spending a lot of money on plows and de-icers and any equipment that would help travelers because we don't believe in winter, snow or ice. So there."
My flight lands in the snow, taxiing past shadows of airplanes passing us in both directions, the snow making it hard to see anything. Yellow trucks with flashing lights are everywhere; some of them are snowplows, pushing snow around and clearing taxiways. There is a sincere feeling of panic, even from my window seat on the plane, a good mile from the gate and terminal.
I've seen this before. It isn't good. I call my business partner Tim. "We have a situation."
He laughs. We've been through this so many times it isn't funny. It's so not funny that we laugh.
I do not believe in irony except as a theatrical device, and there is no such thing as "coincidence." My old friend, Rick Uchwatt, used to say this all the time, and when I work for Brian Dorfmann - a Ricky protégé - we say it all the time: "IT IS WHAT IT IS."
In this case, it's a problem. I am supposed to perform in a suburb of Des Moines tonight (wait, does Des Moines really HAVE suburbs? YES!), a town ironically named Urbandale, and I'm already looking at a possible cancelation even though it's only noon. Tim agrees, and we alert the people we're working for. I get off the plane and I explore the web with my iPhone. Is there any way to get to Iowa for tonight's show?
The short answer is NO. Give up now is what the universe is saying. But Tim and I have found our way around lots of these kinds of delays. We switch airlines. We beg exhausted ticket agents. We cry. We are overly nice and complimentary to overworked airline personnel. Whatever it takes.
But today is just a really bad day for travel. Dallas-Ft Worth International went all-out-panic-supernova long before I landed. There are lines of disgruntled, discouraged and dismayed human beings everywhere. The airport sags under the weight of the non-stop snow and that undeniable feeling of, "Oh no, I'm not getting home tonight. I'm gonna spend the night at a $200 hotel in Dallas! I HATE TRAVEL!"
I'm not one of them. I go out of the main terminal to the ticketing lobby. I get in line. I speak with a really nice American Airlines agent.
"No way I can get you to Des Moines," he says. I ask about Omaha. "Nope. It's shut down."
"What about Quad Cities?" He's looking into his monitor and he shakes his head "no."
I am doing a search through the random access memory of my brain (I have often wished that I could go "buy memory" for my own head way you can for a computer) and I blurt out, "Check for Cedar Rapids."
His eyebrows raise cartoonishly, his face reflecting the glow from the monitor in front of him.
"I can get you on the 2:55 to Cedar Rapids." I am jumping up and down. "BOOK IT!"
He prints out the boarding pass. He hands it to me. "I have three cases," I say. The agent is all business. "Got it. I'll forward this to baggage and hopefully they'll get there. If not, you can pick them up in Des Moines." I thank him profusely as I shuffle backwards from the counter, ticket in hand, then turn to my right and sprint out the doors into the snowstorm, hailing the "green bus" that takes me to the B Terminal. Then I'm off the bus, through the doors, right to the security checkpoint which doesn't slow me down at all (thanks to "TSA Pre") and I run to Gate B44.
They've changed the departure gate to B22.
No problem! I turn and do a fast jog to the new gate. There are people at this gate standing around, blocking the aisle ways, creating a mass of humanity that results in a thousand "excuse me's" and "can you let me through here please?" from other travelers running to catch their re-booked flights just like me.
My flight? Delayed. No problem, I need to contact Hertz, change my reservation and get a price for a car from Cedar Rapids, dropping off in Des Moines. If we land in Cedar Rapids before 6:00, I can drive to Des Moines and do my job! I call Tim, we are agreed that we can make this work. We've done it so many times, and the folks in Urbandale are understanding. Sometimes clients and audiences aren't. These folks are.
Their grace doesn't pay off. American Airlines starts boarding this flight around 3:10 p.m. I am on first, a window seat in the exit row. I look out toward the back of the plane and I see the luggage ramp, the one that extends from the ground to the luggage door in the back of the plane. It is covered with 2-3 inches of snow. It hasn't been operated for hours. It starts running a few minutes later, and the bags that are being loaded are not the big kinds of suitcases people check at the counter. These are the "carry-on" bags, 5 of them, and once they're on the plane the baggage handlers break down the ramp and leave.
I beckon a flight attendant. "Um... I just watched the guys load the carry-ons, but none of the regular checked bags were put on this plane," I say. I get the usual icey mommy-is-mad-stare from the matronly flight attendant. "The bags were already loaded," she spits. I am not backing down. "Um... I don't think so. I was watching the whole time and...." She cuts me off. "SIR! THE BAGS WERE LOADED. YOU DIDN'T SEE IT." And she stomps off, her short heels clomping loudly on the floor of the plane, tiny cartoon exclamation points popping up with every step.
Every person on the plane heard her and we all know she's lying.
The plane leaves the gate at 3:40. Not bad, I'm thinking. We de-ice and take off at 4:45. Land in Cedar Rapids at 6:30 - I get a rental car and drive like crazy to Urbandale. I'll be late but I will make it! I text Tim. We're excited. We always pull these things off!
Three hours later I'm still sitting on the plane in Dallas. It is now 6:40. We didn't even get to the de-icing pad until 5:10. Then one truck ran out of the fluid, followed by another truck breaking down in the ice and snow. I can hear the cartoon music in my head, "Wah-wah-wah." At 7:20 we take off for Cedar Rapids, landing at 9:30 p.m.
When we arrive in Cedar Rapids I don't go to the luggage carousel. I go right to the baggage claim department. They're already in full, absolute, threat level 9 emotional breakdown. I am first in line.
"May I help you?" the baggage attendant is trying to be nice. I get it. I'm nice right back. "Yes. I just landed on the flight from Dallas and my bags aren't here."
She smiles the smile of a 3rd grade teacher listening to a little boy explain why he didn't do his math tables yet. "They haven't been off-loaded, sir."
I smile the smile of a man who has circled the globe a few times on airplanes and doesn't feel like dealing with a patronizing baggage attendant who probably doesn't even know the protocol to fill out a missing luggage form. "No. I was watching. My bags were not loaded on the plane. Nobody's were loaded on the plane."
She loses her smile. "Well, we'll just have to wait and see."
We wait. Five bags appear. Five. Total.
Someone behind me shouts, "Is that all the bags from the Dallas flight?"
A door bursts open and a little woman dressed in arctic gear strides in, letting the door behind her slam shut on a rush of cold air that feels like an ice maker. She comes right to the desk where I'm standing. The attendant who greeted me a moment before says, "Where are the bags from Dallas?"
The two of them exchange a look. The Eskimo impersonator asks her cohort, "Why aren't you doing the missing baggage forms?"
Woman #1 says, "I don't know how to do that."
I KNEW IT!
Another woman appears. "I'm outta here before a riot starts," she says. She tosses a book of pamphlets on the counter, and says to no one in particular, "Here are the American Airlines phone numbers and contact information for anyone who doesn't want to stand in line for an hour." She walks away.
I pick up the pamphlets and shout to the line of people forming behind me, "Here are the phone numbers and contact information for American Airlines if you don't want to wait here tonight. I think they want you to believe that your bags will be arriving here tomorrow. Good luck to all of us. And thank you for flying American Airlines. It's our aim to serve you better!"
This gets a really nice laugh, and a heat-seeking stare from my original agent at the baggage counter.
My new agent, the one auditioning for a role on "ICE ROAD TRUCKERS," is competent. She's Latin, but I understand her accent and I know enough Spanish to understand what's happening. She explains, in English, everything we all know: fill out the missing baggage report, get a file number, keep your claim tags and here is the number to call.
In Spanish she says, "The bags were never even scanned in Dallas," to which I reply (in English), does that mean my bags are in Orlando? She raises her eyes to meet mine. "I don't know," she says, the most honest thing an American Airlines employee will tell me for the next few days.
She puts a note in the file: Mr. Mason will claim his bags in Des Moines. I get a rental car and begin a drive through sub-zero temperatures to Iowa's capital city. Tim has already canceled the show in Urbandale. I don't get to my hotel until 2:00 a.m. On the drive, I call the American Airlines baggage claim 800 number. The man who answers is flustered. So flustered, it's painful, so I say, "I'll call back in the morning." He doesn't say thank you or goodbye. He hangs up, and I can feel his relief through the airwaves.
I am up at 8:00 a.m. on Friday the 28th and I call the American Airlines baggage claim number. I'm put on hold. After 10 minutes I drive over to the airport.
The baggage claim office at Des Moines International Airport is actually the ticket counter, at least for this Saturday morning. I am working with a woman named Nancy with a Middle-Eastern accent and a great deal of competency. We go over my itinerary. I have to be in Minneapolis for a show tomorrow night, so I'm going to drive. Nancy changes my ticket so that I have a flight back to Philadelphia, which I hadn't yet booked, so that's really great. She hands me over to her supervisor to find my bags.
The supervisor, whose name I never did get, does everything she can to find my 3 cases that were checked in Orlando. "Go see if they're on the carousel now!" she says to me. "A flight just landed from Chicago. Maybe the Dallas people forwarded them through O'Hare Airport. It's worth a look."
So I walk down to the baggage carousel and watch suitcases and all kinds of luggage slide down the ramp onto the belt that makes a full rotation every couple of minutes. I stare intently at each bag, hoping that somehow my eyesight will morph other people's cases into mine.
I go back to the counter. The line is now a mile long. I go to the front of the line and some people shout, "Hey! What are you doing? Get back to the end of the line." I'm a lover not a fighter. I go stand in line for 2 hours.
Back with my American Airlines pals at the counter, I explain my baggage has not arrived. The woman does another search, makes a couple of phone calls, asks me to wait. So I call the American Airlines baggage phone number.
I am connected to a woman named Lashanda (might be misspelled, sorry) who looks at my situation and says this, "You should just go back to Orlando and see if your bags are there. That's what I'd do. Because I don't think you're going to get them any time soon." (I am paraphrasing. Liberally)
I repeat her words: "You want me to fly back to Orlando?" I half-shout the line into the phone and as I do my ticket counter pal, Nancy, shakes her head and mouths the word "no." So I thank Lashanda and Nancy tries to help. We get nowhere.
It's been 5 hours since I arrived and so I leave with no more information than I had when I got there. I drive 3 hours to Minneapolis, go to the airport and baggage claim.
You never know where Taylor Mason fans are gonna reveal themselves.
"Are you Taylor Mason?" A young man named A.J., dressed in official American Airlines Baggage Handler jumpsuit and hat, has been following my career for a few years. "I got all your DVDs back in the day," he said.
I look at him and smile. "Back in the day?"
He grabs my hand and shakes it. "Yeah, when I was like, 17 years old."
What was that? 5 years ago? "Thanks," I say. We take selfies.
I go into the baggage office and meet with a nice woman who tries to track down my 3 cases. "They might still be in Orlando," she says.
Not what I wanted to hear.
I haven't slept for … is it a day-and-a-half?! I get a hotel and plop on the bed around 10:45 p.m. I call American Airlines baggage service to get any information I can. I need help. As I am put on hold. I lie down and wait.
Eight hours later I wake up. I check my phone. I AM STILL ON HOLD WITH AMERICAN AIRLINES BAGGAGE!
Actually, American Airlines doesn't answer either the reservation phone line OR the 1-800-baggage number for the next 3 days. I surmise one of two things is happening:
- the phones are jammed with TENS OF THOUSANDS of callers, just like me, missing important items in their lost suitcases.
- the airline has told people, "Do not bother coming into work just to answer the phone. Let's just let the storm go through and we'll do what we can when we get back online in a day or so."
I go back to the baggage office at Minneapolis International and speak with Sarah G. (she won't give me her last name - I can't blame her - the corporate heads can be ruthless with personnel for any perceived slights against their brand). She makes 4 phone calls and spends 20 minutes on the Internet, and she finds my bags.
"They're still in Dallas," she says. "I am talking with a supervisor there. Where do you want them to be sent?"
YES! I am gleeful. It's been about 36 hours and I was beginning to think it might be days or even a week before I got my equipment.
"Just have them send all three to Philadelphia. I'll pick them up at the airport!" She conveys this to the person on the other end of the phone, and I leave.
I'm performing this night, Sunday, March 1, at Bethel University, and I get some wonderful help from a puppet builder named Gordon, who runs a company called "The Puppet Forge." I'm also in contact with a local ventriloquist/musician named David Malmberg, who lends me some of his characters, including a gorgeous wooden ventriloquist figure that I'm almost scared to use. The show goes great (they had a Steinway concert grand on stage!) and I head back to the baggage claim office one more time afterward.
No problem. I get some sleep, get up early and fly back to Jersey on Monday morning, March 2nd. After landing, I go right to the baggage claim office for American Airlines at Philadelphia International Airport.
"PHL" are the FAA call letters for Philly, and could stand for "Problems, Hassles and Losses" when it comes to how the place has been run since Ed Rendell left the city for bigger political conquests. Since the late 1990s, the airport has been run as poorly as any in the nation. Baggage service at this USAirways hub has been particularly awful. For years it was not unusual to wait for an hour or more for one's bags to be unloaded from a plane, carted to the arrivals terminal and unloaded on the carousel.
I get to the baggage office, now called "American Airlines Baggage Office" because of the merger between the two carriers. A woman is talking on the phone. I wait in the doorway as she conducts a conversation behind the counter. At first I can't hear what she's saying because she is speaking quietly, barely audible above the omnipresent hum of the building and traffic and the city.
But after a few minutes she starts talking louder, getting more comfortable with the fact that I am patient and she makes sure to avoid eye contact with me. I get snippets of her dialogue:
"We ain't doin' that..."
"OK, much better, let's go there."
"Why are you asking me? I can't talk right now."
"Yeah, that sounds good. OK. I'll call you then."
This goes on for a few minutes, maybe 10. I wait.
When I hear her say, "I have a better idea. Why don't you just pick me up here when I get done?"
That's it. I leave. I'm parked in the long-term parking lot here, and as soon as I get in the car I call American Airlines Baggage. I am put on hold. I know how this works. I hang up.
Some 7 hours later, around 5:30 p.m., my phone rings. It's a taped message from American Airlines Baggage. "We are sorry. We have not found your luggage. We'll call you when we do."
I call back. There is no answer. I call back again. American now has come to grips with the severity of the situation. I'm guessing there are millions of phone calls coming in, so they have reacted in kind. "Due to weather that has affected many of our airports, American Airlines cannot answer the phone right now." This message will remain for another 48 hours.
On Tuesday afternoon, March 3rd, some four days since my original flight (which was Friday), I am on hold with my friends at American Airlines. I still don't have my luggage. I have received three short, terse, to-the-point phone calls from American, all recordings, all the same: "WE DO NOT HAVE YOUR BAGS AND WE DON'T KNOW WHERE THEY ARE." The airline is putting me on hold whenever I call, and I usually hang up after a 15-minute wait.
Late Tuesday evening I get a phone call from American Airlines, identified immediately on my iPhone caller I.D. "Mr. Mason? We have your luggage. It will be delivered tomorrow by 1:00 p.m. to your house."
Perfect. I'm leaving Thursday, so to get my bags early Wednesday afternoon will be fine. I profusely thank the woman on the phone. I am OK with everything. I get the bags, I unload and re-pack for my upcoming trip, and all is well. I can make this work. I ask for the person's name, the one calling me with this information and she hangs up.
At exactly 1:01 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4, I call American Airlines Baggage. I have not received my luggage, and now I'm very worried. I'm on hold for 24 minutes. A woman named Mary Katherine looks into my "case" and says, "You'll have them by 4:00."
You know what happened.
At 6:20 p.m. I speak with Ryan, an American Airlines baggage person who is very terse on the phone. His attitude is, "What's your problem?" He says. The bags are on their way so just be patient." Right. I thank him for the information and hang up.
At 9:42 p.m. that evening a car pulls up in front of my house. It's a Subaru station wagon, packed to the gills with luggage. It is JAMMED. My phone dings the trademark text message sound. It's an area code "201" number (Jersey) and I get these words: "I am outside your front door with your luggage."
I retrieve my bags. I tip the driver $5 for his trouble.
The story is not over, and won't be soon. I write an email to the president of American Airlines, which resulted in a Friday phone call from someone named Dulce at AA headquarters in Phoenix. Clearly they are screening all correspondence to the big guy, and I'm sure he'll never see my post. In it I describe the pathetically bad customer service I was afforded over a 6-day period, and I blame not one person who I dealt with at ticket counters, baggage offices and on the phone. Because this kind of behavior doesn't come from employees. It starts at the top. I'm sure this guy is being congratulated for the "merger" between two international air carriers, but clearly it's not a good thing for customers.
I'm on the phone for maybe 5 minutes with Dulce. I had the distinct feeling, when I hung up, that she would be deleting my email. I think she felt as if she had "calmed an angry customer and all is well."
Weather is the chink in the armor for air travel, and don't I know it. With almost 3 million real air miles on a variety or airlines over the past 30 years, I accept that travel is predicated on being able to fly. And I don't have any issues with that.
The problem was not the weather. Anyone could see that it was going to be an issue that day in Dallas, where ice and snow are not yearly occurrences. I'm betting that everyone at the airport worked diligently and with every effort to make passengers happy. And if I'm going to complain, why wasn't I doing MY due diligence, seeing the weather forecasts and making the appropriate changes? (That's a story for another day.)
This is about service. So there was once-in-a-decade bad weather at a "hub airport," in this case DFW for American Airlines. Shouldn't this be the time when you call EVERYONE in? Everyone gets overtime. All hands on deck, right? Instead of closing the phone lines you open more. Instead of having bags sit for 5 days at one airport, you bring in more handlers, you use every resource, you bend over backwards for your customers. Isn't that the way it's done?
American Airlines essentially used bad weather on Friday, February 27 as an excuse for delays, cancellations and bad service (especially on the phone) for almost a week. I don't believe the people I spoke to lied. I think their superiors lied, and that goes all the way to the top.
This kind of incompetence and corruption is expected from our government. But for an airline? Maybe the airlines are, as many have told me, a government subsidiary.
That makes sense. So I'm gonna go with that.
At the heart of the issue is defining what business an airline is in. Travel? Vacations? Business travel? Safety? Food and drinks and Internet service?
Or, are airlines just a government subsidiary, making huge incomes for those in the most powerful positions, taking advantage of the folks who do the work, and ignoring the customers?
You know the answer.
Thanks for reading!