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Thursday, September 25th, 2003

luggage mistracking

Here’s the dark secret of airline baggage tracing: all those barcodes and tag numbers don’t mean a damn thing. If you leave the airport without your luggage, the possibility that you’ll see it again depends on luck and good will and not much else.

Olympic Airways left our luggage behind, and therefore is responsible for returning it to me. However, Olympic doesn’t fly any closer to me than New York City. So they handed off the bags to Lufthansa in Frankfurt, so that Lufthansa could fly them to San Francisco.

Any time bags get handed off like this, the risk of total loss increases from “unlikely” to “likely.” A Lufthansa rep admitted to me that most airlines, including Lufthansa and United, don’t track luggage that is being carried for a different airline. So if the bags show up at the far end, great; if they don’t, there’s not much that can be done. There aren’t any records.

Or as one Lufthansa phone rep stated, “Don’t worry — you’ll get your luggage. It will be fine. 90% of the time, there’s no problem.” 90% of the time?!

Airlines share a baggage tracing system colled WorldTracer. The promise, as I understand it, is that any airline can open a ticket, and all other airlines can read the ticket to learn the histary of a claim and effectively track the luggage.

In my experience, this system fails. For example, Lufthansa has a policy that they won’t assist customers if the ticket is opened by another airline. So, officially, I’m supposed to go through Olympic as I track down my luggage. But I’ve learned that the Olympic Airways staff is largely unable to decipher the reports in the WorldTracer system.

Also, because Olympic created the initial record, Lufthansa is unable to update it — even though Lufthansa has my luggage. Essentially this means that the information trail ends at the point where Olympic delivered my bags to Lufthansa, even though that point is two days and 5700 miles from here.

The bottom line: I last saw my luggage on Sunday afternoon. At the moment, neither Olympic nor Lufthansa knows where it is. The most recent definitive report is from Frankfurt on Tuesday afternoon. What happened after that is a matter of conjecture.

Just to recap the pain and frustration (a recent theme here on, I realize)…

I returned home on Monday afternoon, minus two suitcases and most of my clothes.

Tuesday, Olympic told me my luggage would arrive at SFO at noon, and that Lufthansa would arrange delivery. Later that day, Lufthansa told me that they did not know whether the bags had arrived, but that Lufthansa wouldn’t arrange delivery in any case because Olympic needed to pay for it.

Olympic reacted with shock and surprise, claiming that of course they’d pay for shipping if only Lufthansa would call to get Olympic’s FedEx account number. I felt like I was mediating an disagreement in a schoolyard. In the meantime I pictured my luggage spinning around the carousel at SFO just waiting for someone to steal it. The only protection I have: both suitcases are far too heavy to lift.

Wednesday, Lufthansa found the WorldTracer messages from Olypmic’s Frankfurt office, written on Tuesday afternoon, admitting that Olympic had failed to get my luggage to Lufthansa in time for Tuesday’s flight. Therefore my bags would not arrive until Wednesday at noon. I tried, again, to contact the Lufthansa baggage office at SFO, but those people only work 4 hours per day and as far as I’ve experienced they never answer their phone. But I’ve only tried to call them 30 times, so I guess I can’t honestly say “never.”

Late Thursday, I finally got some new information. Lufthansa called to say the luggage had been delivered to FedEx. I was given a tracking number. The woman could not verify that the luggage had actually arrived, but assumed as much because, basically, there was no evidence that it hadn’t. And besides she’d found a scrap of paper with my file number and a tracking number, and doesn’t that suggest the bags had been shipped?

She also could not verify when the luggage had been delivered to FedEx. Nor could she say whether it had been shipped overnight or 2-day.

The FedEx website rejected the tracking number. I called FedEx; they show 0 packages being shipped from SFO to my ZIP code. The number I’d been given by Lufthansa turns out to be Olympic’s account number.

posted to channel: Travel
updated: 2004-02-22 22:49:16

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