I was a young soldier taking only the third flight of my life, going from California to Texas via the now-defunct American Airlines. I arrived in Texas on time. My luggage, I was told, remained in California. A very perky customer service representative told me I should go ahead and take a cab to the base. My luggage would be delivered in a couple of hours.
Looking through my youthful and inexperienced perspective, the lost luggage did not cause immediate alarm. I would meet my new bosses, take a look at the living quarters and be reunited with my belongings before supper.
You know that’s not how this story ends. And I realized that the ending would be different when I told my First Sargent. His reply? “You’re the fourth person this week.” He then shoved a form in my hand to complete for an emergency stipend. Here’s the conversation that followed:
“But, First Sargent, the airline said I should have my lost luggage before supper.”
“They lied. Fill that out now and we can get you cash for underwear and a set of BDUs before AAFES closes.”
“But, I’m sure my lost luggage -“
“Listen, you’ll probably never see that luggage again. Fill out the form and head out.”
I did as I was told. Then, I thought about the two missing bags of luggage. One wasn’t a big loss, as it contained mostly clothing that could easily be replaced. And, assuming American Airlines would foot the bill, I could honestly use a style update.
The thought of losing the other suitcase sent me into a panic. Before leaving California, I had decided to trust American Airlines over the U.S. Postal Service or the military movies. That second suitcase was filled with two boxes of photos I had inherited a few months earlier from my grandmother. A small jewelry case in the zipper pocket contained all of my jewelry, including my mother’s class ring. Also thrown in was everything from my college transcript to an address book with contact information for everyone I’d ever met. It gets worse: my best music, compiled on 20 cassette tapes, was also missing.
To put it in perspective for the 20-somethings out there, I’d just lost my iPhone, my laptop and my cell phone. And, thanks to my First Sergeant’s brutal realism, I faced the fact that these treasures might be gone for good.
The emergency stipend was a lifesaver. My luggage didn’t come that night, or the next day. While my first Sergeant encouraged me to forget about the lost luggage and file a claim, I knew my luggage was somewhere in the American Airlines system. After the duty day ended, I went back to the customer service desk everyday, in my Class A’s, to plead for my luggage. I refused to take a check. I stayed in baggage claims until 9 p.m. one night waiting to speak to the American Airlines lost luggage manager. I wrote and faxed many letters.
And twelve days after I arrived in Texas, my lost baggage finally made it. The whole set of luggage – even the overnight bag – arrived looking great! (Back then, you only had to pay if your luggage weighed like 500 pounds.) And those precious heirlooms were still safely wrapped in the second suitcase.
Since then, I’ve flown probably 50 more flights. And my luggage has arrived late more times than I can count. But I’ve never lost sleep over lost luggage since that first experience. Here’s why:
1. I no longer trust family heirlooms and important papers to any airline. I try to carry all that I can with me.
2. Other items go insured by FedEx. I use this now primarily for important documents that need to make it home even if I don’t. Most hotels have FedEx stations in the lobby. Use these for a worry-free transport.
3. Everything I send is insured. The items are irreplaceable, so the monetary value of the insurance isn’t secondary. Tracking systems are the real reason I buy insurance now. When an item is insured, handlers treat it differently. Signatures are required every time the package changes hands. That gives me great peace of mind.
4. After my First Sargent mentioned what my mom always thought were “unmentionables,” I vowed never to be without them. So, my carry on no longer contains books, stationary, snacks (maybe a few). I have a nightgown and a complete change of clothes. My strategy went from packing to avoid boredom to packing for a few days survival at my destination.
5. Don’t take no for an answer, even if the customer service representative goes from perky to downright angry. Show up in person everyday at the local airport, but also begin contacting those in higher positions with the airlines.
6. Use any sympathy points you might have in your favor. Being able to get your baggage quickly based solely on principal should be the natural way, but it’s not. For me, being a soldier in a uniform sent powerful messages that I didn’t have to verbalize: Service member, far from home, new city. Are you traveling with young children? Are you traveling because of a family emergency? Is this the first vacation your family has had in 10 years? Use whatever factors that make your case special.