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July 06th 2014 print

Tony Thomas

A Heathrow Horror in My Roamin’ Sandals

Travel broadens the mind, they say, but lost luggage, a broken ticket machine, and marathon dashes in stinky sandals through an airport's obstacle course aren't grist for an uplifting experience, as our roaming correspondent reports from London

luggageIt’s not like cancer, divorce or losing my home in a bushfire. It’s just that AirBerlin left my bag  at Frankfurt, and I’ve arrived at Heathrow. One day my bag and I will surely meet again. But on the personal-inconvenience scale, a missing bag rates very high. It’s as bad as a filling falling out,  or crumpling a tail-light on the spouse’s car, or barracking for St Kilda.

No-one else cares about me and my bag. Wordsworth summed it up: “But oh! The difference to me!

Many book and movie plots involve a suitcase full of cash or drugs that gets swapped with an innocent party’s luggage containing shirts and undies, but we all know that’s not real life. This is real life:

I’ve reached Baggage Claim at Heathrow Terminal 5. It’s 7.30pm on a Sunday and the terminal is no longer busy. I’ve been in taxis, airports and planes all day. My brain and body are sluggish. I’m worried about how to get to my budget hotel, somewhere in Paddington, before dark.

You know how it goes. Long wait, then a silent ‘Hooray!’ as your flight’s luggage trundles out from behind the black flappy curtain and onto the carousel. The first bags come in dribs and drabs, then cheerful clumps. The crowd steadily thins, while a small herd of unclaimed bags just goes round and round.

I am rational man, but by that stage I’m Emotional Man. (If you’re a female, treble the emotion).  I feel hope. My bag won’t be long now! Envy: look at that old bloke grabbing his sack of stuff. Great for him. Grrr. Rationality: AirBerlin MUST have transferred my bag, they had two hours at Frankfurt. Denial: Why me! No, not a second time on this trip! (Alitalia lost our bags at Naples for 18 hours). Regression: I so love my baggie-waggie. So soft and tied with a darling purple bow. Terror: the lost bag drama begins!

I  droop at baggage collection far longer than makes sense, then slouch to Baggage Inquiries. A gent is officially sympathetic. What’s my address?  he asks. I rootle through scads of papers. “Alexander Hotel, Paddington,” I say. No, he says, where am I from? That’s easy: Australia. No, where in Australia? Melbourne. No, Melbourne’s a big place, he explains patiently, do you have an address in Melbourne?

Oh, yes, I do…

After formalities and computer searching,  twilight becomes night. He brightens and tells me my bag has been discovered in Frankfurt and will be at Heathrow tomorrow morning. “Good,” I say, “keep it at Heathrow and I’ll collect it in two days because I’m flying then to Utah.” Just come straight to this desk and get it, he replies.

Only bother to read on if you can imagine yourself in my shoes, or to be exact, in my travel-worn and smelly sandals. At this stage, I wear a straw hat, a short-sleeved shirt, denim shorts originally from an op-shop, and a set of low-quality underwear. My school backpack contains stuff like tourist brochures, a baglet of electrical cords and a half-packet of cracker biscuits. I have planned a big day out in London’s high spots tomorrow.

I am already impressed by the British know-how that located, if not produced, my  bag. Days ago, I  booked  and paid for my Heathrow Connect train online and now I just need to punch a code in a machine at the platform to get my ticket. I have even done a virtual-reality trip to the machine on my iPad.  After some confusion, I find the actual platform and even find the actual machine, with ten minutes  before the  train goes. It only runs half-hourly and in my frazzled state I don’t want to miss it.

The machine has a sign, “Out of Order”. I rush about in all directions, not being hampered by a suitcase. I am told  to climb various levels, take various tunnels, avoid minotaurs and find the only human ticket office still open. Like an athlete, I achieve this feat, return and catch the train with a minute to spare.

My big day out in shorts and sandals is the National Gallery, the BP Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery and an evening choral concert at St Martin’s in the Fields. St. Martin’s has a special sympathy for London’s misfits – they sleep on the pews nightly –  and I seem to be typecast as such. No-one looks at me oddly.

Next morning at Paddington, I am on the Heathrow Connect at 6.03 a.m., primed to grab my bag at the terminal and with time for all the US-dictated security checks for an A380 to Los Angeles, departing 9.40am.  At Heathrow, I realise that my Baggage Inquiry counter is now inside the security area and inaccessible, but I follow a sign to Lost Property. The entry door is shut till 7am, though my baggage gent had sworn it was a 24-hour facility. At 7 a.m. I burst in, waving my lost-bag  document. “You want Baggage Inquiries, not Lost Property,” the man says. “Go to the  far end down there.”

Down there, security is really tight. I provide my documents and bag code, and they phone someone from Baggage Inquiries who is to  become my minder and escort. My backpack fails the security check and is emptied to the last cracker biscuit. Any liquid at all must be isolated. A tube of blister ointment is the culprit.

By this time I fear the A380 boarding deadline. Bag Inquiry lady keys my code and frowns. I again become Emotional  Man. This can’t be happening to me! It is. There is no record of my bag reaching Heathrow.

She brightens. “See if it’s among last night’s unsorted bags near Unit 11.”

I find 50 luggage trolleys, each randomly stacked with bags, and jammed in several interlocked clumps. Of course, most bags are barely visible. I try to be methodical but speedy (not easy), dragging trolleys around and inspecting bottom layers. Another seeker is even more crazedly emotional  than I. We literally climb over the clumps. Every bag in the world is here except my soft beauty with its purple sash and his ordinary bag.

I now have less than an hour for my A380 check-in. I decide against re-directing my bag to the US. For sure, just as I get home to Melbourne, the bag will turn up at Salt Lake City. Send it to Tullamarine, I tell bag lady. She promises better: it will go all the way to my home.

I  expect to borrow enough cladding from my Utah friend to see me through there. But Size 11 shoes will be a problem for a globe-trotting sandalista.

On the A380, I have murderous thoughts towards my travel agent for that tight connection she gave me in Frankfurt. But chatting to the friendly A380 hostie, she mentions that there was a baggage computer hiccup just at the time my bag went missing. All the BA hosties had been warned, so none of them lost their bags. That hiccup probably created those 50 trolleys of lost luggage I had searched at Heathrow.

If fate so decrees, you too will lose your bags one day. With apologies to Shakespeare:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ baggage computers,
They kill us for their sport.”

UPDATE: On July 10 at Tullamarine, Qantas missing-bag lady informs me that my bag took an unauthorised vacation from Frankfurt to Dusseldorf. There, my bag enjoyed the ambience so much that it defeated two attempts by Baggage Computer to return it to London. It was reluctantly en route to London today, to be forwarded thence to my sweet home in Melbourne.

Tony Thomas blogs at tthomas061.wordpress.com