Monday, February 24, 2020

A Texan in Tibet - Hoping History Doesn't Repeat Itself

"The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage." 
- Mark Russell

When I flew to Australia in 2016, I redeemed AAdvantage miles on Qantas, which is an American Airlines code share partner.  When you cash in miles for international travel, it's common to get stuck with connections.  Instead of a direct flight out of DFW, I had to connect through LAX, but I saw it as a small price to pay for round trip first class seats.  The connection included hours of layover time, which I used to ensure my luggage made it into the Qantas baggage system.  I'll explain.

The Delta Baggage Solution
Just prior to that Oz trip, I spent 18 months developing and deploying a first-of-its-kind global baggage tracking solution for Delta Air Lines.  Anyone who flies frequently has experienced lost checked bags; as if flying in a post-911 world isn't stressful enough.  During that Delta engagement, I was exposed to all levels of the airline baggage handling beast and I found it fascinating.  The system is so convoluted and complex that the fact that our bags actually make it anywhere truly amazes me.  I was well aware that Qantas did not have a sophisticated baggage tracking system like Delta's and armed with my newfound knowledge of the risks for baggage loss, I was inspired to take matters into my own hands in an attempt to mitigate the risk of my bags getting lost during the transfer from a domestic American Airlines flight over to the international terminal and into the Qantas baggage system.  At DFW, I checked my bags to LAX, retrieved them there, carried them to the Qantas ticket counter in the international terminal, personally checked them in there, and then patted myself on the back.  The baggage transfer loss risk was mitigated to the greatest possible extent to which I could contribute.

My Ride to Brisbane
Fast forward a few hours and I'm in the boarding line for my flight.  When the gate agent scanned my boarding pass, I got the buzz-of-death alert and a flashing red light on the podium.  Yeah, I was that guy in the line at whom other passengers impatiently rolled their eyes and sighed aloud.  I had to step out of the line, go the gate counter, and try to have whatever it was resolved.  The gate agent had a confused, but not overly concerned expression as he furiously typed away at the keyboard.  I admit I felt a bit helpless and somewhat angry, yet all I could do was stand there and try not to piss off the one guy who stood between me and my dream trip to Australia. A few minutes later, I was back in the boarding lane, but my seat assignment had changed again.  I was too relieved to complain or even comment and as luck would have it, when I boarded, I discovered that I was one of only two passengers in the entire first class cabin.  So why the seat change?  My ADD mind quickly diverted attention from the seat assignment and focused on all the buttons, storage compartments, and amenities that my micro apartment-sized first class seat had to offer.  I was on my way and kicked back to enjoy my flight, confident that I had taken steps to ensure nothing could go wrong.
I landed in Brisbane 14 hours later, having gotten just enough sleep while flying to awaken on Australian morning time, thus avoiding having to deal with jet lag.  Another part of the plan successfully executed.  I cleared customs, headed to the baggage claim carousel, and waited.

And waited.

Eventually, having stood alone at the carousel for almost an hour after the rest of my flight's passengers had dispersed, I found myself being surrounded by hundreds of Asians whose flight from Japan had recently landed and were waiting for their baggage to arrive.  18 hours prior, I was patting myself on the back.  Now I was kicking myself in the butt.  I wandered over to the Qantas baggage office and once again, got in a line.  Once I was able to talk with an agent, I learned that my bags were never loaded onto the plane at LAX.  The agent explained that this is not uncommon when bags have to be transferred from one airline to another.  I calmly and politely replied that I retrieved my bags from American Airlines at LAX and then personally checked them in at the Qantas counter.  She then said that the other time this sometimes happens is when bags are checked-in too close to an international flight's departure.  I pointed to the hours-before-departure check in time printed on the baggage receipts and (once again) calmly shook my head.  After feverishly clicking the keys on her terminal, she finally told me that the real reason this happened was because my reservation had somehow been canceled between the time I checked my bags and attempted to board hours later.  My mind was spinning.  This explained the gate agent's confusion back at LAX.  How he was able to resolve the issue and get me onboard an international flight still escapes me. "No problem", the Qantas baggage agent said.  "We'll have it loaded on the next flight from LAX and forwarded to you."  I was relieved until she frowned and said that the next flight had already departed.

Spirit of Texas Skid Lid
It's just luggage, right?  WRONG!  My rolling gear bag held all my riding gear for the Outback crossing, the departure for which was supposed to commence in just two days.  My custom-fit knee braces and my one-of-a-kind Texas flag-wrapped helmet were among the other necessities in that bag.  As tough as it was, I remained calm and polite, spoke softly, and even forced a smile because I knew this woman was the only person who could help me.  My mind continued to spin as I began to mentally explore the possibility of purchasing the minimum amount of gear that I could get by with in country.  With nothing else I could accomplish at the baggage office, I left my Air B&B address and host's contact info with the Qantas agent who advised me to also fill out the Customs paperwork for my bags so they could be claimed in my absence and forwarded to the nearest airport served by Qantas.  I did so and headed to the gate for my connecting flight to Mackay where upon landing, I would pick up a rental car and drive two hours to Airlie Beach in Queensland.  I hated the idea of leaving the fate of this trip in the hands of total strangers who were probably overworked and whose concern for my predicament could likely be measured in micro give-a-shits.

While I sat waiting for my connection, I decided to throw a hail Mary pass and reached out to an Australian in Sydney (Mick) with whom I had corresponded via email in the preceding months about the trip.  I figured he might know where riding gear might be available between Mackay and Airlie Beach.  Mick said there wasn't anything but kangaroos and skinks on that trip, but then added that his ex-wife worked in IT for Qantas in Sydney and that he would seek her help applying some insider pressure to locating my gear.  I had no phone, so all this was happening by email and instant messaging on my laptop as the minutes till my departure to Mackay seemed to fly by.  Under any other circumstance, time would have seemed to creep.  The last message I received on my laptop was "I'll phone you."  How? I have no phone!  Shit.

Moments later, over the paging system, I heard "Shrug the Texan, please pick up the courtesy paging phone."  I had to hear it twice because it didn't register the first time.  It occurred to me then that Mick never knew my real name.  To him, I was Shrug, the Texan.  Maybe my luck was turning.  "Hey mate. Mick here."  After exchanging pleasantries, giving my real name so his ex could investigate, and my explaining the meaning behind Shrug, Mick explained to me that someone on his wife's staff was working a project at the Brisbane airport and might be able to help with Customs and the local baggage crew.  Not only was this guy able to confirm my bags were loaded for a flight out of LAX, but he would also be able to retrieve them in Brisbane and arrange to have them forwarded via Virgin Air to Proserpine airport, only 30 minutes away from Airlie Beach.  I was expecting to use up all my free decompression time with a little sightseeing before hitting the Outback.  A four-hour round trip to/from Mackay was not on my agenda, but I would do whatever it took.  Mick's news seemed too good to be true.  The tide (and my mood) and turned 180 degrees in only a few hours.  I hung up the phone, walked outside, and boarded my connection to Mackay.  I managed to dodge the kangaroos and skinks (lizards) and navigated the traffic circles (from the left lane, no less) as I made my way to the Air B&B house that would be my accommodation for the next two nights.  The next afternoon, my host told me that he received the call I had been waiting for.  My bags had made it!  After a short drive, I finally had my gear, only twelve hours before my scheduled departure into the Outback.

So, while I feel confident that I've taken all the steps I can to alleviate the unexpected from this upcoming adventure, I am fully aware that the universe will do to me whatever it wants with/to me.  All I can do is plan, hope for the best, and if necessary, count on the kindness of strangers.