Friday, January 15, 2010
Beating The System
The lost suitcase's trip to Hawaii had been brief.
The computer system that had misdirected it soon found the miscreant lying on a warm baggage belt and whisked it on to freezing Heathrow. That would have been the end of the story, had it not been for the American Airlines baggage retrieval system. Apparently it was passed to some delivery company, who promptly dumped it in a warehouse in Slough, where it remained for the following two weeks.
Now I wouldn't wish Slough on one my ex-wives, let alone a piece of my mother-in-law's baggage. It's a ghastly industrial estate masquerading as a commuter town outside London. People who live in Slough never admit it: they claim to live near Windsor, or even, if they're forced, in Reading. Slough was immortalised by the great English poet Sir John Betjeman, who wrote in wartime:
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough It isn't fit for humans now
There isn't grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!
Slough’s only real asset is its proximity to Heathrow Airport. That credential puts it 300 miles from our house, where mother-in-law’s bag was supposed to be.
Jo rang the airline daily to track its progress. Or tried to. You try ringing the airline’s 0208 lost baggage number. It rings ten times, then puts you onto a long voicemail message, before dumping you into the abyss. For days I saw her sitting sadly in the corner of Izzy’s room, phone pressed to her ear, endlessly redialling the number.
Eventually I could take it no more, and went into battle. It's not a pretty sight. Having been, in my time (albeit in a former neolithic age) something of a consumer journalist, I simply won't take this sort of treatment, so I undertook to get the bloody bag back myself. In doing so I wrote off any possibility of doing any real work this week.
I played the 0208 game first. No wonder Jo has been in a tetchy mood. After half a dozen vain attempts to speak to a person, I was fuming.
Then I used a little lateral thinking. This clearly wasn't a switchboard which was messing me around. It was probably a single phone on a desk manned by a solitary bloke with better things to do than answer the telephone. Most likely with a queue of disgruntled passengers standing in front of him. I worked out that this phone was more than likely to be found within Heathrow Airport itself.
I pictured the scene: a long line of Americans wearing white shirts and fawn colored trousers with white golf shoes, complaining very loudly to this one person about their expensive suitcases winging their way round the One World stratosphere. In the background, you can hear a single telephone ringing. Ten rings, then it goes onto voicemail. That was me.
So I changed the last digit of the published phone number. A 7 instead of a 5. It was answered by a charming lady called Zoe. Who put me in touch with an even nicer lady called Sam. Once in the system, with a name to a voice, I wouldn’t leave them alone. I even heard them say, behind muffled voicepiece, “It’s that irate passenger again”.
I created such mayhem and dropped so many names that even I was fed up with me. So they gave me the number of the warehouse – the bag had been moved to Durham, and was scheduled for delivery, as I suspected, precisely one day after mother-in-law was scheduled to go home again.
As we set off to collect the wretched suitcase ourselves, the phone rang. American Airlines Customer Relations. To apologise. And ask us how we got Sam’s number. She’s the secretary to someone quite important, you see. I said I had my ways. Someone else then rang, with even more abject apologies. Then a third person. They were playing my game.
OK, AA, we forgive you. Now leave me alone. And next time, I promise mother-in-law will fly BA. Except that, mischievously, American told me that BA still have 15,000 undelivered bags of their own stuck at Heathrow. Now how come that news hasn't reached the press?