Monday, August 9, 2010

Travel woes: Murphy ’s Law and ripple effect

Frequent travelers are intimate with Murphy ’s Law and realize that when things go wrong, they can go wrong in the worst possible way. This was the case with my recent travel to India, perhaps an excuse for the recent blog posting hiatus.

With the frequency of air-travel I have been doing in the past few years, one would imagine I am always prepared for the worst case. Not so.

This began during my recent trip from SFO to Bangalore by United/Lufthansa. The 747 in SFO (UA 900 on 22nd July) was readying for takeoff when the pilot announced that there was a warning in the fuel-pump and the aircraft would be back at the gate for ground technicians to check things out. Sure, safety first! Back at the gate in SFO, they realized that the problem wouldn’t be fixed in the next half-hour or so and asked passengers to deplane.

I took my carry-on and headed back to the lounge where they announced that flight 900 would be delayed by more than 7 hours. This essentially meant that I would miss my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore the next morning so I stood in the queue to talk to the agent for a possible rebooking. Turns out most of the flights out of SFO that evening had either left or were so close to boarding that my luggage wouldn’t be offloaded from the 747 in time. I agreed to the offer for rebooking on an Emirates flight the next day and asked for my checked-in luggage to be rerouted. The airline also offered me a night’s stay at a local hotel in SFO.

Before heading for my hotel, I realized that the flight I was rebooked in was not in the same class as my original ticketing and I went to the Lufthansa counter at the airport, where the agent rebooked me on a Lufthansa flight the next day. Seems, Lufthansa and United are code-share partners and prefer to book/rebook passengers. I was okay as the (new) travel time was similar and my mileage status would be protected.

So far so good. Flight delayed, lost one day (24 hours), but at least got to get a night’s rest before the trip.

On landing in Bangalore, I discovered that my baggage wasn’t on my flight. If you think waiting at a baggage carousel is an excruciating experience, magnify it many times if you wait for an hour-and-half, hoping to collect the last bag at the carousel and the belt finally stops and you realize your bags haven’t arrived. A bit more of a hassle if you happen to be traveling international since you need to fill in a detailed customs form and think of a “plan B” of managing without your luggage for the next few days Mine was delivered to me by Lufthansa three days later.

I was reflecting if there is a lesson in all this? I guess if you are a frequent traveler, and even if you are not, there is not much you can do if stuck by Murphy ’s Law, one can’t do much but to grin and suck it up. Knowing that there is a remote possibility that one could be separated from checked in baggage for an extended period of time, should one load up on carry-on baggage? Probably, probably not.

In all this, one has to commend the professionalism of airline staff that has to deal with such ‘mini crisis’ more frequently than most of us can imagine. On the flight 900 from SFO that was delayed by over 7 hours, my guess is that over half the passengers were connecting onward from Frankfurt. A good bet is that they had connecting (onward) flights within the next few hours after the scheduled arrival and would certainly have missed their connections. The staff in SFO, and probably in Frankfurt had their hands full that night, trying their best to ensure passengers got from A-to-B.

Similarly for the lost luggage. When my suitcases were finally delivered to me, I realized why there was mixup. On top of the United luggage tag, was stuck the Emirates tag for the next day. … and an express sticker in the side with my Lufthansa flight details, which was easy to miss. Put that down to human error. Tracking and delivering my lost baggage from half-way around the globe? Plus one for customer service.