Thursday, June 28, 2007

With my latest transit in Tokyo, it occurred to me that there have been a few countries I have visited, without having actually "entered" the country. In other words I have been to an airport, but nowhere else. That list currently stands at:
  • United Arab Emirates - in transit in Bahrain - on the way to (and back from) London in 1979.
  • India - in transit in Bombay (now Mumbai) - on the way to London in 1987.
  • Sri Lanka - in transit in Colombo (twice) - on the way to London in 2006.
  • United Arab Emirates (again, twice) - in transit in Dubai - on a turnaround from London to London in 2006 and 2007.
  • Japan - in transit in Tokyo (Narita) on the way to London in 2007.
In addition I have been to two US states, Illinois (Chicago) and Texas (Dallas), without having left the airport.

Happy ending to an unexpectedly traumatic event

Last week I arrived home from my latest round the world trip. My suitcase didn't. The final day wasn't ideal - I couldn't get the exact flights I wanted, so I had a very long layover in Los Angeles. The flight from Washington DC to Los Angeles was quite civilised, leaving at midday. Following a leisurely breakfast at the hotel I took the hotel's shuttle out to Dulles Airport, checked in, waited for my suitcase to be checked by the TSA (they x-ray it and ask you to open it if it is locked - as it happened they wanted to check mine), waltzed through the priority security line and made my way to the Admirals Club to await departure. Being Sunday morning the club was almost empty, and I had a long chat with one of the club staff who was previously a Qantas representative at Dulles (Qantas no longer have their own reps there).

Due to the time difference it was around 2:30 pm when I arrived in LA, so still over 10 hours before my night flight to Sydney. At least with a long connection there would be plenty of time for the luggage to make the transfer, right?

The first problem arose when weather in New York meant that the aircraft which was to take me to Sydney was delayed (the route it flies is NY - LA - Sydney). Delayed, as it turns out, by almost three hours. This meant I would miss my connection to Canberra, but with frequent Sydney-Canberra flights it wasn't really a problem. I was able to change my seat on the LA-Sydney leg to 16A, which is an upper-deck exit row window and generally regarded as the best Business Class seat. The flight, QF 108 is so often delayed that frequent flyers refer to it as QF 10Late).

Eventually we left and it was a pleasant, uneventful flight, with great views over Sydney Harbour and the CBD on arrival. A whiteboard was placed at the entrance to the terminal showing new flights for those who had missed connections. It was around 9:30 am and I had been rebooked on the 11:25 am flight to Canberra. Nice, easy connection with time to pick up some duty free.

Made my way through immigration to the baggage carousel. Surprisingly some bags from the flight were already there. Not mine. Slowly over the next hour or so more bags appeared, but eventually I had to accept that mine would not be joining me in Sydney. It was now approaching the time where I would not make my connection unless I left pretty much immediately, so the Qantas rep suggested leaving and reporting the missing bag on arrival in Canberra. Lined up (a long line) for customs and quarantine inspections and x-rays. Had to explain that no, I wasn't travelling light, and while I had ticked the "I have food" bit on the form, most of it was in my suitcase.

Raced over to the domestic connections bit of the terminal. Check-in agent said that while I would make it to the flight, I had missed the bag cut-off. I explained why that wasn't a problem and off I went. Fortunately a bus was just about to leave for the domestic terminal, so I arrived there with five minutes to spare before scheduled boarding time. Quickly entered the Qantas Club for a few glasses of water (thirst from too much racing around!), then down to the gate and on to the Canberra flight. Another uneventful flight and I dutifully reported my lost bag to Qantas.

With lost luggage there are two important deadlines. A vast majority of missing bags are returned within 24 hours. This takes care of bags which have missed tight connections and bags which have had to be off-loaded due to weight restrictions (this can happen on full LA-Sydney flights because the 747-400s don't have the range to make the westbound flight fully laden). The second deadline is three days, which gives time for bags which have been accidentally sent to the wrong destination to be rerouted to the right one, no matter where in the world they ended up. If you haven't got the bag back in three days you need to start coming to terms with the possibility that it is permanently lost.

Well, I sweated out the first day, the second day and the third. No bag. It's a frequent flyer commandment that valuable items will not be placed in checked luggage. It's also common sense, so there was nothing in my bag which would attract thieves (unless they were desperate for chocolate). What I had never paused to consider though is how incredibly important to me the non-valuable contents of my bag were. As time went on I remembered more and more things that were in the suitcase which would be incredibly distressing to lose. Clothes, presents, momentos (especially momentos of my First Class upgrade on BA). I was really becoming severely stressed at the thought of their loss. Believe me, I would happily have traded my upgrade to First Class for my bag while it was lost.

Saturday (day four) came and went and on Sunday morning (day five) we were shopping in Civic, having dropped the girls off at a birthday party. My mobile rang, "number withheld". Probably telemarketers. No, Qantas baggage services, "We have a bag here for you". "You're kidding?" I said, happy that my brain's profanity filter was working so well. They offered to send it out to me, but as we weren't planning on being home except for brief periods that day, I said I would pick it up when I had the chance. Eventually during the afternoon I went out to the airport and retrieved the bag. The lock was still on it, and there was no more damage than I expected from such a journey. Later inspection and unpacking revealed that everything seems to have survived intact. As I brought more and more things out, I realised even more how unfortunate it would have been to lose these "non-valuable" things.

In the end it was a great result, but one which should never have occurred in the first place. As a "loyal AA customer" I am chasing compensation, and I will report back if anything positive results.

I don't know what I can learn from this experience. There is only so much you can carry on to an aircraft, so I guess I will just have to keep trusting the airlines to get my bag to my destination, even if it takes them some time. I would love to know what happened to the bag in those five days, but I never will. In the mean time American Airlines have my e-mail, and I will wait to see what compensation they offer. I suspect it will be a bunch of frequent flyer miles, which would be nice, but we shall see.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

In the pointy end

Managed to nab 62K on the NRT-LHR BA flight. This was a real bonus because it is widely regarded as the best seat in Business Class. It is upstairs in an exit row, so acres of room. It is also on the side which does not have crew seats facing it, which makes it pretty much like your own private cabin. The British Airways system is renowned for (seemingly) randomly shifting people around, particularly if you have chosen one of the prized seats. So every now and then I would check to make sure I still had 62K. I was disappointed but not surprised when one day I found that I was now in 61K, which is just a run of the mill seat.

I phoned British Airways, or at least the Indian call centre which BA now uses for calls originating in Australia. I asked to change my allocation and was told that seating can be selected 24 hours prior to departure. Funnily enough, as soon as I mentioned that I was a oneworld Emerald she decided that it may in fact be possible for her to help me. I was quite surprised when, after a few minutes of typing (seriously, how could it take that long?) I was back in 62K. Makes it even odder that I was moved out in the first place.

Fast forward to the afternoon of my departure from Canberra. I logged on to the BA site, checked in, made sure I still had 62K, printed my boarding pass, and check it to make sure I was still in 62K. I also noticed I had sequence number "001", meaning I was the first person to check in.

I boarded the flight in Narita, turned right, and made my way upstairs to my assigned seat. I worked out what I needed for the flight and put the rest of the hand luggage in the overhead locker. Then I prepared myself to settle in to the best Business Class seat on the plane. That was when a short Japanese man appeared in front of me. "Mr Bennett?" "Yes." "I have your new boarding pass, please follow me." But I wanted to sit in 62K! Hang on, what does that boarding pass say? "1A". 1A?! But that's ... in the pointy bit ... big seats ... turn left on entering ... 1A ... best seat on the PLANE! And that was how I got to fly to London in First Class. "More anything, Sir?" "More EVERYthing."

Who knew air travel could be so complicated?

Had to share this with someone, and I suppose that's what a blog is for. I'd advise you to skip over this post to the next one. This one is mainly recording details for my own benefit. It got kind of long.

The planning of this trip was plagued with problems. The first was when Cathay Pacific decided that the increasing civil unrest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was enough to cancel their flights there. Now the problem with that was, I held a ticket with flights confirmed into Colombo, and an unticketed, but fully arranged, booking for my next round the world trip.

Much research followed, and finally I decided that Tokyo would be a good place to start the next round the world. It was a bit more expensive than starting from Colombo, but with the strong Australian dollar, coupled with the opportunity to ticket the trip with American Airlines, the total cost would be only one or two hundred dollars more than my last ex-Colombo ticket. American Airlines doesn't impose fuel surcharges, so instead of the taxes and charges coming to around $1200, they were only around $700. I quickly sought and gained approval from the company. As an additional bonus, the ticket could be made electronic and paid for over the phone, so no more midnight rendezvous hoping there was a ticket waiting for me.

Next step was to make sure I could get to Tokyo's Narita airport (code NRT), and from there keep my existing proposed schedule. Everything worked out and I reissued my CBR-SYD-Hong Kong (code HKG)-Colombo (code CMB) with the local Qantas office to be CBR-SYD-NRT-HKG-CMB, with the NRT-HKG-CMB open dated. I also held a reservation with American Airlines for the new round the world. So far so good.

Once Qantas had finished reissuing the ticket I called Cathay Pacific to get them to cancel the bookings they held. It was only later (almost too late) that I discovered that whatever they did had cancelled the whole reservation. A frantic call to Qantas fixed this, but I was lucky because I got the very last seat in the relevant booking class on the SYD-NRT leg.

A ten minute call to American Airlines in Tokyo, and I was the proud owner of a Business Class round the world ticket. So I contacted Cathay Pacific in Colombo and told them that since it was not currently possible to make bookings out of Sri Lanka, I would need to cancel the tentative reservations I held. Done.

Except that in a free moment I thought I would log on to British Airways and try to get some seat allocations. That's when I discovered that some of the legs of the ticket had disappeared! Long story short, it appeared that any flight which had both a Cathay Pacific and American Airlines reservation for me had gone. More frantic calls. Most were restored but my return to Australia had to be delayed a day. Trust me, this precis does not do justice to the time, effort and phone calls required to try to fix the problem.

Once all was resolved, I went through the process of getting seat allocations. I'll continue this in the next post.