The Man Who Pays His Way: Blindfolded bargain-hunting at the lost-luggage department stores
Saturday 18 August 2007
Every plane ticket contains lots of dreary rules about what you are (not) allowed to pack in your baggage. But the travel document should instead carry a big, blunt warning: if you can't bear to lose it, don't check it in.
Some travellers have expressed surprise, bordering on outrage, at revelations this week that the number of bags being lost by airlines from UK airports has increased by anything from 40 to 83 per cent in the past year. Yet a sharp rise in wayward baggage is the entirely predictable consequence of the Government's decision to overrule the airlines on the amount of hand luggage passengers can carry aboard an aircraft.
The Department for Transport insists that allowing passengers to take more than one bag into the cabin would jeopardise security. The logic goes that the more pieces that go through the scanner, the higher the chances that a weapon will be smuggled through. By extension, the Government is saying that every other country is behaving recklessly in allowing airlines to set the limit; curious, then, that it still allows around 100 million people to head for Britain by air each year from destinations where more than one bag is allowed through the security channel.
As long as the one-bag rule remains in place, more luggage is certain to go astray. The law forces flyers who would much rather take everything into the cabin to check bags into the hold. Even if the proportion of luggage that is lost remains constant, the extra bags guarantee an increase in losses. But another factor is at work: there are more bags to overload the baggage systems, meaning a higher percentage get separated from their owners.
How are they reunited? Usually, by being flown in the holds of passenger jets, unaccompanied by their owners – thereby posing a significant security risk. Which is precisely what the Government says it is seeking to avoid.
Anyone unable to cram everything into one bag (see picture) probably has too much stuff. But if you insist on checking bags in, at least improve the odds in your favour.
First, find a direct flight – things go wrong most often at "hub" airports, usually when you change planes but your luggage doesn't. Heathrow is particularly awful, because so many transfers involve a change of terminal. This helps to explain why British Airways is bottom of the European luggage league, losing an average of nine bags for every Boeing 747 flight.
Next, bear in mind that theft of luggage is statistically rare; a more likely cause of your bag going astray is that one black roll-along case looks very much like another. To minimise the chance that someone will roll away with yours by mistake, tie on a swatch of brightly coloured fabric or attach a few bold strips of gaffer tape to make your bag stand out.
Finally, it sounds obvious, but plenty of people fail to do it: when you move house, change the address on your baggage tags.
"Lost baggage" is an inappropriate phrase, as the airlines keep saying. Most of the luggage is merely misrouted and will catch up with its owner within a few days. Those bags that fail to show up almost always have something in common: the owner has not put a label with their name and address on the inside of the case. Before you check in a case, assume that every shred of identity on the outside will be chewed up, ripped off or obliterated during its progress through the velvet-glove treatment at Britain's airports.
If you fail to provide details of how to send your bag home should it dare to roam, the chances are you will not see it again – unless you go in search of it (with hand luggage only) to Tooting in south London or Scottsboro in the Deep South of America.
RF Greasby is a firm of auctioneers based in Tooting that handles the sale of effects from "various airline operators". If, after three months, an airline has failed to track down the owner of a bag, it passes the case on to a company like Greasby's. Valuable items are removed and sold off separately, leaving "Large black trolley case cont Gents clothing & small amount of Ladies clothing", as lot 4 at this week's auction was described.
When I sampled the Greasby's experience (every Tuesday; call 020-8672 2972 or visit www.greasbys.co.uk for details) I spent under £10 on such a case. The results were akin to spending half an hour blindfolded in a charity shop, picking up an arbitrary selection of clothes. One T-shirt fitted; I took the remainder to a charity shop.
Far more rewarding, from a retail point of view, is the trip to the Deep South. "All roads lead to Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama!" is the ambitious claim of the place where much America-bound luggage ends up. It took me a flight via Houston to Birmingham, Alabama, plus a long trek in a rental car to reach this small Southern town. But it was worth the journey to marvel at the way that lost (or rather found) luggage has been resurrected.
An entire department store has been created from the contents of the thousands of cases misrouted each month by US airlines. One strange find: Egyptian artefacts dating back to 1500BC, including a mummified falcon and a shrunken head, were hidden inside a Gucci case. The former owner evidently flouted those airline rules.
My way is the highway
With a journey by air these days about as dehumanising as a stint at Guantanamo Bay, even non-car owners like me can see the appeal of a motoring holiday at home. It cuts out the indignities of the airport experience, allows you to pack whatever the boot will hold and enables you to travel on highways "where there are no sharp corners and no traffic jams".
Those are the words of an excitable newsreel commentator at the start of a trilogy of programmes entitled The Secret Life of the Motorway to be screened on successive nights this week on BBC4 (starting Tuesday, 9pm).
Germany had motorways 30 years earlier than us, which proved useful, if not decisive, in the closing stages of the Second World War, when the remnants of the Luftwaffe sometimes used straighter stretches as improvised airstrips. That Britain got the autobahn habit was largely thanks to a belligerent motorists' champion named Sir James Drake, county surveyor for Lancashire. He lobbied tirelessly for Preston to get a bypass built to a new standard: a dual carriageway (but no central barrier), with slip roads rather than crossroads or roundabouts.
Triumphalist footage from a 1958 newsreel shows Lancashire's green and pleasant land being joyfully bulldozed to create the first stretch of the M6, from which all other British freeways flowed – to the benefit of many travellers, especially the hitch-hiker.
On the day the M25 was finished in October 1986, I thumbed a complete orbit of it, clockwise; only later was it condemned by Chris Rea in his song " The Road to Hell".
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