Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The art of uncertainty - or flying frequently.

With Qantas being in the news today, I've been thinking about my flying career.  There was a time in my life when I flew so much I was a diamond frequent flyer and was greeted by name as I entered the business lounge at 5:30am on a Monday.  Those were the days.  Where my relationships with my regular cab driver, airline staff and work colleagues were more often nurtured than those with friends, family and lovers.  I really related to George Clooney's character in the film "Up in the Air" as those frequent flyer points added up and I could trade them for upgrades and flights home at Christmas.

As someone required to travel regularly for business, there were some benefits of recognition.  I always got my preferred choice of seat.   I was never bumped from a flight. I was once invited to the cockpit by the Captain for an evening landing into Canberra (pre September 11 of course).   I wish I could say the benefits included never having your luggage lost in transit.

The odds of something going wrong must increase with the frequency of engaging in an activity.  For example, the chances of ending up with a broken leg from skiing greatly increase the more I ski.  I manage this risk by not skiing.  Simple.  If we accept this mathematical likelihood of luggage being lost, it doesn't explain how bags on a direct flight from Brisbane to Sydney end up in Adelaide.

I have arrived without my luggage on four separate occasions and had to engage with the poor person whose job it is to be at the baggage counter.  The sign says usually says something like "baggage services" but that is a misnomer.  Can you imagine what that job would be like?  You would know before anyone said a word that every person approaching you would be less than happy.  I always try to be pragmatic in these situations, but sometimes it's very hard.  That's when I just start laughing.

First there is the unanswerable question of how bags from a direct flight have gone somewhere completely different.  Then there's that laminated card they hand you where you select the characteristics of your bag in an effort to describe it: identikit for luggage. Like identikit for suspected criminals it ends up bearing no resemblance to your actual bag and it's a miracle if something rectangular with wheels finally turns up.

Everyone looks uncertain.  There are no guarantees about when the bag will arrive, if it will arrive or whether it's your bag when it does arrive.  The staff must go through a very special form of avoidance training to achieve this level of uncertainty.  When my bags have gone missing, it wasn't a big problem, more of an irritating inconvenience.  I mean, I wasn't getting married and waiting for my wedding dress to arrive.  I wasn't ill with my expensive and life sustaining medication in airline limbo.  I wasn't about to pitch my invention to the big dollar investors with no idea of where my prototype was.  And I wasn't smuggling contraband.

However, it is amazing that delivery of the missing luggage has always been in the middle of the night.  By middle of the night I mean the time when the nightclubs close and the joggers are getting up.  How or why?  I begin to suspect that they knew where the bags were all along and they randomly select some bags to go "missing" so they can try out their systems and my patience.

In 2007 I went to live and work in Darwin for six months.  I was organising the community Your Rights at Work campaign as part of the federal election and had never even been to Darwin.  I was full of anticipation and had a lot to organise on my arrival.

As I entered the airport after deplaning (it is actually a word - thought I'd try it out), I was being paged to the baggage services counter.  My heart sank.  I was barely off the plane and they already knew something was wrong.

My encounter was to set the tone for many "service" interactions during my time in Darwin.  I loved Darwin.  It has its quirks.  I was about to learn this.

A woman who looked to be about twelve and very scared was at the counter.

"Hello.  I'm Tanya Edlington  (it would have been weird to refer to myself as divacultura).  You paged me?"



"Oh, yes.  Um.  Your bags aren't here?"

"I don't know.  I just got off the plane and came straight to you.  I haven't been to the baggage carousel."

She looked at me.  I looked at her.  It clicked.  She wasn't actually asking me a question; she just had the most persistent and perplexing upward inflection that I have ever encountered.

I tried again.  "Where are my bags?"

"Um. We think they might probably perhaps be in Melbourne?"

She must have graduated top of the class when they taught the art of creating uncertainty.

"Well are they in Melbourne?"  Blinking.  "Or are they somewhere else?"

"As I said, we think they might probably maybe perhaps be potentially in Melbourne?"

She defeated me.  I retreated.

"What happens now?'

"Um.  Well they might maybe be on the next flight from Alice Springs? "

Alice Springs?  I suppose someone was walking them up from Melbourne to Alice?  I was like a cat with a mouse, but got bored and decided to go easy.  I reframed the question.

"When can I expect my bags?"

"Um.  They'll potentially be delivered when they maybe arrive?"

That upward inflection was getting to me, but there was truth at the heart of her statement.  My eyebrows were so high levitation was likely any minute.  I sighed.  I gave her the details of my apartment in Darwin, my mobile phone number and walked out looking like a movie star who travels great distances carrying nothing but a mobile phone, a credit card and the keys to the Ferrari.  It was too hot to be loaded down with a pashmina.

So my plans to unpack and settle in to my new digs were lost and I had no cooler clothes to change into.  I'd left Melbourne winter and arrived in the tropical dry season.  So I drove around town in my (airconditioned) car and got my bearings.  I bought food for dinner. I bought nail polish (that's another story) I cooked dinner.  I ate dinner.  I washed up.  Still no sign of the bags.  At about 2am, I ran out of things to do and decided to have a shower and go to bed.  I'd just lathered up when my mobile phone rang.  A cranky sounding taxi driver was downstairs with my bags.  Naturally.  It's like they're monitoring you and know the precise moment of maximum inconvenience.

About six weeks later I had to travel back to Melbourne for a week.  I arrived at the luggage carousel.  My bags didn't.  In Melbourne they didn't pretend to know where the bags were or what would happen next or when/if they'd be delivered.  But they gave me a meal voucher.  As if I was carrying a five course meal in my suitcase.  Or even a sandwich, which was more in line with the size of the voucher.

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