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Posted on Apr 13, 2007 in Top Shots
A Warning to Traveling Fishermen

In the May issue of Sport Fishing, you'll find my editorial entitled, "Wanted: A Fisherman-Friendly Airline." That editorial was very much in mind last week during a trip to fish the remote Andaman Islands (watch for the feature next year). Remote is a key word because it's one of those dream-trip destinations where there sure ain't any tackle stores handy where you can pick up those items you forgot. So, like me, my fishing buddy, Rob, brought little in the way of personal gear but lots of essential tackle.

We met in Newark, where we'd fly out together on Air India. Rob flew nonstop from L.A. on Continental. The flight arrived an hour late, but we'd given ourselves a sizable time cushion so this didn't present a threat to making our Air India flight. Of more concern, however, was the absence of Rob's big tackle bag when the baggage carousel stopped and all passengers had left. Hard to figure that Continental Airlines had been unable to simply load a bag in L.A. onto a plane and take it off in Newark. (He had checked in plenty early so that wasn't a factor.)

But things get much harder to believe, starting with his stop at Continental's Newark baggage-claim office. After presenting baggage-claim tickets and going through the usual lost-luggage routine with an agent whose tag read "Nancy," Rob was told simply that Continental in Newark didn't have his bag and had no idea where it might be. His attempt to elicit much concern on their part, given his imminent departure on a great (and very expensive) fishing adventure, the success of which would be immeasurably diminished without the critical gear he'd packed for the trip, elicited only a bit of interest. They did suggest that Rob call their Houston HQ if he wanted to pursue the problem.

And Nancy did assure Rob that he was welcome to check back; maybe it would come in on a later flight.

But wait, you might wonder - as indeed we wondered: All luggage is logged in via computer, right? Well ... yes. Of course there's a but. In this case the "but" is that computer records don't much matter if the baggage-claim personnel at the other end don't care enough to try to use them.

So Rob ended up doing what they should have and could have done at Continental's Newark office: From the Air India departure gates, he called Continental's HQ baggage-claim office in Houston. They did check the computer record - and promptly informed him that the bag had in fact been put on the plane and had arrived in Newark. Apparently for some reason someone neglected to put it on the conveyor to the carousel. He wrote down the specific information for his bag and managed to reach Nancy by phone in the Continental baggage-claim office.
"Well, if that's what they told you," she said, wearily, "you can go check." She gave him directions to "a door" near the baggage claim office.

So off he went, back out of the departure-gate area and down to the baggage-claim nether regions to find prescribed door. Only problem when he did so: No one home. Repeated knocking brought no answer.

Rob went over to the Continental office to tell Nancy that her instructions were doing him no good. But - perhaps not so surprisingly - he found himself at the end of a line of other Continental passengers with baggage woes, and though Nancy clearly saw Rob waiting in line, she made no effort to cut him any slack. So he waited (thinking again just how fortuitous it was to have given ourselves such a substantial time cushion in Newark). Finally, when his turn came, he told Nancy that no Continental personnel were on hand at "the door."

Her advice: Try again.

(If she had any concerns by now that he might miss his international flight after all this time, she didn't express them.)

So Rob tried again.

And again. No answer.

However, he happened to notice some groups of luggage in a cordoned-off area between nearby carousels. He didn't want to risk venturing into the roped-off area to see if any might be his "lost" bag - but by now grew worried about the waning time until boarding. (Keep in mind that if he did find his bag, he'd still have to take it to Air India and check it in, then go back through security again to get out to the gate.) So he decided to chance it. No sooner had he stepped over the velour ropes than some baggage-area employee informed him he couldn't go back there to look for his bag.

He spotted a Continental baggage agent standing at a podium of some sort, apparently reading. He walked up and stood there, but she didn't look up nor acknowledge him, let alone ask if she could help. Finally, he spoke up, saying he'd just talked to Continental baggage claim in Dallas which told him his bag was there in Newark.

"No it's not," she immediately insisted, without asking for more information or checking anything out. "We don't have your bag. It's not here."

"Well, can I take a look through those bags over there and see?" he asked.

Without looking up, she replied: "Whatever."

And in fact, his bag was sitting there. The woman demanded his claim stub but otherwise offered no comment let alone apology as Rob hurried off.

After losing nearly two hours to this 100-percent-avoidable nonsense, Rob made our flight - but not by much. (Air India and a smaller regional airline in India did, by the way, keep our bags with us through three subsequent connections to our final destination - with all flights on time. Perhaps Continental could use a refresher course from Air India on basic service....)

The bottom line: This is a good reminder for anglers who must rely on airlines to get them and their gear to/from destinations for trips they've planned months to take into account airline incompetence and indifference. My pal Rob can tell you just how close he came to having his long-planned trip largely spoiled by Continental Airlines in Newark. Until there is a "fisherman-friendly airline" - or just a customer-friendly airline - make sure your flight itineraries allow for plenty of extra time to check in and make connections.

-Doug Olander

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