Baggage hunt at BWI

Passengers sift through piles of bags that went astray after weekend storm disrupted thousands of flights

March 20, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

There were red ones and blue ones and plenty of black ones - thousands of suitcases crowding the baggage claim area. Many were on wheels, and a few had little ribbons to distinguish them.

Orphans all.

The luggage was lined up at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport yesterday, and airline officials said it could take days to reunite all of the bags with owners. Bags were separated from passengers after a Friday storm that coated planes and runways with a layer of ice and prompted thousands of canceled or delayed flights.

The displacement was unusual in both the number of bags and the number of airports and airlines affected, officials said.

People trickled in to BWI all day to claim their baggage.

"I was supposed to get in at 9:30 p.m. [Sunday] night, but I got in between midnight and 1 a.m. I waited to, like, 3 a.m., and then I finally just got a car and went to Aberdeen, where I was staying," said Jason Krogh of Manitowoc, Wis., who flew on US Airways from Milwaukee to Philadelphia and then to Baltimore.

He came back yesterday to hunt for his bag - a black one with wheels like so many others. After 25 minutes and a tip from a customer service agent on where to concentrate, he found it.

The problems began Friday when the airlines loaded planes with people and bags only to be told that they couldn't take off. In many cases the passengers got off. Many made arrangements to fly on other airlines or secured a seat for another day. Some rented cars and drove. Others gave up and stayed put.

In many cases, airlines had no way of knowing what the passengers had decided to do. And even if they did, harried workers couldn't go into the belly of a plane for one or two bags that needed to stay.

For the most part, bags went where they were tagged to go. Nearly all of the luggage in Baltimore's baggage claim had one of those paper BWI tags. As customers called or agents tracked them down, some suitcases were being returned to their point of origin or sent on to other destinations.

A supervisor for Southwest, BWI's No. 1 carrier, said workers had been on the job 24 hours a day since Friday, finding luggage, logging it and notifying customers where it was. Nicolas Hadeed, customer service supervisor at BWI, said he expects it to take a couple of days before all the bags are picked up or sent home.

"This is irregular," he said. "Usually, we have a handful of bags in the back of the counter. Some days there are none. When a storm of this size happens, we have to focus on first things first, and the first thing is safety."

Southwest canceled 354 flights systemwide from Friday through Sunday. In Baltimore, 80 were canceled.

A Southwest spokesman said yesterday afternoon that less than 100 bags were left to be claimed at BWI.

"The process has gone fairly smoothly," said spokesman Chris Mainz. "It is unusual to have that amount of flights canceled and that number of bags separated from passengers. It was an industrywide problem in the Northeast."

Many passengers discovered that their bags made it to Baltimore before they did.

Walt Lukken was stuck in Florida for three days before Southwest could get him to BWI and home to Washington. When he landed yesterday, he went to the Southwest counter and plucked his bags from the rows.

Next up was Mark Greenlaw of Columbia, whose bag traveled but he didn't.

"I was trying to go to Ohio to spend St. Patrick's Day with friends," he said. "Instead, I spent the day here at BWI. I checked my bag, so it went. I gave up trying to call and figured it would end up here. And it did."

For US Airways passengers, Friday's storm had especially unfortunate timing. The airline is still recovering from troubles with a new reservation system that made checking in difficult.

And like United and Frontier airlines during the Denver storm at Christmastime, US Airways suffered a particular blow from this storm because the airline has a hub in Philadelphia. US Airways canceled 555 flights from there alone.

Systemwide, the airline canceled 2,500 flights Friday through Sunday, including 13 in Baltimore. Yesterday, the network was back to normal.

"Progress is good so far on the baggage front," said airline spokesman Morgan Durrant. He said nearly all bags have been sent to their destinations and are waiting to be claimed.

Dawn Clark of Baltimore claimed her bags yesterday. Her flight Sunday started in Providence, went through Philadelphia and landed at BWI about 1 a.m. yesterday, some 3 1/2 hours late.

"There weren't enough seats, there weren't enough handlers, there weren't enough people to take tickets in Providence," she said. "So, when I got here, I figured they didn't have baggage handlers either, and I guess they didn't because my bags weren't here. I just left and went home. Came back today."

She found two bags after an agent told her where to look among the rows of luggage.

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