The lady at the Qantas check-in desk was looking a little frazzled. Crowds of bad-tempered commuters seethed and surged around her. There must have been something special happening somewhere in the country. I've never seen the airport so crowded on a Sunday before.
"I'm on the Auckland flight," I told her.
She clicked keys and frowned at the screen for a time. Then she pressed RETURN and her machine disgorged a boarding pass and a luggage tag. AKL it said, in large, friendly letters. She put the luggage receipt on my boarding pass and fastened the tag to my luggage. As usual, she forgot to put a priority sticker on. I wondered whether to point this out to her, but I decided against it. I'm fed up of constantly reminding the check in people how to do their job. Anyway, the baggage handlers never pay any attention to the priority stickers. My bags are always last off the aircraft, no matter what their priority. I pay several hundred dollars every year for the privilege of having my bags ignored by the baggage handlers. I think it's quite a bargain really; well worth the money.
I went off to the lounge where I poured free food and drink into myself. Then I boarded the plane for my flight to Auckland. The safety demonstration was unusually entertaining. The purser had the volume on the speakers turned down to ultra-low and he appeared to be whispering into his microphone as well. And so, to the accompaniment of a faint susurrus somewhat akin to the soporific sound of the sea kissing the beach, the cabin crew fluttered and postured, tightening and loosening their seat buckles, indicating their nearest exits, putting on their life jackets and playing with their oxygen masks. It was a surrealistic dance by mad marionettes; a silent movie without subtitles.
The plane bounced in to the air and zig-zagged through the clouds. We were served coffee, which immediately caused massive turbulence. Before I knew it, we were landing in Auckland. I made my way to the luggage carousel. Lots of bags appeared, but none of them were mine. I wasn't too worried. I generally have to wait quite some time before my luggage arrives. However after a while it began to dawn on me that I was waiting longer than usual. All around me people were walking off encumbered with suitcases. The carousel got emptier and emptier, the people fewer and fewer. Eventually the horrible truth dawned. There were no more bags on the carousel and no passengers left in the baggage claim area. I was all alone. Qantas had lost my luggage.
My next problem was finding someone to report this to. All the office doors were firmly locked and all the check-in counters had massive queues in front of them. I joined the shortest queue which immediately came to a shuddering halt as a Julie Andrews look-alike at the head of it checked in dozens of awkwardly shaped brown paper packages tied up with string. The check-in lady looked as if these were a few of her least favourite things. But eventually I reached the desk.
"I've just arrived from Wellington," I said, "but my luggage hasn't. Here's the luggage receipt. What do I do now?"
"I don't know," said the lady. "My job is to check people in. I don't do lost luggage."
"Well can you please find someone who does?"
She looked around helplessly and transmitted telepathic waves of extreme distress. A man appeared and she gave him the luggage receipt. He took me to one side.
"Can you describe your luggage, please."
"It's a black cabin bag on wheels," I said. "Rather tatty. It's festooned with labels with my name and address on them. One of them is an Air New Zealand label. Do you suppose that could be why they didn't put it on the Qantas plane?"
"Oh no, sir," he said and vanished through a security door with my luggage receipt clutched in his hand.
About fifteen minutes later, just as I was starting to think I'd never see him or my receipt ever again, he came back.
"Well it's definitely not in the baggage area," he said, "and it's not in the hold of the plane. It seems to be lost."
"I know that," I said.
"Wait here. I'll make some phone calls."
He vanished again. I began to contemplate a desolate future with no underpants in it.
There was a puff of smoke, and the man reappeared.
"Well, there's news of a sort," he said. "There's no trace of your luggage in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin. I'll have to fill in a form and then we can put it in the computer. The computer will find your bag. Eventually."
Since I work with computers and know them intimately, this statement did not fill me with confidence. But we filled in the form and he issued me with a claim number which the computer would transmit to baggage handlers around the world.
"I'll telephone you as soon as I hear anything," he said. I went to get a taxi to my hotel.
The taxi driver was very sympathetic. "Woolworths is still open," he said. "They open 24 hours a day. Shall we stop there so you can re-equip yourself with essentials?"
"That's a good idea," I said. "I'll charge it to the company. After all, I have a company credit card."
I bought a roll of dental floss, a tube of toothpaste, a carton with a toothbrush in it, a bottle of shampoo, a bottle of conditioner, a packet of underpants, and a box of socks. It came to $73 and Woolworths refused my company credit card so I had to pay cash and claim it back later. My company credit card came in a weetbix packet and absolutely nobody except a few eccentric restaurants deep in the wilds of Lower Slobbovia will accept it.
Later that evening I got a phone call from Qantas. "We've found your luggage. It's in Sydney."
"Well of course," I said. "After all it was clearly marked AKL in large friendly letters. AKL is very similar to SYD. They've both got three letters. Anyone could easily get them confused."
"Quite," said the Qantas person. "We'll have it flown back on the first flight tomorrow. That's due in at lunchtime, so you should get your luggage back sometime tomorrow afternoon."
He was as good as his word. At five minutes to five the following afternoon, a taxi arrived with my luggage in it. The bag looked rather dissipated. It had obviously been making the most of its free evening in Sydney and appeared to have hit all the hot spots. It was now somewhat hung over and eager to rest. I took it to my room and gently unpacked it.
The worrying thing about all of this is how extraordinarily inept Qantas has proved itself to be in its implementation of the security rules that have been imposed on us all following the recent spate of terrorist attacks. Unaccompanied luggage is not allowed on planes these days. If a passenger ignores the boarding call and fails to turn up for a flight, their luggage is always unloaded from the hold. After all, it could have a bomb in it. The airlines go to extraordinary lengths to reassure the travelling public that they are safe. We all have to go through security check after security check. Our nail clippers are confiscated and the gadgets on our key rings are scrutinised with an extremely intense scroot.
But behind the scenes, nothing has changed. The X-ray arches and security guards with wands are just so much window-dressing. They provide only hollow psychological reassurance. My luggage still went to Sydney. An international flight took off with an unaccompanied bag in its hold, thereby breaking every security rule in the book. A whole plane full of people could have been blown out of the skies if my underpants had been just a trifle more lethal than they normally are.
I think Qantas has some serious soul searching to do.