You know the moment.
Bleary-eyed from a long air trip, you slouch at the baggage carousel with your fellow passengers sharing a single unspoken question: Did my luggage make it?
A bell sounds. Machinery somewhere squeaks, clanks, and comes to life. A bag appears from behind the rubber curtain and tumbles to the rotating conveyor. Then another bag. And another.
For me (and most other travelers, I suspect), it’s the worst moment of the trip. I can endure the indignities of TSA searches, the frustration of unexpected flight delays, and the irritation of cramped seats. I’ve even overcome my trepidation when the pilot announces “a little turbulence ahead.” But I cannot conquer the fretful wait to find out if my airline has unexpectedly dispatched my underwear to Rangiroa. Usually there’s a happy ending. My belongings and I are reunited. Usually. I am haunted by those few times when my fellow passengers depart while I watch the empty carousel rotate, rotate, and finally halt. I know what comes next. Go to the lost luggage counter, contend with jaded workers, fill out a long form, and re-plan my trip without my painstakingly assembled travel gear.
It doesn’t need to be this way. I have a solution, not for lost luggage, but to eliminate the anxiety of not knowing.
Airlines keep careful track of luggage. They know if a bag is on a plane and its owner is not. We’ve heard the threatening announcements: “Mr. Thus-and-Such please identify yourself. Otherwise the flight will be delayed while we locate your bag and remove it from the aircraft.” There is a corollary: If the airline knows my bag is on the plane without me, it must also know if I am on the plane without my bag. Airlines use computers and barcodes to link me inextricably to my belongings. Isn’t that the reason for all the scanning and beeping before I head down the jetway? Clearly an airline knows if my bag is on my flight before I depart.
So here’s the solution to baggage-carousel anxiety. After a flight, passengers make their way to the carousels as usual, but now on the screen next to the arriving flight numbers is an added feature: a list of passengers whose luggage didn’t make it. Those poor souls can make the trek to the lost luggage counter, and the rest of us can relax knowing that a little patience will be rewarded with the safe delivery of our possessions. And for many flights there would be no names at all—a bonus for airlines wishing to emphasize their care-free travel.
The technology to accomplish this service surely exists, and it seems like a minor adjustment for an industry that expects us to pay for checked luggage and stand still for a full-body x-ray each time we fly. Why can’t it happen?
Paul C. Dalmas is a freelance writer who has made his living as boilermaker’s helper, a fry cook, and a high school English teacher. His essays have been broadcast on KQED-FM and published in Newsweek, The San Francisco Chronicle, and California Magazine. He lives in Berkeley, California.