Friday, April 25, 2008

Zeno's British Airways Baggage Paradox

I remember being fascinated with Zeno's Paradox as a kid. The version I heard had to do with never getting someplace because you always had to get half-way there first (and then half-way of the remaining difference, and so on). The idea was that motion and getting someplace is an illusion.

And so it seemed with our baggage from British Airways on my current trip to India.

We had heard about the Terminal Five woes a month back, and thought they were solved. Unfortunately, solutions are an illusion. We were scheduled to go from San Francisco to Heathrow (London, UK) and then to Chennai, and then to Madurai. But, flight delays on leaving SFO meant that we wouldn't made our connection. Although the front desk agent missed this boat, the staff in the club caught it, rebooked us through Bangalore and retagged our bags before the plane took off. So far so good.

But, when we arrived in Bangalore to collect our bags, they were missing. The Bangalore staff had a sign up asking for us to check in. They gave us a claim check, 35 British pounds on a debit card for our trouble. And thence our journey into the paradox began.

airport tarmac, Air Deccan prop plane in background, Virginia and Jim Fruchterman
Looking pretty good in Bangalore, photo credit: Kate Fruchterman

The Paradox Unfolds

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Sunday morning
24 hours
Air

They said the bags would come in the next day and be delivered to our hotel. OK, we said, we can go out and buy shirts and an extra pair of underwear. And, we did that when we got to Madurai.

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Monday morning
12 hours
Air

We sent email and got an auto-response that BA would "revert within three days." Not wanting to revert on that timetable, we worked through the phone systems and spoke to someone. Yes, our bags had come in to Chennai and would be in Madurai by the evening.
OK, we can deal without a little longer. But Monday evening came and went with no bags.

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Tuesday morning at 7 am
6 hours
Air, then courier

So, another day, more phone calls. Well, actually, it turns out that the bags didn't come into Chennai. They came into Bangalore. OK, no problem, just pop them onto the 1 hour flight from Bangalore to Madurai and they'll be here soon. My wife and daughter buy Indian clothes. I keep wearing the same pants, but now have two shirts and two pairs of underwear that the hotel washes one of each day.

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Tuesday afternoon at 3 pm
3 hours
Courier

Well, it turns out that British Air claims that can't fly our bags from Bangalore to Madurai. But, we did it. As a matter of fact, British Air arranged for us to fly from Bangalore to Madurai when we missed our Chennai connection. So, for some reason BA refuses to send our bags by air, and sent it by courier service overland. But, the bags came into Bangalore yesterday morning and were then sent, so it should be here really soon now. It's only a twelve hour drive. This is cheaper?

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Wednesday morning at 7 am
2 hours
Bus courier, auto-rickshaw?

We call again. It turns out that it's not a trucking firm. It's guy on a bus. And, he got here last night but couldn't find our hotel. Odd, it's the only Taj hotel in Madurai. But cool, bus-courier-man will be here any minute. He'll just take an auto-rickshaw to get here, we assume (those cool three ubiquitous 3-wheeler). We're scheduled to check out of the hotel at 9 am to go to our next destination (Thanjavur, aka Tangore). We're just beginning to suspect that things aren't right (ok, I exaggerate). We ask for the mobile number of the delivery guy, just in case.

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Wednesday morning at 10 am
1 hour
Ox-cart?

Another missed deadline. Maybe it will never get here. Maybe the guy hired a bullock cart: that's why it's taking so long because the hotel is 10 minutes from the bus station.

By this time, the hotel staff are getting concerned. Will this American whose been wearing the same pair of pants for five days keep hanging around their lobby asking about his baggage? One of the front desk guys calls the delivery guy. He says, no problem, one hour more.

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Wednesday morning at 1130 am
1/2 hour
Wheeling our bags on foot?

By now, the general manager of the hotel has been offering to help for some time. He calls the courier mobile. Half an hour. More questions. Ooops, it's actually a guy from a courier company in Chennai. The courier doesn't have a mobile. Maybe, there is no courier at all.

The general manager decides to stop this sequence of ever-shortening time periods that never actually occur. Pretty soon, we should be able to see the delivery guys crawling along the road, always traveling half the distance to the hotel. But, we don't see him.

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Wednesday morning at noon
15 minutes
Hotel cowboy rides to rescue, intending to intercept the bags

So, the manager of the hotel decides to cut the Gordian knot of our dilemma [two Greek references in one blog post!]. He sends his own staff guy to the bus station. Soon, we'll find out what percentage of what British Air has been telling us is true. Are the bags at the bus station? Are they in Bangalore? Are they in Chennai? Could they still be in a pile at Heathrow?

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Wednesday at 1230 pm
10 minutes
Hotel cowboy ropes in the bags

We have word from the hotel staffer that the bags were indeed sitting at the bus station and he's on his way back: he'll be here in ten minutes (I cannot tell a lie, they didn't promise 7.5 minutes at this point, they promised ten).

Day, Promised Arrival, Mode
Wednesday at 1238 pm
They do!
Bellhops (3) wheel bags into our room

A miracle. My own malaria pills (I cadged my missing doses from Virginia, my wife, who was not so stupid as to have packed her pills in the checked baggage!).

Clean pants. My shaver. Sandals. Phone charger.

Vacation saved. And, Zeno's paradox has been broken by GM Ravi Khandige and the intrepid staff of the Taj Garden Retreat Hotel, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India. [by the way, terrific hotel]

Oh, I fly home tomorrow through Heathrow on BA. Pray for me and my bags!

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