By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.
Early Tuesday June 27– just before midnight, as a matter of fact, I went to Kolkata’s international airport to board a 2:00 a.m. Thai Airways flight.
I was quite excited– travelling still does that for me, and that’s part of the reason I continue to do so much of it. I was en route to Hong Kong to visit an old Oxford friend and celebrate my birthday. I also had some meetings lined up.
I intended to check in two hefty pieces of luggage, carrying what I needed for what will be a three-month journey before I return to my Brooklyn home in September.
When I travel, I always opt for inexpensive, well-made luggage– choosing unique pieces, so there’s no chance that someone else will mistake my bags for theirs. This time, I had a mid-size wheeled bag, covered in orange leatherette printed with a map of the world– the replacement for a much nicer bag that Egypt Air had ripped the wheels off on a Cairo-Port Ghalib flight on New Year’s Day. The orange leatherette bag– a tacky and tasteless example that no self-respecting chic person would be caught dead with– was the best replacement I could find, and perfect for my purposes. I’ll use it, until some airline inevitably rips its wheels off at some future date, it meets with some other accident, or simply wears out. Then I’ll replace it with something similar.
My second bag– a blue and white printed cloth duffel bag– was about to take its maiden airline voyage. The duffel was heavily packed– including some diving gear, several books, clothing, my favorite pair of leather lace-up walking shoes, toiletries, a dental retainer, a bag of adaptors and chargers, among other items.
At the last minute, I also tossed about a dozen cloth-bound notebooks into the duffel bag. When I visit a country, I carry a notebook for jotting down notes about my journey, and when I plan on revisiting a country, the notebook for that place comes along with. I also included notebooks I needed for pending work.
Now, attentive readers can sense where this is going and ask, why didn’t I throw the notebooks in my carry-on? A good question.
Well, that already contained my laptop, a camera, two lenses, my birding binoculars, and a couple other vital things And, I know from experience that weighs at least 12-15 kilos, and I just didn’t want to fight with anyone to allow me to carry my notebooks onboard.
So I did what one should never do: put something irreplaceable into checked baggage.
Check In– Kolkata: Day One
The check in experience in Kolkata was not seamless. I asked for a paper tag to put on my new bag and was told, “No need, Madame. We will tag the bag.”
At this point, faint alarm bells were ringing. Which I ignored.
Since at this point in Kolkata– a small airport– no other check-in desks were open at midnight, so there was no place to procure a paper tag.
The flight routing I’d chosen made a connection in Bangkok. I’d opted for a Kolkata-Bangkok-Hong Kong routing on Thai Airways, rather than a direct Cathay Pacific flight, as I could pay for the Thai flight with American Express miles, rather than lay out cash for the more expensive Cathay Pacific non-stop.
I can easily sleep on any flight, but I decided that since the non-stop flight was only 4 hrs, I wouldn’t really get enough sleep to make it work my while to pay cash for the flight, so chose Thai Airways.
Big big mistake.
I’m about to tell you why.
The agent checked me in, and handed me a boarding pass– to Bangkok only– and started to tag my bags.
Wait I said. I’m going to Hong Kong. Oh. Several minutes passed, and a couple of other gate agents were roped in to help correct his error.
A bit stroppily, he asked where was my visa? That was a reasonable question, because most people who fly from Kolkata to Hong Kong are Indian nationals, and therefore require advance visas to visit Hong Kong.
I have a US passport I said politely. I qualify for a visa on arrival.
Several minutes passed while the agent searched for confirmation of this fact, and then he handed me my boarding passes– Kolkata-Bangkok, Bangkok-Hong Kong.
Given the confusion, you can be sure I watched very carefully as he took the old baggage checks off my bags, tagged them properly to Hong Kong, and added bar codes as well.
The rest of my journey was uneventful. Thai Airways actually has nice large seats in steerage, the service was polite, the food edible.
The first flight took off and landed on time, I had plenty of time to reach the gate for the second, and that, too, took off and landed on time.
Arrival In Hong Kong
My nightmare began not during either flight but after I landed in Hong Kong, at the luggage carousel. My orange leatherette suitcase arrived, no problem. I waited for the blue and white duffel. And waited. And waited.
I watched as other passengers collected their bags.
Finally, I realized I had a problem, found an agent, and was escorted to the desk to fill out a lost luggage report. I described my bag as a blue, soft bag, without wheels and pointed to something similar. It’s not a suitcase I say.
The paperwork was completed quickly and efficiently. Although the reporting form was headed Thai Airways, the actual agent listed on the form is SATS HK Limited Baggage Service. Here the crapification begins.
I provided the address of the friend I was visiting, her ‘phone number, and the ‘phone number of her Hong Kong helper. I hadn’t opted to buy a Hong Kong SIM and my dumbphone remained switched off. The agent told me that the bag probably hadn’t made it onto the ‘plane, but there were three or four more Thai Airways flights that day, and my bag would be loaded onto one of those, and I’d likely have it before the end of the day.
Without any working ‘phone of my own and knowing that my friend’s a doctor– so not always able to pick up her mobile during the day– I called the SATS HK Limited Baggage Service number a couple of times. I was told that they cannot find any record of my bag having passed through Bangkok And they’d yet to hear from Kolkata either.
I spoke to my friend, who told me not to worry. She had flown on Cathay Pacific two weeks previously. Her bag went missing in Rome, there was no record of it either. Nonetheless, Cathay called her several times a day– notice Cathay called her– telling her they were looking for the bag. And then three days later, it simply appeared– with all its tags intact, and no explanation about what had happened.
Today was my birthday and I’d made plans for the evening. With most of my clothes missing, I was arrayed in a rather zaftig fashion. I called SATS HK Limited Baggage Service number a couple of times. One time, I was asked whether I had a pair or shoes in the outside pocket of my wheeled suitcase. No, I explained again, it’s not a wheeled suitcase, but a blue and white duffel bag, quite heavy, filled with books, etc. I explained that not only do I need my notebooks, I also have dental retainers, and some special toothbrush, etc., in the bag, that I’m supposed to use every day. The toothbrush would be quite pricey to replace and the manual thing I picked up at the 7/11 is not adequate.
Don’t worry, we’ll find your bag. I made a couple of more calls before anyone admitted that SATS HK Limited Baggage Service had yet to receive any report from either Kolkata or Bangkok about the bag. Had anyone checked the lost luggage section of either airport? No, we cannot reach anyone in either place.
I checked out the Thai Airways website. Major crapification. Please click on the Feedback page. And try and submit feedback. Guess what? You cannot. The first item tells the user to Select subject. But you cannot Select Subject. (When I subsequently pointed this out to someone from SATS HK Limited Baggage Service, they said, yes, we know, we can never get through to them that way.)
I asked the SATS HK Limited Baggage Service people about compensation for stuff I need to buy, they replied that I need to speak to Thai Airways. I called Thai Airways HK Airport customer service number, and was told I need to call a number– that of sa SATS HK Limited Baggage Service.
I called them again and am told they haven’t heard from either Kolkata or Bangkok.
I found a number for Thai Airways Kolkata Airport-– where I knew I’d find an English speaker– called the airport, get a person, who told me to call back in a half hour and in the meantime, he’d check for the bag.
I called back: no bag here Madame.
More of the same. I called the SATS HK number again, I’m told again no one can reach Bangkok, and there’d been no response from Kolkata. I explained I’d called Kolkata and was told there was no bag there.
That’s what they always tell customers. Well, I asked, could you call Kolkata for me? Maybe they’ll tell you the truth.
Several calls to SATS HK followed, and each time I was there was no response from Bangkok, and there was no record of the bag as having made it there.
I tried the Hong Kong Customer Service number again, and was referred to the SATS HK Limited number.
Then, I called Thai Airways Kolkata again, this time opting for a sales and ticketing number, and reached a baggage supervisor. He seemed to know what he was doing, promised to follow up with Bangkok and to get me the name and number of a person I could talk to in Thai Airways customer service in Hong Kong.
Basically, more of the same. Still no news from Bangkok.
I decided to take the day off and enjoy Hong Kong.
When I returned to my friend’s flat, an email awaited me from the Thai Airways baggage supervisor person in Kolkata. He assumed I had my bag by now. I responded: I don’t. And rang him to ask him, again,to provide me with a contact at Thai Airways customer service in Hong Kong.
An email soon arrived with a name and number of a person for me to speak to, but by the time I could call, he was gone of the day– and the following day is a national holiday, the twentieth anniversary of the Hong Kong handover.
I also spoke to SATS HK Limited Again, and this time, insisted they take my email. I received an email shortly thereafter.
Next morning, another email arrived from SATS HK Limited, this time, with pictures of bags attached. None of these is blue and white, nor are they duffle bags.
This message followed from SATS HK:
Thanks again for your email, as we already rechecked in HKG and Negative found, please give us a little time to contact with Bangkok stations and it hard to get through to them.
Please call back to us within 01-02 hours later.
We apologize for all inconvenience caused to you.
Today found me scheduled to fly to Ho Chi Minh City.
I arrived at the airport early, found the booking desk for Thai Airways– shared with about 20 other airlines– and met a Customer Service Manager for SATS Gateway. He was very cordial, and escorted me to their office, where I met various people I’d been speaking to and corresponding with for the last several days.
They seemed to have a different conception of what a duffel bag is than I do– I pointed to a picture that resemblesd my missing bag, and there followed a flurry of typing of what I was told was a message to Bangkok. I was also told they still hadn’t received any replies to their earlier messages, and no one had yet to pick up the ‘phone when they rang Bangkok. “Baggage office is always very busy.” I told them I was on my way to Ho Chi Minh City, but when they found the bag, they should deliver it to my friend, who would hold it for me until I could swing back through Hong Kong and collect it.
At this point, they handed my 780 HKD in compensation [roughly 100 USD]. Not much for what’s now day five without my bag. I signed for the money, insisting this is only an initial payment for the compensation I expect to receive, which is laid out in the Thai Airways contract of carriage. SATS provided a claim form but this was neither the time nor place to quibble about compensation; and anyway, I knew I must take that issue up with the airline.
Although I was told SATS HK would forward the bag to me when it was found, I said I didn’t want to do that, due to my concern that would be just a license to pilfer the bag (not that there’s anything of real value to anyone else in it, but one never knows what will catch someone’s fancy).
If my bag were to be sent onto Ho Chi Minh City, and anything subsequently went missing, there would be much finger-pointing and no accountability. If instead I later collect it in Hong Kong and anything is then missing, I would know the theft had occurred somewhere between Kolkata and Hing Kong.
The SATS HK Limited people promised to email me regularly with updates– at least twice daily– and I said if they did that, I’d avoid calling much until there’s further word.
Day dawned in Ho Chi Minh City, and shortly thereafter, I received a message for the SATSHK people:
Thanks again for your email, we still not received any feedback from Bangkok station, we apologize for all inconvenience caused to you. We will chase Bangkok stations again, once we received any feedback and will inform to you directly by email.
All of my colleagues know about your cases and will follow up and action every day.
No real news, but at least they were communicating.
It was now six days and counting since I’d reported the bag missing, and I was still being told “we still not received any feedback from Bangkok station”. That to me says: no response.
No one had yet found a barcoded, missing, blue and white cloth duffle bag.
I remained pretty sure no one see snared the bag. Reason one: I waited for it at the Hong Kong baggage carousel when I picked up my first bag. and didn’t see it Reason two, it’s a blue and white printed cloth duffle bag, and doesn’t look like it’s worth stealing– e.g., not an expensive piece of designer luggage. I really am known for having bags that no one else would be caught dead with. Reason three: I bought it from a small boutique in Jaipur, India, and it has a distinctive design– so it’s not a standard black suitcase that someone might grab by mistake. Reason four: the bag has no wheels, but contains several notebooks, paperbacks, and clothing. In other words, it’s unwieldy, and heavy, and any thief would think twice about trying to muscle it out of the airport. And reason five: If it’s indeed somewhere in Bangkok– the only place that no one seems to have received a response from– no member of the public should have had access to the bag anyway, which was supposed to be transferred from one ‘plane to another.
AMEX to the Rescue…NOT
Sometime late on Sunday night, after a short email with Yves where she suggested I write this post about the crapification of Thai Airways baggage tracking service– outsourced to this SATS HK Limited Baggage Service, which doesn’t seem to be able to get any other baggage service, either in Kolkata but especially in Bangkok– to respond to its calls or messages.
This stood in contrast to my doctor friend’s experience, also flying into Hong Kong, where Cathay Pacific was in charge of its own luggage arrangements, and kept her fully and regularly apprised of what was going on.
I remembered that not only had I booked this flight with American Express Travel, but I had used points I’d collected on my Platinum Amex card to do so. I’ve been a cardholder since 1988, when I first started attending law school.
So, I thought: maybe American Express might be able to use some of its muscle to help find my bag.
I know, I know–before I get skinned by the commentariat– the American Express card is pricey, and the annual fee is going up to $550 this year. Is it worth it?
Sadly, my experience makes it clear that the Platinum Card aint what it used to be, and the service I received in trying to get my bag suggests that Amex has decided to engage in a race to the bottom in the further crapification of its flagship product. Let me tell you my Amex story, gentle readers, and perhaps you can vote on which baggage tracing service sounds crappier– the Thai Airways system– managed through SATS HK Limited– or the “help” I’ve received so far from Amex.
So, first step, was to call Amex. I explained my problem. Got placed on hold– elevator music.
Finally got a human– a man– who was rather obnoxious. One pet peeve of mine is that I hate being referred to by my first name– which no one ever gets right anyway– but by a title.
When did these American companies shift to using first names anyway? To me, it’s an obvious ploy to establish intimacy, when what the company should be doing, is providing excellent, arm’s length customer service. We’re not chums, after all, so let’s not try and get all chummy.
Anyway, I asked respectfully to be referred to by title, and was told that, since the title wasn’t on my booking, the agent couldn’t use one. I kid you not. At this point, I admit I got stroppy, and said perhaps I would cancel the card then, and the rep said– wait for it– he could put me through to a number and I could do just that.
Well, I can and do occasionally lose my temper, but rather than doing something genuinely stupid, I just hung up. It had been a rather long and trying week.
Called Amex again. Explained the problem again. Much warm fuzziness, apologies from Amex.
This time, I was on hold for more than an hour, waiting for a supervisor. Extended symphony of exceptionally insipid elevator music. The rep occasionally checked back in. I finally said I couldn’t wait any longer, gave her a deadline by which time I had to ring off, and when 15 minutes after said deadline, no one came back onto the line, I hung up. Total time on second call: About an hour and a half.
Called Amex again. At this point, I’ve made two calls, spent more than 2 1/2 hours on the phone, and spoken to at least three or four people– none of whom has made any notes about nor has has any record of the previous calls.
This time, however, I’m lucky. The rep realizes this is a matter that can be handled by their Premium Global Assist Department. Within about ten minutes, I’m put through to a human, and this time, she seems to know what she’s doing. She collects some details, and promises me an email reply w/in 5-7 hours.
Great! Except, upon reflection, the following question occurs to me: Amex is no doubt mining my data and collecting info all the time about me. So, why, when I initially called with this request for help, did it take three calls, at least five reps, and 3/12 hours on the phone for someone to put me through to the dedicated department that deals with this issue so that I could log my problem. Now, maybe I should have known what department to ask for. Not! I mean, after all, who knows what services and add-ons are attached to credit cards anyway. It’s not like I make a habit of losing my bags and therefore know this system inside and out.
But, at least I went to bed thinking I had got somewhere.
Until the a.m., when I received the following reply:
I hope you are well despite the delay in luggage.
I have spoken with Thai Airways and the representative has advised there is no new information in regards to your luggage. They are still currently in the process of looking for it. We will reach out to them again tomorrow and will update you as soon as we have spoken with them. They ask if you have questions regarding compensation to contact them at 0116622887138, they are open from 9am-4pm.
If you have any questions, please contact us at 800-345-2639 or internationally at 715-343-7977 and refer to your case number. You can also respond to this e-mail.
Thank you and safe travels,
So much for the vaunted Premium Global Assist service. And the Amex muscle. Which seems to consist of Amex making one call– getting no info– and then telling me to call a Bangkok general number. No extension. No name of live human who can help me.
Incidentally, Bangkok is the wrong place to call– as I was actually never really in Bangkok. I never cleared immigration. I simply walked from one gate to another in the airport.
And then, Amex will “reach out to them tomorrow.” The email, incidentally, was signed first name, last initial– again trying to foster that illusion of intimacy, rather than focusing on dong anything such as provide competent customer service.
Well, I fired off a reply, where I made these and a couple other points. I’ll spare readers that as I’ve summarized the main ideas here, and this post is already too long. But I did chide Amex for essentially saying, “Your bag’s still missing, no one has any idea where, and we’ll follow-up tomorrow.”
And then received the following reply a couple of hours later:
I understand your frustration and concern that Thai Airways did not have more information on the status of your missing bag. In hopes that I can clarify what we are able to do on your behalf in this situation, I’d like to explain the Missing Luggage Assistance benefit.
When your luggage is delayed and/or the airline may have misplaced it, Premium Global Assist Hotline can help track its status. Premium Global Assist Hotline will contact the airlines on a daily basis to check the status of the luggage. We will continue to follow up with you and the airline on the status of your luggage, and provide you with a daily update. While the airline that the claim is filed with is ultimately responsible for finding and getting the luggage back to the passenger, we can also help to coordinate return of on your behalf. We do make every effort to obtain, clarify, and verify information from the airlines regarding the whereabouts of the missing luggage, and advocate on your behalf.
I have had our Lost Luggage team attempt to reach out to Thai Airways several times this morning to see if they had any updated information. At this point, we have not been able to reach a representative from Thai airways. We will continue to reach out the Thai airways for an update, and will update you again at that time.
Note that this message seems to contradict the earlier message, where I was told someone spoke to Thai Airways: “I have spoken with Thai Airways and the representative has advised there is no new information in regards to your luggage.” The second message says: “At this point, we have not been able to reach a representative from Thai airways.”
So what is it: did they, or didn’t they?
Leaving me to wonder: Why was I wasting time with Amex anyway? Independently, I’d managed to speak to a helpful Thai Airways baggage supervisor in Kolkata, and he had actually helped a bit. And was still taking my calls and suggesting avenues that I could follow up on. Whereas Amex wasn’t doing anything but providing compassion theater– and no actual help.
I Finally Manage to Connect with a Thai Airways Customer Service Rep
Turning away from Amex, I realized that the SATS HK people I spoke to in Hong Kong on Saturday had failed to honor their promise to send me twice daily emails. So, I had no update on the status of their efforts to call or get a response from anyone in Bangkok.
But with the Hong Kong national holiday and the weekend over, I tried again to call the Thai Airways HK customer service person whose number the Thai Airways Kolkata baggage supervisor had provided to me.
And guess what? He answered his phone. So, on day seven of this ordeal, I finally managed to connect with Thai Airways customer service in Hong Kong and spoke to another real live human who works for Thai Airways.
After explaining my problem, he told me I had to write them an email, explaining my issue, including an attached copy of the Property Irregularity Report I had filed on the June 27, as well as a copy of tag for the missing bag.
I was tempted to ask why he didn’t call SATS HK Limited Baggage Service in the Hong Kong airport, who had been (mis)handling this issue from the get go, but hell, I still hope to recover my bag.
So I eschewed venting and instead thanked him profusely for his help.
And then immediately sent an email. And waited.
I copied my email to several of the colourful cast of characters whose email addresses I’d collected during this sad and sorry tale. No immediate replies. Just before the close of the Hong Kong day, I decided to call to make sure that my email had been received.
So I again called the Thai Airways HK customer service person I’d first spoken to earlier during the day. Since the email had gone to his colleague and not to him directly, he had no idea whether it had been received. Please wait. I said, no problem, I’ll ring you back in 10 minutes.
And I did– to find that the email had been received, but now to be told that they’d only just today become aware of the problem. Yes, he actually said that.
So, now I had to be patient and wait for people whose job it was to handle queries such as this in the Thai Airways HK customer service department to call, telex, etc– on the trail of my bag.
Five minutes later, I received this email from his female colleague:
Thank you for your e-mail and please accept our sincere apologies for the inconvenience caused.
We would like to inform that you baggage is still under tracing and you will be in contact again soon. [Jerri-Lynn here: I think they meant “we”.]
Of all the people involved in this sad and sorry tale, the Thai Airways baggage supervisor in Kolkata has been most helpful and responsive. So I thought that I at least owed him a head’s up that I was about to post my Never Fly Thai post.
He said he’s still hopeful the bag might be found, and said that it’s not a bad airline. It’s unusual for bags to be lost this long, but they do sometimes turn up.
He also understood why I was writing this post. He asked me to provide scanned copies of my boarding passes, and that I shortly thereafter did
And just a little while ago, this arrived from the SATS HK Limited customer services manager (supervisor) in HK:
Thank you very much for your email.
I know how you feel during the absence of your bag.
We are still trying our best to locate your baggage despite of negative response from the airports involved.
One of my colleagues responsible for tracing will email you the latest result of our work.
Please rest assure that we will keep you updated in regard to the location of your baggage.
Your understanding is highly appreciated.
Oh, what a fool I have been! I should have paid up for that Cathay Pacific flight.
Because at least in that case, if my friend’s experience last month is any guide, that airline would be diligently looking for my bag, and calling me periodically with updates.
Instead of sending me messages telling me that haven’t received feedback, or saying “We are still trying our best to locate your baggage despite of negative response from the airports involved.”
And in the meantime, I sit and wait, and wait, and wait– not in Casablanca, but in Ho Chi Minh City– yearning not to receive my letters of transit, but for someone to find my missing bag– or at least for Bangkok to start looking for it.