A strange thing happened to my bag when I flew to Adelaide from Sydney

Marianna Massey/AFP/Getty Images

My bag and I have been round the world many times. We’ve seen and experienced amazing things but none stranger than when we flew to Adelaide from Sydney.

Flight QF783 landed in Adelaide on Thursday night, November 10, but the bag didn’t arrive at the luggage carousel.

The lady at the baggage office tapped at her terminal and then said: “Oh my God, it’s lost.”

She explained that bags sometimes get left off flights but those had known locations. My bag had dropped off the radar. Nowhere to be seen in any electronic system. Disappeared. Gone.

I describe the bag for her. It’s a trolley case, with a hard plastic back, silver cloth front with two external pockets and a black strap around the middle, added years ago when the zip slipped open while at Los Angeles Airport.

“Thank you for not being angry with me,” she said.

An airport is a lonely place when the luggage carousel is empty. I took the offered Qantas emergency kit of short pajamas, toothbrush and comb, and jumped in a taxi to the Ibis Hotel in Grenfell Street, central Adelaide.

The next morning, a short walk to Rundle Mall revealed Cotton On as the earliest of openers. I bought shirts, underwear and socks, hit the wholesale chemist for eye drops, then browsed the other now-open clothing stores.

Image: Chris Pash

At Tarocash, the sales assistant, reflecting on my situation, said: “I get a couple of customers in each week with lost luggage.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You come from Sydney?”

“How did you know?”

“It’s usually Sydney.”

I had no idea if this was correct or not but it did add a little more anxiety to the mix. Perhaps, the bag will never be heard of again. Some skulduggery at work? A gang? But why would they want my bag? Too many possibilities.

I call the baggage services number. Am told that the bag is showing scanned at self check-in but nothing after that.

“Could have gone on a different airline,” the man says. “Generally they turn up. You’ll get an SMS if it’s coming.”

The man wants a description of the bag. I give it to him and add a quick off-the-top-of-the-head inventory of what’s inside: 3 shirts (Country Road, Banana Republic, Gap), two trousers (both Gap) and three t-shirts.

“Anything distinctive?”

“A black leather toiletry bag, a champagne stopper, two science fiction books plus a lime green Moleskin notebook.”

Adelaide turns on the rain. I spend $8 on an umbrella. My travel brolly is in the bag and I realise I’ve never used it and may never get to see how well it works.

Adelaide. Image: Chris Pash

I call again the next day, Saturday. They promise to broaden the search to more than five flights. Emergency expenses of $120, to cover clothing and incidentals, are offered. “We do apologise,” the woman says.

On Sunday, Qantas calls me, not the other way round. They seem to be saying I didn’t even put the bag on the belt but perhaps I misunderstand their point which appears to be that the bag didn’t scan.

I say that this contradicts earlier advice that the back went through its first scan but nothing after. I realise they must believe the bag was checked-in because they appear to be looking for it or at least keeping and eye out for it.

On questioning, they say the baggage system is owned by Sydney Airport.

“But I gave the bag to you,” I say. “I look to you on this.”

“Oh yes, we don’t shirk our responsibility,” she says.

They want me to describe the bag again. I do so.

I let them know I am returning to Sydney today. I confirm my home address, just in case they find the bag.

I spend some time in the Qantas Club doing a few online searches, working out how I can get another pair of Gap jeans in my size and style. Even the US store doesn’t seem to stock my size anymore.

The flight back is easy, the taxi rank in Sydney manageable and the ride home quick.

The next day, I start Tweeting in earnest, creating a hashtag #findthepashbag and my own moments page. Everyone I speak to seems to know about the bag. I add posts to Facebook and Instagram.

A helpful colleague drops a note to Qantas media relations. I reply to Qantas media that I don’t need someone else calling me and asking me to describe the bag yet again. This is starting to wear down my usual optimistic outlook.

Torsten Blackwood/AFP/GettyImages

Qantas baggage calls. Apart from checking regional airports now, there’s no news.

I tell them about the Blunt brand small umbrella in my bag, serious rain protection. It’s a distinctive yellow and expensive at more than $100.

CCTV footage would show me putting the bag on the belt with all the correct tags if there is any question about that. I check. Sydney Airport owns the footage and its policy says it will only release with a court order. I contact a lawyer just in case I have to prove that it was checked-in.

And now I think about insurance. I usually tick the box for that when booking but didn’t this time. I paid with a platinum Westpac Visa but find that travel insurance only covers international travel. Should have used the American Express.

So no insurance. I add up the replacement costs. I stop at more than $1,000 for the clothes and shoes. I had no idea I had expensive tastes.

Online, Qantas says it has a payout limit of $1600 for a lost bag. We’ll see about that. The shoes alone, Timberland, are worth $250.

Tuesday and now the baggage claims manager is calling in person. Have to thank Qantas media relations for that.

The manager talks fast. She’s confident the bag will be found. She also goes through the description.

I tell her that in my mind the bag has gone. However, I urge her to view the CCTV footage which, she says, Qantas security can access at Sydney Airport. If the bag only scanned at check-in, how far can it have gone?

She calls again in the late afternoon for an update. I’m at Christmas drinks, music in the background.

On Wednesday, she calls again. This time I’m at a pub, more background noise, at a staff get together. She must think I live in bars.

I head from the pub to Otto at Woolloomooloo for the annual UBS end of year drinks with media and investment bankers. The talk is stimulating, the food excellent and the drinks cold and fast.

Image: the Bag

My phone is running out of juice, having been out of the office since midday. I stop reading SMS but later take a phone call.

“Good news, we’ve found you bag. It just popped out of the belts today.”

My wife takes delivery of the bag because I’m still at UBS.

She texts: “Your bag came home — all by itself. With its Adelaide tag still intact. Your luggage label as well.”

Apparently, the bag somehow fell from the baggage belt soon after check-in. It was captured by a net.

The view of the area where it fell is partly blocked by machinery the same silver colour as the bag. The bag blended in and was hard to spot.

After years of travel, this is the first time my bag has gone missing. But what are the odds of this happening? It’s not easy to work this out because the body with the statistics, Sydney Airport, says: “We don’t usually share actual numbers externally.”

Just why that is a secret, or some form of commercial intelligence, is a mystery. It’s not as if the airport has much competition.

Let’s try to work this out ourselves. About 26 million people go through Sydney’s domestic terminal each year, according to Sydney Airport’s latest annual report.

While Sydney Airport won’t say how many bags are handled each year, it does say “more than 99.4% of bags processed at Sydney Airport make their flight”.

If half the people going through Sydney domestic check-in a bag (and we know from direct observation that many now carry on), that means more than 75,000 bags don’t make their flights each year or more than 200 a day from 70,000 or so passengers.

A definitive calculation can’t be made without the number of bags known. One indication could be the size of the Qantas unit which tracks missing bags. I am told just a handful work this area. So 200 a day might be close to the mark. It wouldn’t take too many to look after that number.

No-one is willing to say how many bags actually don’t get found. Perhaps they all make it home, eventually.

My bag was missing for six days. I am told this is unusual but no-one will say what is usual.

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