American Airlines Forces Photographer to Check Bag with $13k of Equipment Inside, Loses Bag

Michelle Frankfurter is an award-winning photojournalist from the Washington, D.C. area.  She relayed the following story on Twitter:

Here’s my summary of what happened

Michelle was bumped and asked to take a different flight from Chicago to National/Reagan in DC.  When she got to the gate for that flight, the gate agent looked at her bag and said she had to check it, because presumably overhead bins would be full.  This is the type of bag Michelle had, a very popular ThinkTank bag used by photographers all over the world:

Ms. Frankfurter was either in Group 8 (a regular economy ticket) or Group 9 (Basic Economy, which would prevent her from bringing a bag onboard in the first place, so I don’t think this is likely since there was no mention of payment for checking a bag in the Twitter summary).  The gate agent insisted that the bag be checked.  Eventually Michelle gave in, not wanting to miss her flight, and checked her bag.  After the flight she waited on the jet bridge, assuming the bag would be there, and it never showed up.  American has not been able to locate the bag since.

American’s farcical “D0” initiative probably contributed

In an effort to shore up their operational reliability American started focusing on D0 (d-zero), meaning doing whatever they could to get flights out exactly on time.  Whether this means starting boarding early, bumping passengers, not doing upgrades, not clearing standbys, etc., if the flight gets out on time it’s considered a win.

This D0 initiative hasn’t really done that much to improve American’s reliability scores and, in the meantime, has absolutely excoriated any semblance of customer service at the gate, especially in the case of Ms. Frankfurter at O’Hare Airport.  Whether the gate agent wanted to help or not, they likely didn’t have time to make an exception and call down to the aircraft to ask if overhead bin space was available for Ms. Frankfurter’s bag.

Gate agents have to send numerous flights a day and it’s understandable that they assume most overhead bins will be full in the later groups.  However, with the debut of doomed-to-fail Basic Economy tickets there is potential for there to be overhead bin space in later boarding groups.  I know every gate agent and seemingly every flight attendant says “this is a very full flight” but often there is room left over.  Something likely could’ve been done.  The really crappy part about this is American is only limited to $1500 of liability for checked luggage.

This is a problem fairly unique to photographers, since their gear is relatively small but in many cases phenomenally expensive.  I know a gate agent can’t understand every potential exception but my hope would be that more reasonable heads would’ve prevailed here.

There was some amount of misunderstanding about where she should have picked up the bag

Ms. Frankfurter indicated that she waited on the jet bridge after the flight for her bag.  This is a practice called “valet checking” a bag.  Valet checking only happens on regional carriers in most cases.  AA 2481 was operated by a Boeing 737, a mainline aircraft.  When you check a bag on a mainline aircraft it will always be sent to baggage claim.  Since Ms. Frankfurter stated later in her Twitter thread that she usually flies Delta she may not have been aware of this.  The misunderstanding was likely compounded by the fact that she left her bag on the jet bridge.  Her bag, if it made the flight, would’ve been sent to the normal baggage claim area and not the jet bridge.  In the melee of going back and forth with the gate agent it seems like this information was either not conveyed to the customer or the customer misunderstood the process.

Here are some things, unfortunately in hindsight, that may have helped

The American Airlines app

American Airlines incorporated checked baggage tracking into their app a year or so ago and it’s surprisingly detailed.  It will tell you when you bag is scanned at the airport, when it’s loaded onto an aircraft, and when it’s scanned off the aircraft at your destination.  Whenever I check a bag, which is infrequent but happens from time to time, I always have the app pulled up while I’m boarding to make sure the bag makes the flight.  If we push back and the app doesn’t say the bag has been loaded on the aircraft I send a Direct Message to American on Twitter and ask them to look into it during my flight.

Confirm where to pick up your bag

If a gate agent ever forces you to check a bag, ask where to leave it and, most importantly, ask where it will be sent, to the jet bridge or to the baggage claim.  It’s important for you to know where to look for your bag, particularly if it’s as full of valuables as a photographer’s bag typically is.

Here’s the ultimate problem

I have flown American almost exclusively for years now.  I’m familiar with how they work, what they do well, and what they struggle with.  That said: this information is nearly impossible for a first-time or infrequent traveler to understand.  American has a massive problem with educating their customers, especially the one-time flyers they’re courting.  An unpredictable client experience leads to confusion, confusion leads to nasty problems like the tools of someone’s livelihood being lost (at the moment).

I hate that this happened to Ms. Frankfurter.  I also hate that so much pressure is put onto the gate agents to get these flights out on time.  I believe that most gate agents mean well, that most baggage handlers are good at their jobs, and that most people wouldn’t walk off with someone else’s bag.  But one of those things wasn’t true here.  It’s horribly unfortunate what happened and even moreso that it’s really hard to know what happened.

Best-case scenario is the bag still resides within American’s baggage infrastructure, soon to be found and returned to Ms. Frankfurter.  If I had to speculate I’d say the worst-case scenario would be Ms. Frankfurter waiting on the jet bridge while the bag was actually sent to the baggage claim area where someone else recognized it as a photographer’s bag and walked off with it.

This is a hard problem to fix for American

I can’t sit here from a few tweets and say American is 100% to blame.  What I can say, however, is American’s policies and the pressure they put on their customer-facing staff create an environment where something like this could happen.

From where I sit, what should happen next?

First of all, here’s hoping there’s an insurance policy to protect Ms. Frankfurter from the loss of her equipment.  If I’m her, I’m reaching out to American via their AAdvantage Customer Service page in order to create a record of the events from her perspective.  I’m ensuring that a claim has been created about her missing bag with Baggage Services.  These two events will give her some records and case numbers which she can track and will be useful for insurance purposes and beyond, should any legal matters arise.

In any case, most of all I hope that Ms. Frankfurter’s bag finds her soon with all of her equipment undamaged and ready to continue helping her create impactful images.

In the midst of a tough situation here’s what was encouraging to me

I can’t imagine what emotions Ms. Frankfurter went through.  To have the tools of your livelihood taken away is incredibly stressful, especially when it seemed to be so easily preventable in the first place!  Reading through the Twitter thread, however, I was so encouraged to see people reaching out to her with offers to use their equipment if she needed to and offers of setting up GoFundMes from fellow photojournalists.  I say pretty often that the best part of photography is other photographers and it’s encouraging to see other photographers taking care of one of their own.

 

Have you ever lost a bag on a flight?  What did you do?  Share any tips you have in the comments below!

8 Comments

  1. making a “big deal” out of the value may have marked it for theft.

    Reply
  2. @mike murphy: sometimes making a big deal out of the value is the only way to get gate agents to heed your requests. This isn’t a pile of clothes, it’s someone’s entire livelihood. This whole thing is eerily similar to the ‘united breaks guitars’ fiasco from years ago. If someone says something super expensive is in their luggage, for god’s sake let them take it on the aircraft. We can use some empathy in our decision making, can’t we?

    It’s not going to hold the flight up – because literally every time I get on an AA flight, we sit in the plane for a good 20 minutes after the doors close anyway while paperwork is finished up and the plane is fueled etc.

    Reply
  3. i expect it was stolen. Either behind the scenes, or from baggage claim.

    Reply
  4. If you booked your flight using CSR or other premium travel card, you could have at least another $3000 in insurance, no?

    Reply
  5. American Airlines (British Airways Flight 5712 operated by American Airlines) originating Phoenix, AZ, May 3, 2017. Had most of our cameras and electronics as well as prescription medication in two carry on cases well within the allowance, In spite of our objections that batteries that were not supposed to go into the hold were in the cases, we were forced to check them or not get onto the plane. They were checked through to Stockholm.

    On arrival in Stockholm none of our luggage checked or otherwise showed up. The two checked at the counter bags and one checked at the gate bag arrived two days later, but the fourth bag with a computer and all of my camera gear did not. It did catch up with us in Helsinki, but not until, on the day before our ship sailed, I had spent in excess of $2,000.00 on enough gear to take photos and save them to a computer. We, our tour director, and the hotel personnel really kept after British Air, and I expect that is why the missing bag arrived. However, no one would accept responsibility for the equipment I purchased to record our trip or any compensation for the time and effort took to A. find the missing bag, and B. replace the equipment, which I might add was not as good as the equipment in my bag. I have taken to carrying my gear in a backpack case. I am in my 70’s and that case seems to get heavier each time we travel! I have alternate backup and do not carry a computer. Not happy with American Airlines.

    Reply
  6. I know this is besides the point that airlines are untrustworthy, but did she have a $25 Tile or another GPS tracker on the bag. Sure, some keen eye could ID it and dispose of it preventing you from finding your bag, but she could have hidden a tracker bought from Best Buy and had it inside the lining to always no where her bag through her phone. I’m sorry this happened.

    Reply
    • Keep on mind the tiles have limited range, the gps trackers depend on the cell phone system, so you would need a sim card for use in every country.

      Reply
  7. YouTube is full of videos from CNN and ABC older broadcasts featuring the issue of theft at US airports, and CBS reports: “Tsa has 200 theft cases per day at John F. Kennedy International Airport”.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cL5RJuNeO2A&t=2s
    Theft by TSA and airline personnel is extremely common in US airports. Notice in other videos that perpetrators usually live in half a million dollar homes. You don’t buy these with a TSA salary. Theft is their main income, and gate agents and managers are getting their cut too.

    Reply

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  1. ATW: Citi Shutdown, Real Life Mission Impossible, American Loses $13K in Luggage & Lots More! - Miles to Memories - […] American Airlines Forces Photographer to Check Bag with $13k of Equipment Inside, Loses Bag – Andy’s Travel Blog […]

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