The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’ve lost our luggage, and our minds

Holiday travelers checked their baggage and put their faith in a system. Now, they wonder whether it’s gone for good.

Caution tape restricts access to a baggage-claim area at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Wednesday. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
5 min

No flights, no rental cars, no Christmas, but luggage everywhere. Everywhere! Everywhere but where we need it. Luggage lined up in Dallas terminals like dwarf soldiers in a nightmare reveille. Rings of luggage encircling empty carousels in Chicago, in a kind of artistic commentary on capitalism and modern itinerancy. (Medium: thermoplastic polymer on wheels.)

At times like these, our physical luggage becomes our emotional baggage.

A nation’s stuff, squeezed and zippered and then entrusted to the delicate ballet of air travel, has been mislaid and orphaned this week. All those wrapped Christmas gifts. All those pairs of cotton-blend underwear. All the wrinkled, sundry, intimate objects that we need, but not enough to carry on our person.

In oceans of rectangle, across the country, the handles of luggage are clicked up, as if they’re raising their hands to be claimed by frantic parents.

Lord, what a mess. Tens of thousands of flights were canceled this past week because of apocalyptic weather and a breakdown of human systems. On Wednesday, there were more than 2,800 canceled flights within, into or out of the United States, according to FlightAware. On Tuesday — with more travelers (2.16 million) passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints than the same day in 2019 — there were more than 3,200 cancellations. It’s impossible to say how many bags were lost, even momentarily, but consider this: On a normal day, TSA screens approximately 1.4 million checked bags.

On Sunday, Christmas Day, one of those bags belonged to Jazmin English, a 26-year-old paralegal from Old Bridge, N.J. Her evening flight on United Airlines from Newark to Tampa was delayed three times, then canceled. She says she waited in line for customer service from 11:44 p.m. Sunday to 10 a.m. Monday, only to be told that the bag couldn’t be tracked. She joined a horde of other travelers searching through scores of bags that airline employees were unloading from canceled flights. She waited another four hours at a baggage service counter, only to be told that: Her. Bag. Was. In. Tampa.

“I said: ‘Sir, how can my luggage be in Tampa if I’m here? There’s no way you guys sent an empty plane to Tampa with bags after I was told all my flights are canceled,’” says English, who spent 26 sleepless hours in the airport before calling it quits.

“Generally speaking, I am not an emotional person,” she says. “But after I had finally gotten home on Monday night, I literally broke down. I had an anxiety attack. I was exhausted. It’s not like I was sitting around. I was running from terminal to terminal. I took the AirTrain maybe three times. I was literally depleted on every level.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, her bag remained unaccounted for.

The vast majority of canceled flights Tuesday belonged to Southwest Airlines, whose outmoded software for scheduling crews and checking bags was responsible for cascading delays and cancellations.

It was a despicable performance at an already stressful time, says a former senior manager at American Airlines, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize both the industry and its passengers.

“At the holiday season, where you’ve got your presents, you’ve packed your extra diapers and baby formula, and you were bringing Grandma’s special scarf for the family picture, the emotional aspect of not being with your luggage at this time is higher than any other season,” says the former manager. “And seeing those pictures of lost luggage would give me a heart attack if I thought Grandma’s scarf was somewhere in there. I think it’s going to be weeks in some places before people get their baggage back.”


“And the people who checked their house keys and their medicine? I want to say to the customer: You should take some ownership of this,” the former manager says.

The whoopsie-daisy of airline technology was exacerbated by the precision of iPhone technology. A family from Chattanooga, Tenn., made it to Vail, Colo., for a ski vacation, but their goggles and gaiters didn’t. They knew exactly where the luggage was — at the baggage center at the Denver airport — because Dad had AirTagged it with his iPhone. It showed up on an his Find My app as a heart-eyed-cat emoji plotted on an aerial map of the airport.

“I can see where our luggage is at DEN, why can’t y’all deliver it?” Dad tweeted Wednesday.

“The team in DEN is working to get the bags were they belong ASAP,” American Airlines replied. “Thanks for your patience.”

Patience! We’ve lost that in transit, too.

Also AirTagged at the Denver airport: a bag belonging to Jon Ostrower, editor in chief of the Air Current. On Christmas, he flew with his family from Seattle on Alaska Airlines. Three of their checked bags made it on time. One, inexplicably, did not. But it’s there now, there still, in luggage jail, because the humans who run the operation are too overwhelmed to figure out how to make it available for its owner.

This is the painful paradox of the moment: One of the great modern conveniences is capable of propagating mass inconvenience.

Air travel “is so unimaginably complex,” says Ostrower, who estimates that he flies between 75,000 and 100,000 miles a year. “No one person can wrap their head around all of it: whether it’s the airplane, the baggage system, the networks that exist to operate airlines, the financials. If people knew how complex the system was and what it takes to get an airplane off the ground, they either wouldn’t complain or they’d never fly.”


“But when you arrive at your destination and your kids are tired and you haven’t eaten in a while and it’s cold outside and it’s a holiday and you just want to get where you’re going, the last thing anyone cares about is the complex marvel of the U.S. airline system.”