I am a Youth Minister who books an annual mission trip to Central America. The trip is for 11th and 12th grade students placed in my care for the week. This is a story of stress, panic, and lost luggage.
Part 1: Orlando to Miami to Guatemala City
A week before our appointed travel dates, I realized the airline had changed their baggage policy. The first bag was no longer included in the price of international tickets. I called the group services desk to see if this would be true of our pending travel and was assured our bags were still free since they were ticketed prior to the change.
When we arrived at Orlando International Airport to check in for our flight, I found a ticketing agent willing to check us all in at once. I explained that our bags should be included and he said he’d figure it out. Before I could provide details, record locators, or flight information the man walked off into the offices behind the ticket counter. The man, moving slow despite an incredibly long line of passengers trying to check in, disappeared for a solid ten minutes.
The guy came back with boarding passes. He said he figured it out and went ahead and checked us all in. I still had provided him zero information. The boarding passes he printed were for another group. Confused, he disappeared for another ten minutes. Again, he didn’t ask for information.
When he came back, the agent explained he figured out the baggage issue with a manager. Our bags were included with our tickets just as I had explained. However because of some sort of issue, he was having to manually issue a fee waver on each individual ticket as we checked in. For thirteen people. This process took forty-five minutes.
After finally getting checked in and through security, we arrived at the gate three minutes before boarding. We arrived at the airport two and half hours prior to departure. Despite selecting seats online the week before, my seating assignment had changed and I was reassigned from the aisle to a middle seat. I assumed the agent re-ticketed me and changed the seats I had previously selected.
After boarding, ready to leave on time, the pilot informed us that there was a weather ground stop in Miami and we would be delayed an hour. Our connecting flight allowed for an hour and a half layover. We would be cutting it close.
Despite the ground stop, our connecting flight was only delayed 15 minutes. We landed in Miami with 30 minutes to get from gate to gate. We were going to make it.
Except the airline didn’t have a gate ready for us.
We sat on the runway for 45 minutes waiting for our gate to open. When it finally did, I had 1 minute to run 43 gates. In Miami International Airport. In the middle of the afternoon. On a Friday. In June.
I ran while the group I am responsible for deplaned. I got to the assigned gate, out of breath, and the agent said the flight had just left. She pointed me to another gate with a different flight to Guatemala City.
I got to that gate and told the agent our group was going to Guatemala City and the other agent pointed me to her. She said the plane door had just closed, but to hold on. She disappeared down the gate ramp. When she came back my group had arrived at the new gate.
When the gate agent returned, she said, “who wants to go to Guatemala!” and opened the gate ramp. Our entire group and one Guatemalan man who heard her offer followed the agent down the gate ramp. She opened the door to the plane and, despite the flight attendant telling her not to, told us all to get on the plane and take any seat available in coach.
She didn’t look at passports. She didn’t look at boarding passes. She just ripped the ones we presented like she was taking tickets at a movie theater.
We were going to make it to Guatemala City after all. The only problem?
This random plane wasn’t our flight.
We were going to the same place but not on our flight and who knows if the gate agent made the change in airline’s computer system. Our bags clearly didn’t make it onto this new plane (how would they?).
We arrived in Guatemala City and filed thirteen missing bag reports. When I checked the airline’s app, we were rebooked onto a flight for later in the day but were still listed as being in Miami. Whatever the gate agent did that got us onto the flight, she didn’t record into the system.
I spent the next hour and a half on the phone with the airline to confirm we wouldn’t lose our return flight for not showing up to the new flight to Guatemala City. Considering, you know, we were already there.
Somewhere in all of the chaos — be it when the man in Orlando printed tickets and I lost my pre-arranged seats, or when the gate agent in Miami just put us on a plane and sent us out of the country — our group went from a single group record locator to thirteen individual ones. This would prove to be incredibly stressful and problematic later in our scheduled travel.
We managed to get 11 of the 13 bags the following day by working our way back into the Guatemala City airport. While collecting bags off the baggage claim, a line of about 45 people deep was forming at the missing baggage desk. Other than our 11 bags, very few were being claimed off the carousel.
A baggage claim attendant explained to us that the airline in Miami was in the habit of only sending yesterdays bags to Guatemala City. So our bags had arrived with everyone else’s from the day before, but everyone on that day’s flight would get their bags the next day. Maybe.
The two remaining bags took five days to get to us. One was delivered to the place we had stayed a single night at the beginning of the trip. When I called to check the status of that bag, the airline determined it was still in the Guatemala City airport. I provided the correct address, yet unknowingly to me, that bag had already been delivered to the wrong place. I had to pay a courier $110 to get the bag to us.
Have you ever been on a trip with two teenage boys without a change of clothes for five days? It’s not an ideal situation.
Part 2: Guatemala City to Miami to Orlando
When we arrived at the airport in Guatemala City, we discovered our flight had been delayed by four hours. Apparently it was raining in Miami and all flights were stopped. While this extra time took some of the stress off of the check in process, the Guatemalan ticket agents would not take my word that our bags were included in the price of our ticket. Instead, I paid $28 per bag — or an additional $280 in baggage fees that were supposed to have been included in the price of our tickets.
When we arrived at the gate, an amazing gate agent somehow managed to get all twelve of us (one of our people was staying in Guatemala for another week) onto a different flight, one that was currently in the air to Guatemala City. This was a legitimate miracle due to the twelve individual record locators she had to manually change.
This was an insanely stressful thirty minutes. I was fearful we would run out of seats and one of the teenagers I was responsible for would be left in Guatemala City overnight. Luckily the amazing agent managed to get all of us and our bags re-checked onto the flight that was getting ready to land in Guatemala City. I lost the seat upgrade I had paid for earlier in the week, but I’d be getting our group back to the USA so there are trade offs.
We boarded quickly. The Miami based pilots knew any drop of rain at the airport and the Guatemalan air traffic control would close the airport. The flight crew did not want to be stuck in Guatemala for the night and neither did I. The flight crew rushed the boarding process and got us in the air just as rain began falling over the city. We took off just in time.
Half the plane was filled with people who have never been on an airplane before. People followed the flight crew around while they were passing out drinks, not realizing the drink cart blocked the path to the bathroom. One woman stood on her seat digging in the overhead bin, then sat on the aisle floor repacking her bag. There were a lot of head scratching moments. As a result, the flight attendants were not having a good flight.
One of the students in our group, who was sitting in an aisle seat behind me, was awoken by having the drink cart smashed into his foot. He said he was fine, but was clearly in pain. The flight crew offered nothing in the way of an apology.
When we arrived at Customs in Miami, one of the twelve bags was missing. It happened to be one of the bags that had been lost for five days during our trip. When I asked the agent, he said according to the system the bag had been checked straight through to Orlando. “It missed Customs?,” I asked. The man said it had, which made no sense.
Upon landing in Orlando we learned the bag had never arrived in Miami in the first place. It wasn’t caught when our bags were rechecked and was placed on our original flight. The bag was delivered to the student’s house the following day. Much better than the five days it took the first time around.
When we arrived at our appointed gate I checked the airline’s app. I discovered our connecting flight, the one that was in the air to Miami from JFK when the wifi cut out before landing, had been switched. This happens all the time. Except this time it was switched to the flight we were originally scheduled to be on. The one from Guatemala City. Irony.
It also meant that our connecting flight was now delayed a few hours because sometimes life is a cruel joke.
After sitting in the airport for seemingly ever, we boarded our flight around 11:15 pm. The flight was quick and the crew was courteous.
When we arrived in Orlando, we landed and taxied to the gate like any normal flight. After sitting at the gate for a good ten minutes, the pilot came on the intercom and explained that his calls to the gate had gone unanswered. Without anyone at the gate, we couldn’t de-plane. “We’re going to be here a while,” he said. This is not what you want to hear at 12:30 in the morning after traveling for 18 hours.
Ten minutes later, the pilot again came on the intercom and explained he got hold of a manger, “probably at their house,” who was going to make some calls. About five minutes later I could see activity outside the plane and about five minutes after that, the door to the plane opened.
According to the airline’s app, our baggage would be available at baggage claim A. I text all the parents that’s where they should meet us. When we followed the signs, we were directed to our bags at baggage claim B — on the other side of the airport. Again, not the information you want at 12:30 in the morning when parents are trying to find their children.
The day after we traveled, I called into the airline’s group travel desk to report the issues we experienced. The man who answered, a self-proclaimed 30-year veteran of the airline, said these were issues worth addressing. He encouraged me to write this letter and physically mail it to the customer service office.
To the airline’s credit, I received a phone call response less than a week after sending the letter. They apologized profusely and, through two subsequent follow up phone calls, worked through necessary steps to move forward. They didn’t want to lose our potential future business and I wanted to make sure they noted these systemic failures.
Remove the travel fiasco and the trip was an overwhelming success. Which, when it comes down to it, is really all that matters.