Finding Lost Luggage

When we arrived at Copenhagen airport earlier this week to fly to Toronto via Helsinki on Finnair the check-in area in Terminal 2 was in chaos due to a broken luggage system: every few minutes the system would start up again, a few bags would get through, a few more people would get checked in, and then things would break again and everything would come to a standstill for another 20 minutes.

Eventually we did get through and, somewhat surprisingly, our flight took off almost exactly on time. In retrospect we should have known this was a bad sign.

Eleven hours later when we arrived in Toronto I was happy to see my bag roll onto the carousel at the head of the line. Then we waited and waited and waited for Catherine’s bag — checked in at the same time and almost identical but for the colour. It never arrived.

As a result I got to know a lot about the lost luggage system that the airlines have built. Here’s a few things I learned that you might find helpful when this happens to you:

  • If your destination is an airport that’s not a “hub” for your airline, but is rather a rarely-visited or seasonal destination, it’s likely that the airline won’t have a dedicated staff on the ground and has outsourced “ground handling” to another company (indeed this is often the case even if you are flying through their hub). In our case Finnair appeared to have no local staff in Toronto and Servisair was the local contractor.
  • Don’t throw away the luggage tags of any bags that do arrive. I made the mistake of throwing away the tags on my suitcase before we realized that Catherine’s had gone missing, and so the Servisair clerk had no way of telling which bag needed a trace. Fortunately I was able to fish my tag out of the garbage.
  • Make sure you hold onto your luggage tag “receipt” — that’s the portion of the luggage tag they peel off and stick onto your boarding pass or passport when you check in. I never realized how important this was to the process of tracking a missing bag: it has the all-important tag number that’s needed to initiate everything.
  • Before you leave the airport make sure you have (a) the phone number of the ground handling agent where you can call for updates and (b) the WorldTracer file number for your lost luggage. WorldTracer is a cross-airline system for tracing baggage, and for airlines that belong you can use a web application — here’s the one for Finnair — to get status updates on your trace.
  • The “file number” that the ground agent gives you might not be the full file number. We were given one in the form “AYXXXXX” (AY is the airline code for Finnair) that WorldTracer wouldn’t accept: it turns out that we needed to prepend the airport code for our destination airport — YYZ — to this code (so that it became “YYZAYXXXXX”).
  • Don’t expect there to be a 24/7 call centre that you can call for updates. In our case the Servisair office in Toronto was open from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily, but the number was never actually answered by anyone and we always had to leave a message and wait for a call back.
  • Don’t expect the local ground agent to feel any greater sense of responsibility to the airline you traveled on. Our agent was helpful, but made it clear that Finnair wasn’t providing him with the digital information he really needed to help us, and wasn’t in a position to do anything about this.
  • Don’t expect compensation for out-of-pocket expenses at the airport: I’m not sure what the regulations are about this, but when we asked in Toronto we were told that Catherine could get a voucher for expenses only if the bag didn’t show up in 48 hours.
  • Don’t expect the bag to show up soon. In our case Finnair only flies from Helsinki to Toronto three times a week, and we were warned not to expect the bag to arrive before the next flight, and perhaps not even until the one after that.
What Catherine's WorldTracer screen looked like

As it happens, Catherine’s bag was ready for us to pick up at the airport on the Saturday after it went missing on Tuesday, just in time for us to pick it up and fly back to Charlottetown. Catherine had a devil of a time finding where to pick up the bag at Terminal 3 in Toronto — she ended up at an office that was neither Finnair nor Servisair. Oddly, she had to show neither identification nor the original baggage tag to be able to retrieve her bag.

As you might imagine, she’s very happy to be back in Charlottetown and wearing clean clothes again.


Isaac Grant's picture
Isaac Grant on July 6, 2009 - 12:32

A lot of credit cards have lost travel luggage insurance as well, which I believe doesn’t have a 48 hour wait time to use. Of course, probably depends on the credit card.

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