NEW YORK (AP) — Newlywed Ziad Dallal and his wife arrived home in New York, with wedding keepsakes in their bags, to find John F. Kennedy International Airport paralyzed by winter weather woes that canceled flights, froze equipment and separated thousands of passengers from their luggage.
Eleven days later, the couple on Thursday was still waiting for one of their bags, or even a clear answer on where it was. Last they heard, a local luggage delivery company had it. Or it might be in a Delta Air Lines warehouse in Atlanta.
“Yes, there was a very bad weather situation, but that does not excuse anyone,” said Dallal, a comparative literature doctoral student at New York University. “This is totally unacceptable to me and to my wife and to every passenger, I believe.”
The Brooklyn couple, who flew back from London after marrying in Lebanon, was awakened at 1 a.m. Friday when a deliveryman suddenly showed up with one of their bags, Dallal said. The two canceled dinner plans Saturday after being told the second bag was coming, but it didn’t.
It’s among as many as 200 bags still missing after a long weekend of dysfunction at JFK, where a Jan. 4 snowstorm and subsequent cold snap spiraled into frozen equipment, planes waiting hours for backed-up arrival gates, a burst water pipe that flooded one terminal and days of delays.
The luggage in limbo is a fraction of the thousands of unclaimed bags that accumulated during the chaos. But it illuminates the magnitude of the breakdown and airlines’ limitations in handling baggage backups.
The industry generally has a good record on luggage: Thanks to improvements in bag-tracking technology and processes, the rate of mishandled baggage has fallen 70 percent since 2007, hitting a record low in 2016, according to airline technology firm SITA. But airlines aren’t prepared for an unexpected backlog that happens fast, said Robert Mann, an industry consultant and former airline executive.
“When an event like this happens, there’s suddenly no physical manpower to address it,” Mann said. “They are forced back into manual procedures and not equipped to handle it.”
No kidding, says Inderjit Singh Kaul. He still was waiting Thursday in Mumbai, India, for word of the bag he last saw at JFK after a Jan. 6 flight from London.
He said the suitcase cleared customs at JFK, and then was re-checked when he went on to Las Vegas for a digital marketing conference.
The bag didn’t get to Vegas — where Kaul missed part of the conference buying new clothes — until after he left for Mumbai Jan. 10, he said. The suitcase was apparently loaded the next day on a Paris-bound plane, supposedly to continue to Mumbai, but that’s where the trail goes cold, he said.
“They should have tracked it. I don’t know what’s happening,” said Kaul, who went the Mumbai airport Thursday to inquire again about what became of his bag. “Nobody has any idea.”
Atlanta-based Delta said its JFK baggage operation had cleared the backlog and sent bags out to be delivered by Jan. 10, adding that it needs accurate contact and delivery information to return luggage.
Huntley Lawrence, the director of aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the airport, said Thursday that “a couple hundred” bags had still not been reunited with JFK travelers as of Wednesday.
The authority’s executive director, Rick Cotton, apologized for the breakdown and said “what happened was completely unacceptable and cannot be allowed to happen again.”
Under U.S. regulations and international agreements, an international passenger whose luggage was lost may be able to recoup up to $1,536. A domestic passenger might claim up to $3,500. For baggage delays, airlines may have to pay “reasonable” expenses.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, spotlighted the JFK luggage lag Monday while pressing federal transportation officials to urge foreign airlines to work better with the airport’s government and private operators.
The Port Authority has tapped former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to investigate all the problems that followed the snowstorm, while the Federal Aviation Administration probes whether the Port Authority fell down on clearing snow.
LaHood joined Port Authority officials at a briefing Thursday and promised to “get to the bottom of this.”
LaHood said he’s received emails from travelers who still are waiting for their luggage.
“I know this is a very, very frustrating situation, and my message would be that the Port Authority understands what a huge big mess has occurred and they’re about to try and get it fixed,” he said.
David Elizandro, meanwhile, is finally unpacked after getting back from London early on Jan. 8.
After days of calling, waiting and wondering, the banking executive said he got the first of his bags Friday. The second arrived Tuesday at his Manhattan apartment, and Delta offered him a three-figure gift card, said Elizandro, who’s logged many miles with the airline.
“It wasn’t that the bag was on the other side of the world and had to be sent back,” he marveled Wednesday. “It literally took, in one case, eight days to get from JFK to the Upper West Side.”