The process can break down anywhere
The other night my wife and I were at the airport to pick up her cousin, who is attending college in the United States, and we had something of a strange experience. Now I have a certain fear of airports—not flying, but airports—to the effect that I’ll be randomly tackled to the ground or dragged away to a holding room somewhere for no particular reason. Airports are one of those lawless spaces where your rights don’t seem to really apply.
The strange thing was that the opposite was the case. Granted, we were there at about 1:30am on a Sunday night, about as dead a time as there probably is. But the place was deserted. And we noticed dozens, possibly hundreds, of bags by the lost and found and another luggage office. A bunch of them looked pretty beaten up: cracked handles, split seams, like they’d been dropped into the gorilla enclosure at a zoo.
While we waited, my wife looked at a few of the tags on the bags and texted the people, to see if it might help them get them back. One lady responded and asked if there was some way for her to pick it up, so we asked an attendant for United.
“Oh, those are Lufthansa,” she said. “These are United.” She pointed to the bags behind her. “Lufthansa is having a lot of trouble. They have 9,000 bags in Frankfurt.” Incidentally, our guest was originally going to fly Lufthansa through Frankfurt. Good thing he didn’t.
She went on to say there were a couple hundred United bags separated from their owners here in Washington. Newark had almost 1,000. The airports were badly understaffed and stuff just wasn’t able to get done, especially in the last week or so. The Lufthansa strike didn’t help. They were, she said, “hiring like crazy.” Most of the bags weren’t lost, but had been separated from their owners, and were going to be forwarded or shipped to them soon.
Back at the baggage claim carousels, I saw two bags from a previous batch of luggage just left on the carousel. Normally they would be whisked away. “See something, say something.” There was nobody to see anything, anyway, and there they were. I took them off the carousel before my wife’s cousin’s flight started to unload. A fellow with a broom came by to sweep up, spotted a luggage tag on the ground, and tried to sweep it up. Instead it got pushed backwards a little, and he just pushed it all the way under the carousel and walked away. (Look, I’ve done that too, I don’t really blame him!) All the while I was taking these pictures, waiting for somebody to come over and tell me to stop or ask what I was doing. No dice.
I took away a couple of things from this. One, the supply chain and labor shortage issues out there are real. Part of what we call “inflation” is prices rising to find labor and to make things pencil out. I’m not sure that’s exactly inflation. I also don’t doubt that some companies take advantage of that climate and raise prices more than necessary. But the underlying issues are real. (The lady who answered my wife did, in fact, retrieve her bag the next day!)
Secondly, I was thinking about something more abstract. All these things we get used to and take for granted—cheap restaurants, a certain number of different peanut butter styles or potato chip flavors, even civilian aviation basically working—are highly fragile and contingent. They rely, ultimately, on ordinary people, who support these very complex, fragile systems. These aren’t things that just happen, or run themselves. We saw during the pandemic, and are seeing now in this sort-of-post-pandemic period, all sorts of ways in which processes that seem almost automatic in good times can break down.
You can almost sense, feel, the struggle in that airport baggage claim, or in a restaurant or store, these days. I’m thinking about a visit to Giant to return a damaged watermelon, and a worker and his friend, apparently high, were standing by the self-checkouts and chatting. Someone came over to the return desk, glanced at the watermelon, gave me cash, and told me to go grab a new one. No receipt check, no card, no stopping by with the new melon. I don’t mind it, but it’s a level of informality I’ve never experienced in a chain store before.
I just didn’t expect I’d ever get that kind of feeling in an airport.
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