I hate baggage claim. Yes, this is sysadmin related…

I always try to keep an eye out for cool ideas. It’s hard to tell where the next bout of inspiration will come from – be it my apartment complex or the aviation engineers.

This time, though, I was impressed by package handlers. Specifically the baggage people at the San Jose airport. I flew in here for Tech Field Day, and because I’m staying a bit longer than I normally do, I checked my bag. Which, of course, means I’ve got to retrieve it. *sigh*

I hate baggage claim. Not as much as I hate some things…I mean, I hate it less than, say, Illinois Nazis. But it’s definitely not on my list of favorite places. Anyway, I really don’t like it, because it’s kind of…well…depressing.

It’s always stainless steel, it’s always cold, and everyone is always recovering from a multihour plane ride. Everyone REALLY wants to go home, or to their hotel, or really to be anywhere except in baggage claim. But you can’t, because your bag, that holds your clothes, your personal effects, your liquids over 1.5oz….is somewhere down that hole in the middle of the turnstile.

You hope it is, anyway. You gave it to the TSA guy to be irradiated, scanned, probed, riffled through, and thrown about. You saw it disappear into a hulking machine that looked unsettlingly like an MRI machine at the hospital. You saw the cart it was riding on scurry across the tarmac, headed god knows where. Your departure gate changed 3 times, and even YOU don’t know where you were originally getting on the plane. So you really, really hope that your bag is down that dark, deep, conveyor-belted maw.

Because you’ve been on a plane for hours, you’re tired. Exhausted, really. So is everyone else. That’s why you look like zombies, without even the energy to shamble. When the air siren announcing the arrival of the luggage sounds, everyone startles awake with the kind of synchronization usually reserved for Michael Jackson videos.

Inevitably, the bags slowly start trickling out of the portal to…someplace…and everyone looks around expectantly. Statistically speaking, someone has to own the first bag. It’s just never me. No, mine doesn’t usually show up until the trickle has turned into a torrential downpour of luggage – the kind where it’s just dangerous to go near the area where the bags slide down onto the bladed metal merry-go-round of doom.

The exception to those times, though, is when the luggage doesn’t show up at all. The trickle has gone by, followed by the torrent, then that stops dead, eventually followed by the hopeful sound of something on the hidden conveyor. Then a bag appears that kind of looks like yours, but isn’t. What do you do?

You wait. and wait. And question yourself. “Did I miss my bag?”, you might ask? “Did someone else pick it up by mistake?” “Should I go talk to someone?”. You look around, but none of the offices look too promising. If you leave, your bag could come while you’re gone. But if you don’t leave, you may never see it again. And you really want your stuff.

In my mind, that last decision is the hardest. “Leave no man behind” is ingrained in us from the time we’re young, whether it’s little plastic soldier men or our bags, lost somewhere in the hidden world beneath airport baggage systems. (I personally suspect that it looks something like the door room from Monster’s Inc). The idea of walking away from the baggage carousel where our bag is supposed to appear is a tough decision, and mostly because of the uncertainty. If only there were a way to let people know, aside from turning the belt off, which happens something like an eon after the last, lonely bag finally appears.

Well, today I was walking through the baggage claim at San Jose, and I spotted something that gave me hope. Not only are the baggage people in San Jose clever, they’re also human. I found this:

This is a box that they send up the conveyor belt when all of the bags are done.

How simple, yet clear, is that? They know that people waiting on bags have a specific problem (not knowing if they should wait to see if their bag will come out) and clearly let them know the answer. Sure, it’s bad news, but knowing is better than not knowing.

It’s weird, but that ratty old container resonated with me. Are there things in my life that I could be doing like this? Incredibly easy, simple, yet obvious things, that would communicate? Maybe now would be a good time to re-examine your trouble tickets, and look way down at what the cause of the problems might be. Can you fix things with something like that “last bag” sign?

  • I’ve been reading your blog for many years, Matt. You’ve had many informative and insightful posts. I’ve learned a great deal from the words you’ve committed to…bits. But for the first time, I’ve been moved by a post. This is certainly the most well-written and evocative post to ever grace the pages of Standalone Sysadmin.

    No, seriously. This is a terrific post.

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  • Thanks very much, Ben. I really appreciate that, and I’m glad that I could put something into words that made some kind of difference.

    Thanks for letting me know.

  • Nicely written sir!

    I’ve switched most the time to using Fedex or UPS for just shipping my luggage to my destination. So far the success rate has been flawless but I don’t fly that much these days. However I do get the feeling that it get’s thrown around a bit so I put it in a box with some packaging.

  • Kris

    Welcome to San Jose!

  • When I was working for FedEx in Columbus we had six “Last packages,” one for each slide. The people in the primary sort couldn’t tell if you had received your last package, and you could never be if anything else was coming from primary, as you couldn’t see their area. The last package told us that we should have nothing else on our belts, and we were good to stop them without primary calling us to ask if we were done.

    I’m actually surprised that more airports don’t do this. I’ve only ever checked my bags twice, so I don’t normally have this feeling of longing for my belongings.

    @AJ L. No matter with whom your packages are transferred by, be it the airlines, FedEx, UPS, USPS, or even DHL if you’re going international, your luggage will be treated roughly. My advise when packing is always this, if it won’t survive a three foot drop, then you don’t have it packaged well enough.

    With that being said, I’ve accidentally dropped a chicken from the Aft bulk of an MD10 before (don’t worry, the chicken was fine, but very very pissed) so make sure if you like it, it’s protected.

  • @Kenny: Great advise! I’ll have to do some drop tests before my next shipment :)

  • seishun

    Matt, this post is great… both the idea behind it, and the writing. I enjoyed it as much as I could enjoy a short story from one of my favorite authors :-)
    Thank you!