Luggage lagged behind

My partner, Pamela, and I decided to support the work of Earthwatch (3 Clock Tower Place, Ste. 100, Box 75, Maynard, MA 01754; phone 800/776-0188 or 978/ 461-0081,, a wonderful organization which allows laypeople to volunteer to work with scientists on expeditions all over the world. I had participated in prior expeditions in Nepal and South Africa, and we had decided to join a research project in Botswana.

We signed on with Earthwatch and booked our flight on British Airways (B.A.). Our itinerary had us departing San Francisco for London (Heathrow) on Aug. 14, 2006, and changing to another B.A. flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, then transferring to an Air Botswana flight to Maun, Botswana. In Maun, we were to be met by Earthwatch and driven the four hours north to our tent camp in the Okavango Delta.

We arrived at San Francisco airport (SFO) two hours in advance of departure and were told that there would be a 4-hour delay. We asked why no one had called us or sent an e-mail to let us know, since we were members of the British Airways frequent-flyer club and they had all this information. The clerk just shrugged.

When we checked our bags, we were told that B.A. had no relationship with Air Botswana and that in Johannesburg we would have to get our bags from B.A. to Air Botswana on our own. We were surprised, as Air Botswana is the only airline in Botswana, but we had no choice.

We asked the check-in clerk to make sure our flight was recorded for frequent-flyer mileage, and we were told that we would be credited no mileage. We then asked if we could get credit on our American Airlines frequent-flyer record, as B.A. and A.A. are partners. The clerk said that ordinarily we could, but since B.A. competed with A.A. on the SFO-to-Heathrow route, they would not do that.

(As it turned out, our American Airlines accounts were credited but only for the Heathrow-to-Johannesburg leg. On the return from Johannesburg to Heathrow, we asked that our mileage be credited to our AA accounts, but it was never done.)

When our B.A. flight finally arrived in Johannesburg, we had one hour to collect our bags, go through Immigration, transfer our bags to Air Botswana and check in for the flight to Maun.

We had checked three bags through to Johannesburg. One arrived. We started looking around for the B.A. desk. There was none. We looked around for a B.A. representative and found one after 20 minutes. We explained our predicament, and he said it was fruitless for us to wait for the remaining bags and that we should take our one bag and run for the Air Botswana flight and that B.A. would get the delayed bags to us. We believed him and literally ran through the airport for the Air Botswana flight.

Upon landing in Maun, we went to the Air Botswana office and explained that we were missing our bags from the previous B.A. flight. Promising they would try to help us, they took down our names, our baggage claim numbers and the location of our camp near the Namibian border, four hours north. We headed for a local dry goods store in Maun to buy some T-shirts, shorts, flip-flops, underwear and minimal toiletries, believing that B.A. would shortly get the bags to us.

We arrived at camp and explained to the Earthwatch crew that the bags containing our sleeping bags, parkas and almost all of our clothes had not made it. At night the temperatures dropped to below freezing.

Three days passed and our bags had not shown up. There was no land telephone line in our camp. One person had a cell phone, but it had only a small number of minutes left. We called B.A. in Johannesburg about our bags and kept being transferred to “lost bags,” then getting a busy signal and losing time on the phone.

I called the downtown Johannesburg B.A. ticket office and begged them not to transfer me to “lost bags.” I spoke with a manager there and explained our situation. She promised to look into it and get back to me. She called the next day and said that our bags were in London and she would keep calling to let me know of the progress. She never called again.

Three days later we received a call from an Air Botswana rep in Maun saying that one bag had arrived and asking how we proposed to get it. We said we would call back. In the meantime, an Earthwatch member in camp contacted a safari guide in Maun and asked him to bring the bag when he was coming up north. He did. We paid him $30. Two days later the other lost bag arrived. Air Botswana had arranged for a second person to bring that bag, and we paid that driver $40.

On receiving the second bag, we looked through it and found that it contained our sleeping bags, but my cold-weather parka, a similar jacket of Pamela’s, a Swiss army knife, a compass, a deck of playing cards and a bag of M&Ms we had been asked to bring for the camp scientists were missing.

Nine days had passed from the date we left San Francisco. We had borrowed other people’s clothes and were freezing at night trying to keep ourselves warm with the dirty rags we used to wrap crocodiles we were catching.

On return to San Francisco, I sent letters to British Airways’ vice-president for North America, Steve Priest, and received a reply from Sharon Estwick, B.A. Customer Relations, stating that 1) it was true that B.A. had no agreement with Air Botswana regarding transferring passengers’ luggage, that this could only be done between Oneworld partner carriers, plus we had to clear Customs at our point of entry anyway; 2) we should have filed a missing-bag report in Johannesburg, despite the fact that we would have missed our flight to Maun and that the B.A. representative had said we should run for the Maun flight and that he would get the bags to us; 3) I had no right to ask for compensation for the expenses that we incurred in having the bags delivered to us in northern Maun (the $70 we had paid the drivers), since British Airways had a contractor in Johannesburg who was supposed to do that; 4) we had no right to claim reimbursement for the items that had been stolen from our bags which had been entrusted to B.A., because we had people retrieve our bags for us and so they were out of B.A.’s control for an unknown amount of time, plus we no longer had the original receipts from when we had bought those items, and 5) the most that B.A. would offer us was what they called “first needs” compensation for “incidentals” we had to purchase “for up to a 48-hour delay.”

We were so disgusted with B.A.’s attitude of claimed nonresponsibility for anything that we did not accept B.A.’s offer of the minuscule “first needs” compensation in settlement of our claim.

Estwick’s e-mails also stated that it is the responsibility of the last carrier to get a passenger’s bags to the final destination. Air Botswana made it clear to us that they would try to help us, and they did.

Despite several letters to B.A., the airline has been unapologetic and intransigent, and this is how the matter stands. We will never again fly British Airways.


Kensington, CA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to British Airways (75-20 Astoria Blvd., Jackson Heights, NY 11370) and Air Botswana (Flight house, Fernhill Rd., Horley, Surrey, RH6 9SY, U.K.) and received no reply.