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Luggage limbo: Bags still missing after JFK airport woes

QUEENS — 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 a hundred or more 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.

It's unclear how many bags remain unaccounted-for.

An airport official said Wednesday the backlog had dwindled to about 100 bags from Air China flights; the official wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. A message left with the Beijing-based airline's JFK office was not immediately returned.

But the official's tally apparently doesn't include bags that may have been given to delivery agencies or flown elsewhere.

The airport agency, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said in a statement Wednesday that it's "unacceptable that international airlines lack adequate on-the-ground resources" at JFK to return bags to passengers.

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.

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."