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TRAVELERS STILL PICKING UP THE PIECES
SEA OF LUGGAGE AND TALES OF WOE PILE UP AT THE AIRPORT AFTER DISCONNECTED FLIGHTS

A week after bad weather, airline woes and canceled flights separated passengers from their luggage across the nation, misdirected bags are still arriving at Buffalo's airport.

And bagless travelers -- some wearing their only set of clothing for a week or, if they were lucky, borrowed clothes -- are picking through newly arrived luggage, hoping to be reunited with their belongings.

"I'm standing in a sea of Samsonite," said Mike Goris of Grand Island as he searched in vain for eight bags last seen when his group flew here from Dallas two days before Christmas. "This is my fourth trip out here, and nobody has been able to explain where our stuff is."

Rows and rows of suitcases, duffels, ski bags and boxes jammed the west end of the baggage claim area on the lower level of Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Wednesday.

Al Carmichael of the Town of Tonawanda went to the airport Wednesday to track down luggage for his daughter, Mary Alice, who lives in Atlanta.

She scrapped her Christmas visit after two consecutive days of flight cancellations, but her suitcases headed to Buffalo without her.

"I called the airline for days and only got a busy signal, so I decided to come out here and start looking myself," said Carmichael, who did manage to locate one of the bags.

Pat Green of Naples, Fla., who flew into Buffalo on Christmas Eve to visit her son and his family, remains hopeful her luggage will get here before she gets on her return flight.

"I'm lucky I had seven days worth of my medications in my carry-on bags, but I'd really like my clothes," said Green, who has been forced to dip into her daughter-in-law's closet the past week because she arrived with only the clothes on her back.

"Even my coat was in my luggage, so I've been wearing this," she said, pointing to a borrowed Buffalo Bills parka.

Airport and airline personnel have attempted to sort the bags by air carrier and put them in alphabetical order, but the glut of luggage makes identification difficult.

Count rises to 500

As of late Wednesday, the unofficial count of orphan bags at the Buffalo airport stood at more than 500, up from about 300 on Tuesday. Airports around the country are dealing with similar situations as luggage from delayed and canceled flights finally reaches its destination.

"Who knew there could be so many black suitcases," said Kelly Garrity of St. Catharines, Ont., as she combed through dozens of nearly identical black bags.

Garrity, who arrived in Buffalo on a US Airways flight Monday, had already endured a series of cancellations and reroutings that left her stranded on Christmas before learning her suitcases had taken their own route.

"This has been a nightmare. I missed Christmas with my family, and my bags are nowhere to be found. I'm pretty devastated," she said.

Goris, an employee of Athletica, a company that installs ice rinks around the United States, is missing valuable tools as well as personal items.

"We installed a rink in Dallas and packed up $3,000 worth of tools to fly back to Buffalo. We ended up flying into LaGuardia and driving back here. We have no idea what happened to our bags," he said.

Fliers on US Airways, which struggled with employee absenteeism over Christmas weekend, and Delta, whose ComAir subsidiary was hit with computer problems, face the greatest luggage problems. But virtually every airline is dealing with an increase in lost luggage due to record holiday travel volume and weather-caused flight disruptions.

C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said it's a frustrating situation for everyone involved.

"We have people who are still waiting for their luggage, those who returned home before their bags turned up, and because it's the holiday, the whole situation is exacerbated by missing presents and clothing," Hartmayer said.

Stephanie Green, who came to Buffalo on a Delta flight from Atlanta on Monday, has had better luck. So far, two of her three bags have been located. Green, who is here until Jan. 9 visiting her boyfriend, combed through the bags in hopes of locating the suitcase containing her shoes.

"I only have the pair I'm wearing. I'm going to have to buy new shoes if they don't turn up soon," Green said.

Steps being taken

The NFTA and the airlines have assigned extra personnel to the baggage claim area to help travelers locate and claim their luggage. The NFTA also has stationed extra transit police officers in the baggage area to provide additional security.

The airlines also have contracted with delivery services to take bags directly to passengers throughout the Buffalo area, even into Southern Ontario.

In an effort to avoid a repeat of last weekend's staffing fiasco that left the airline with too few workers to fly its planes and process baggage, US Airways is appealing to employees to work free over the New Year's weekend.

Separately, the airline warned employees it would review the attendance records of those who called in sick over the Christmas holiday -- and would discipline workers who abused the sick time system.

Meanwhile, Comair said it had just about recovered from the impact of snowstorms and computer glitches that led it to cancel more than 1,000 flights.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has called for an investigation into both airlines' flight interruptions.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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