Stansted airport, and how I didn’t cause a major international incident

My flight to London, this time, was through Stansted airport.

Stansted is located outside and to the north of London. Quite a bit of distance from London, actually. Certainly when compared to Heathrow airport, which is the one I usually associate with London.

Stansted Express adIt’s possible to get to the city with buses or taxis, but because of the distance this is a far less attractive option and the train service, the Stansted Express, are pretty aggressive in advertising their availability there.

I was particularly amused by this huge sign with a very direct message saying “There are 571 traffic lights between here and central London.”, leaving it to the reader to decide that maybe risking standing all those lights (as statistically improbable as it may be) isn’t a good idea.

I landed in the morning, and wanted to make the most of the day, so taking the 45 minutes express train seemed like the preferred option. It cost a little bit more, but spending the extra time in London instead of in transit is probably well worth it.

Passport control and baggage reclaim passed relatively uneventful, except for the usual proofs that this is a very small world and wherever you go you’ll always see someone you know:

  • Somewhat ahead of me in line stood someone who I was friendly with during my military service. A nice guy, but odd (and coming from me that means something). He was even far worse than I am in the whole social business of keeping in touch with people, so it’s not too surprising we didn’t keep in touch.
    We got to talk a bit when the queue twisted in a way that brought us right next to each other (across a separator line). Turns out he was there to proceed to some film festival. And this despite him being in university, and the semester actually being in progress. We chatted a little, and exchanged a few pleasantries, but that was that.
  • Right behind me in line were a few woman who I was pretty sure came from my city, though I wasn’t sure if I know them because I saw them long ago in school, or because they’re patients of my father and I saw them in his clinic. We didn’t talk.
  • Further ahead of me in line was someone who looked, and sounded, exactly like a relatively well known Israeli actress, Liora Rivlin. I didn’t cut through the line, shoving people aside, to ask, so I can’t be sure, but there was a very close resemblance.

Then I passed customs (Yes, they need those Landing Cards that they give everyone on the plane, and yes, I have to fill in a local address on it, even if I’ll be switching hotels and travelling all the time so the address I give them is essentially only relevant for a single night), bought the train ticket, and proceeded to the train platform.

Where the real fun began.

I had with me my suitcase, and my carry-on bag. The bag is a shoulder bag, which I’m used to carrying pretty much always. The suitcase I naturally never carry around, and is just for travel.

So I stopped on the platform to look at the train routes and stations, to decide where I need to get off. And I left the suitcase for a second to take a pamphlet with the train information. And because the bag was still on my shoulder, everything felt fine, and I went on the train. Without, mind you, noticing that I left the suitcase on the platform.

Yes, I’m an idiot. Can’t explain it any other way.

About 8-10 minutes after the train left, I noticed that I’m missing my suitcase. I had a quick look around, just to make sure (I changed seats a few times after getting on the train, since it was relatively empty and I wanted to see which was most comfortable), but no luck.

This is when all the bad possible scenarios started running through my head. Accompanied by the knowledge that those bad scenarios are actually the likeliest scenarios.

One bad scenario which I actually didn’t think about was that someone may have stolen the suitcase. I was more concerned about the security response. Which makes sense, since the chances of station security noticing, or being alerted to, an abandoned suitcase are much larger than the chance that someone who just got off a plane and has taken the train will see a suitcase and decide to take it.

As for what station security would do with the suitcase, the only model I had to work with was the Israeli one. That’s the one I’m familiar with. And since the British seemed to claim to be on high alert, especially after a few cases of bombings in the trains and underground, it made sense they’ll have a similar model.

Which means that seeing an abandoned suitcase on a train platform, and one in an airport to boot, should make them think it may be a bomb.

Around here, they’ll evacuate the platform, and call the bomb squad. Depending on procedure, and on how worried they are, they may close and evacuate large parts of the airport.

Major incident, certainly newsworthy. Getting my 15 minutes of fame is fine, but I’d really prefer not to have it as the tourist who temporarily shut down a busy airport because he forgot his suitcase. Not to mention the prospect of losing most of the day in answering questions for pissed off police officers and security people.

Not only that, but if they had a really quick response time, and the airport had bomb-squad people on-hand, I may have found that somebody had already tried to put a bullet through the suitcase, or destroy it in some other way.

Hey, they even say so in their Safety and Security information page:

Please make sure your keep your baggage with you at all times and alert staff to any unattended package or bag – abandoned baggage causes security alerts and may be removed and destroyed.

Fun, fun, fun.

I caught the conductor on the train in a hurry, and explained that I left my suitcase on the platform. He asked for a quick description, then called in to the station administrator’s office.

The conversation was shorter than I expected. He didn’t start by asking them if they already found a suitcase, or if there’s a problem, or anything. He started off by saying hi to the guy who answered, and directly telling him that he have with him the owner of the green suitcase and is sending him back.

They didn’t ask what suitcase he’s talking about, which meant he was right in assuming they already found it. This just made me more worried, since if they already found it then they already had the time to do something about it.

Luckily the train had one stop between the airport and London, and I noticed the lack of suitcase a short while before we got there. Otherwise I’d have had to wait all the way to London before being able to return back for my suitcase. As it was the conductor just told me to get off on the station, and pick a train back.

The train back wasn’t due for quite a while (A Stansted Express train goes every 15 minutes, but the ones going to the airport don’t always stop at the same stations as the ones coming from the airport), but I approached a station employee who told me I could get back faster by taking another train a few stations back, then switching there for the following express train.

This went smoothly, and pretty soon I was back on the train platform in the airport, looking for the station administrator’s office. Wondering if I’m in a huge mess or just a big one, and hoping that my luggage is safe.

I reached the location, which was an office with a few uniformed people. One was standing outside the door, and asked me who I was.

I replied that I’m the idiot who left his suitcase on the platform (in pretty much these exact words), and waited to see what sort of a welcome I’d get.

He told me to hold on, went inside the office, and brought my suitcase out (whole). He asked me if this is it, and I replied that it was.

I got a “there you go, bye”, and that was that.

Seriously.

No questions, no complaints, no yelling, no nothing.

They saw the suitcase standing alone on the platform, and all they did was to bring it in to the office, and wait for someone to come and claim it.

On the one hand this is pretty bad security practice. Had the suitcase contained a bomb, or had it been booby trapped, it would have gone off and caught the security people and whatever passengers were nearby.

On the other hand I was, naturally, extremely relieved. The whole episode had cost me only an hour of time, and nothing else besides. And a large amount of other passengers didn’t have to have their plans put in disarray just because I’m an idiot.

I guess that this sort of thing happens often enough that responding in any other way is really not a cost-effective way to handle forgotten luggage.

I got on the next train, double checked that this time all my belongings were with me, and headed on to London.

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