‘Trip of a lifetime’ turns into nightmare
Winnipegger outraged after airline temporarily loses bag with father’s ashes
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A Winnipeg man is demanding answers after a suitcase containing his father’s ashes and precious heirlooms was lost for about two weeks following an Air Canada flight to Europe.
Ben Benton and his wife, Michelle Kirkbride, were planning to fulfil one of the dying wishes of his father, Evan, who wanted his ashes to be taken to his native country of England.
However, that won’t happen — on this trip, at least — because the suitcase was sent back to Winnipeg once it was finally discovered at an airport near Paris.
“It was meant to be the trip of a lifetime for my wife and I and to honour my dad, but it’s turned into a nightmare,” Benton told the Free Press from a hotel in Athens, Greece on Tuesday. “We’re emotionally exhausted.”
Benton and Kirkbride planned an almost five-week European tour for their 50th birthdays, but had to delay it due to his father’s poor health last fall and the Omicron-fuelled wave of COVID-19.
After his 88-year-old father died of cancer in October, they decided to add a stop in the English county of Norfolk to spread the ashes alongside family members who live in England.
Benton decided to put the ashes, which are stored in a stainless steel urn, in his checked suitcase rather than a carry-on bag when he left Winnipeg on June 8.
The couple’s flight from Winnipeg and a connection in Montreal were both delayed.
After the pair landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris, Benton’s heart sank when the couple’s suitcases failed to appear on a conveyor belt.
“We were waiting at the luggage carousel and the line (of passengers) dwindled and dwindled, and we were still standing there until the bags stopped coming,” said Benton.
After filling out a lost baggage claim at the airport, they began their tour of France, expecting to be reunited with their suitcases within days.
When the bags didn’t turn up, they began calling Air Canada and airports for an explanation.
“This is where the wall or void of information begins. Nobody seemed to be communicating with anybody,” said Benton, who became increasingly worried and frustrated.
“I was thinking, ‘Where are my dad’s remains? Where are the heirlooms?’” he said. “These are irreplaceable items.”
Benton and Kirkbride carried on with the trip, which included stops in Spain, Albania and Greece, but were forced to buy a new suitcase, clothes, toiletries and other items to replace those that were in the missing suitcases.
They said Air Canada has promised to reimburse them for those expenses, which have amounted to about $2,000.
They estimate they’ve racked up hundreds of dollars in wireless fees for calls made from their Canadian cellphones.
Benton and Kirkbride said they’ve spent up to 14 hours on the phone — much of it on hold — while trying to track down their bags. They said they’ve had to cancel tours and other plans to focus on making calls.
“I’ve worked one to two hours a day tracking down the bags,” said Kirkbride. “It’s frustrating. It’s just the communication, if they can improve that. Hopefully, we’ll get some answers.”
In a cruel twist, their replacement bag was lost during a flight to Seville, Spain, on a different airline. The suitcase was found and returned to them about 36 hours later.
As for the other bags, Benton was starting to lose hope after two weeks of searching.
He was relieved when an online tracker stated a suitcase had been scanned. A June 24 email from an airport employee asked him to enter a forwarding address.
Benton entered the address for a hotel in Athens, but the bag ended up being sent back to Winnipeg.
“I was freaking out because I wasn’t home to receive a bag, and I was just livid because these were not the instructions,” said Benton.
He didn’t know it was the suitcase containing the ashes until it arrived in Winnipeg and was collected by someone he knows.
“At least I can breathe a little bit because I know where the irreplaceable (items) are,” said Benton. “I’m relieved but angry because this whole process has robbed us of an experience.
“Now, they’re not sure where my wife’s bag is.”
Benton isn’t going to ask Air Canada to collect the suitcase in Winnipeg and send it back to Europe.
“I feel like I’m inviting more aggravation and risk of loss into my life if I do,” he said. “I don’t expect a happy outcome if we go that path.”
Benton and Kirkbride are planning to scrap their visit to England and plan a future trip to fulfil his father’s wishes.
The unexpected trip will cost thousands of dollars, so they’re hoping to get a refund or flight credit from Air Canada.
A spokesperson said Air Canada is looking into the matter and “will deal with the customer directly.”
With far more people travelling since COVID-19 travel restrictions were eased, there have been more instances of delayed bags, according to the airline.
A spokesperson for Charles de Gaulle Airport was unavailable for comment.
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.