What are my options if an airline loses or damages my baggage?

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 23, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins.

If you travel enough, sooner or later you'll have to deal with the unfortunate circumstances of lost or damaged baggage. Recently, I received this question from a concerned reader: "Approximately one month ago, when we were returning from a family vacation with kids and grandkids, Delta lost all of our baggage. When it was finally located, Delta would not deliver it, and when we finally got it, two pieces were destroyed. I reported the problem in a letter to Delta's CEO, which included receipts for out-of-pocket expenses, but have not even had the courtesy of a response. What should I do?"

This was not the only recent complaint I received. Another reader says, "On a flight on ATA from Boston to Chicago, I checked four suitcases (two big and two small). When we were seated on the plane we looked through the window and saw the handlers place our bags onto the plane. But when we arrived in Chicago, one of my bags with more than $4,000 in value was missing. When we asked why ATA couldn't locate that bag to find out where it was, an agent explained that ATA is one of the few airlines that does not possess the latest tracking technology. There is still no word on our bag. What advice do you have as to what we can do and whom we can solicit for help on this matter?"

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To start, it certainly can't hurt to complain again. Here are the complaint addresses the Department of Transportation (DOT) lists on its website:

Ms. Diane Suker
Director, Customer Relations, ATA Airlines
7337 West Washington Street
P.O. Box 51609
Indianapolis, IN 46251-0609

Ms. Belinda Stubblefield
Director, Customer Care, Delta Airlines
P.O. Box 20980
Atlanta, GA 30320-2980

Whenever you submit a complaint to an airline, you should figure that it will get to the proper office. Delta's self-imposed deadline for response is 30 days; ATA's is the more standard 60 days. If more than that time has elapsed, the airline is violating its own complaint policy. You should then follow the steps I outlined in an earlier column.

Baggage delay, loss, and damage are some of the ongoing hassles with air travel. While airlines are legally liable, you need to know some important qualifications:

  • Airline liability is capped by federal law at $2,800 per ticketed passenger for domestic flights and by international treaty at a bit over $600 for international flights.
  • Liability is based on depreciated value of the contents of your baggage, not replacement value. Airline claim forms often ask that you provide the date of purchase and a sales receipt—paperwork most people would no longer have, especially for clothing items. However, you shouldn't give up on a claim just because you can't document everything.
  • All major airlines' websites provide detailed instructions about filing lost baggage claims. In general, you should report loss or damage before you leave the arrival airport, or no more than four hours after arrival, and you should file a claim within 21 days of travel.
  • If your luggage is damaged, an airline usually has it repaired rather than paying for new luggage.
  • On most airlines, you can buy additional baggage coverage at check-in time, although given the long lines and hassles at check-in counters, few travelers apparently do.
  • Whether or not you pay for excess coverage, airlines are not liable for many high-value items in checked baggage, including currency, valuable papers, electronics and optical equipment, jewelry, artwork, and fragile items. Airlines say you're supposed to keep those valuables with you in your carry-on baggage—or arrange special insurance coverage of your own.
  • These days, airlines and the Transportation Safety Association (TSA) sometimes blame each other for baggage damage or theft, leaving you in limbo.
  • Many household insurance and personal effects policies cover your belongings when you're traveling, so you have additional recourse. An airline might try to get you to file first on your personal insurance policy so that it would pay only the amount you can't otherwise cover. The law, however, does not specify that airline liability is secondary.

It's clear that you should never pack any high-value or fragile items in your checked baggage. Despite this widespread knowledge, I'm surprised at how many travelers still report jewelry, cameras, and computers missing from checked baggage. Certainly, any of that stuff you really need for your trip should be in your carry-on bag. As for jewelry and other valuables you don't really need—given the problems in hotels as well as on airlines—the only sensible strategy is to leave them in a safe place at home.

 
 
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