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Dear Airline – The Only Bags I Have Are Under My Eyes

Posted by bvalaw on February 13, 2014

All airlines lose baggage or have baggage delays. This is a fact, unfortunate as it is, and this post addresses what you should do when it happens to you. Why this happens is another question, and it is one being asked more frequently now that the airlines are charging big fees for checked bags. Checked baggage is now a multi-billion dollar revenue generator each year for the airlines.

Technically, your rights are governed by the carrier’s contract of carriage. Passengers never read the contract of carriage, but it is posted on all the carriers’ websites. Passengers “agree” to it when tickets are purchased, and it is not negotiable. If you find yourself without your checked baggage, pull it up on line and follow the carrier’s specific requirements to the letter.

So what else should you do? First and foremost, if your luggage doesn’t arrive on the plane with you (so-called delayed luggage), DO NOT leave the airport without filing a claim. If you do collect your luggage, but later determine that something is missing or damaged, file the claim immediately. DO NOT delay. There are time limits.

Second, be assertive and follow up regularly. Bags are tracked electronically, so the airline knows exactly when and where any particular bag was last scanned. Since there is no one who cares more than you about whether your bag is located, you need to pursue it as much as possible. By all means, be polite. No one wants to help someone who is behaving poorly/rudely. That said, this is an area where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And, although you may be inconvenienced, most bags do turn up eventually, so make sure the airline is actively pursuing it.

Third (and you obviously have to do this BEFORE your bag is lost or delayed), but know what is in your bag, Be prepared to itemize it and to prove the value of what’s in it. The corollary point to this is don’t pack something you absolutely have to have immediately (think, for example, medication) or something valuable and/or irreplaceable (think, for example, a first edition and rare book). Many items, such as jewelry, are simply excluded from coverage altogether. It is surprising how many people ignore these rules, and live to regret it. You will care less about delayed or lost baggage if there is nothing of import gone.

So what happens if your luggage never shows up? As for total dollar amounts, for domestic flights, most carriers’ websites provide that the liability for lost or damaged luggage is the lesser of the actual value of the baggage or $3400. We can’t pick on any particular airline – their provisions are all pretty typical, and this is not coincidental.

Why, you ask? It’s because federal law prohibits airlines from limiting the carrier’s liability below this point. (See, CFR 254.4, as amended). Thus, the federal limit that sets the minimum airlines can pay, in practice, sets the maximum they agree to pay. If they could pay less per bag, it seems pretty obvious that they all would.
If you are packing something expensive, you do have options. You just have to address it in advance, not after your bag is delayed or lost. And, there are, as always, exceptions. If you are carrying something unusual, check the website for the specific carrier to see whether it is even allowed and, if so, whether it’s covered if they lose it. If you need additional coverage, buy it.