Lost luggage — will your airline pay off?

by Ned Levi on December 19, 2011

Delta airplane on tarmac by Simon_sees, http://www.flickr.com/photos/39551170@N02/

Have you ever arrived at your destination to watch other passengers on your flight retrieve their luggage at “Baggage Claim,” except you? You got that sinking feeling that your bag was lost forever?

Was it lost forever, or did you eventually get it? Did the airline reimburse you for items you had to purchase while you waited for them to find your bag?

Susan Miller, according to a lawsuit she’s filed against Delta Air Lines, for breach of contract, had her baggage delayed last year, and she’s still trying to get reimbursed for the moderate expenses she incurred for purchasing essential items, due to the delay.

According to the December, 2011, Air Travel Consumer Report, Delta alone had 15,693 mishandled baggage reports for October, 2011, the last month reported, so if you’re like Susan you’re likely in good company.

Miller stated she flew on Delta from Miami to Las Vegas in November, 2010. Upon arrival at McCarran International, she discovered Delta had lost her baggage. According to her class action law suit, Susan Miller v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., Case No. 22-cv-10099, Miller was left without any warm clothing and other essentials.

According to the suit, Miller spent less than $350 to buy toiletries, medication, some clothing and other items, but when she tried to obtain reimbursement from Delta, they told her passengers were entitled to no more than $50 per day in expenses. Her bag was found a couple of days later.

The class action lawsuit alleging breach of contract and consumer fraud asserts that Delta “uniformly and systematically” misleads passengers into believing they are only entitled to $25–$50 in daily expenses when their bags are delayed, but that government regulations and Delta’s “Contract of Carriage” require the airline to pay as much as $3,300 per passenger for delayed luggage expenses.

I examined Delta’s “Contract of Carriage” for US domestic flights, to directly see what they say about their liability for delayed, damaged, or lost luggage?

Section I., Baggage Liability, part 1., entitled “General Limitation of Liability For Loss of, Damage to, or Delay in Delivery of Baggage” states, in part,

Delta’s liability for the loss of, damage to, or delay in the delivery of a fare-paying passenger’s personal property … shall be limited to proven damage or loss. Actual value for reimbursement of lost or damaged property shall be determined by the documented original purchase price less any applicable depreciation for prior usage. Under no circumstances shall the liability for loss of, damage to, or delay in the delivery of baggage exceed $3,300 per fare-paying passenger unless the passenger elects to declare a higher value in advance and pay for excess valuation as provided below …

So, Delta states their limit of liability is $3,300, per passenger, not $25–$50 per day. In fact, I can find no daily loss limitation in Delta’s “Contract of Carriage,” the document which controls the legal relationship between Delta and its passengers.

I’ve found, in general, US domestic airline liability is all governed by very similar provisions in all the airlines’ various “Contracts of Carriage,” so we all can learn from the problem Miller encountered, when flying in the US.

Delta’s liability obligation is not absolute, so we must examine the “Contract of Carriage” further.

As a practical matter, passengers must prove they actually checked a bag(s) with their airline, so when you get your baggage receipt(s) for checked luggage, put it in a safe place. You may need it later.

Delta requires you to make an initial claim for lost or delayed luggage within 24 hours of the loss. Written notification of the loss must then be presented to Delta within 21 days of the loss.

United Airlines suggests filing an initial baggage claim before leaving the airport. I follow that advice to protect my reimbursement rights. I always make sure I get a receipt of the claim with claim number.

Luggage and contents’ damage can be hidden. It may take a while to realize some items are missing from your bags. I use numbered luggage “Privaseals,” or TSA approved locks with “tell-tales,” so I’ll likely know if anyone’s been in my bags while in transit. If they indicate the bags were opened,, I search through them at the airport before leaving, and immediately report any loss.

Delta like the other US domestic airlines doesn’t accept liability for fragile, perishable, or precious (valuable) items. If Miller had put in a claim for damage or a loss of a computer, camera, glass, musical instrument, jewelry, etc., Delta could have legitimately denied that part of her claim.

Always pack fragile, perishable, or valuable items in your carry-on to prevent their loss or damage.

Delta, like other airlines, requires “proof” of loss, and value documentation. I have an electronic packing list(s) in my smartphone, I use to ensure I take the proper clothes, etc., I need while traveling. I use the list to create a loss list for the airline.

For the claims I’ve made to the airlines, I had my list of missing belongings with estimated original purchase prices and purchase dates, notarized. The airlines have accepted this, including a Delta claim made several years ago. The airlines may or may not require your list to be notarized.

Reviewing the rules, it appears as though Delta should have promptly paid Miller’s claim, based on their “Contract of Carriage.”

If your luggage is delayed, damaged, or lost, it’s important you know the rules for making a claim with your airline, and follow them precisely. If you do, you may be able to avoid the problems encountered by Susan Miller.

(There are too many other specific rules, about airline luggage and specific belongings’ liability, which are to numerous to be covered in this article.)

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  • Phil

    Thanks to Susan Miller. On multiple occasions while flying on the smaller planes and even the regional jets I have looked out the window to see my bag being removed from the airplane and moved to a cart that will return to the airport.  In order to fill the plane with passengers the airlines will leave the baggage behind.  When you are headed out of the country this is a nightmare; it happened to me last year on the way to Africa.  Several years ago en route home from SE Asia a friend had gone through customs in Chicago and had taken her bag to be re-checked to Jacksonville.  She attempted to put it on the UAL conveyer but an employee ordered her to leave it on the floor saying they would take care of it.  That was the last time she saw it and her claim too ages.

  • Chasmosaur

    Okay, Delta lost my bag once.  Partially my fault (in the Christmas week move from the old to new terminal at DCA during the NW/Delta merger, the whole setup was FUBAR so I *couldn’t* look at the tag before he put it on my bag, I should have insisted on double-checking myself, but after standing at the counter for an inexplicable 20 minutes, we just wanted to get through security), but mostly theirs.  Since the bag was lost on the trip home, I didn’t need to be reimbursed for anything.

    However, I was prepared for this.  Every time I fly, I print out new luggage tags that list my contact info and contact info for my destination, both coming and going, and I keep a spare in my carry on.  I also actually keep the other half of my luggage tags, so I could present them with that info when they asked for it.   I could give them the make, size and color of my bag. The biggest problem I had was not the agents (who couldn’t have been nicer), but that I was logged in both the legacy NW system and the new Delta system, and the former wasn’t kept up to date.  I had to figure that out myself.

    But mostly?  There was nothing in the bag that couldn’t be replaced.  Oh sure, one of my favorite sweaters was in there, as were my good dress boots – I would have missed them both.  But my toiletries, makeup, jewelry and electronics were all in my very compact carry-on (as well as a change of underwear and socks).  One that easily fits onto even regional jets.  I don’t carry-on to avoid fees, I carry-on because I know checked baggage can suck mightily.

    I realize there are times when you have to check your luggage, or it’s simply more convenient. (With a leg injury right now, I’ll probably have to check a bag over the holidays and hope for the best since it would be awkward to carry on.)  What still amazes me, though, are some of the stories that come through here of people putting expensive or difficult-to-replace things in their checked bags.  Long before TSA started sifting through our bags, lost bags and rough handling were a given of air travel. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=749iU2Zv1kw )  Why would you do that to something you cared about? 

    What needs to change is Customer Service training, so they are equipped to deal with people who know they are entitled to more than a $50 per diem refund.  Because lost bags seem to be inevitable these days, and rough luggage handling is just one of those things.  No lawsuit will ever change that – it’s a physical job, and white glove handling just isn’t going to happen unless you fly privately.

  • Anonymous

    I just flew from Newark to Baltimore via Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Denver, all in one day. It was a combination mileage run and a chance to have lunch with my grandson,  whom I don’t get to see much, in LA. I had booked an open-jaw itinerary and thought I would have to pick up my bag and recheck it in LA. No, I was told. My bag would be on my planes, and I would not have to pick it up before reaching Baltimore. Imagine my surprise when my bag actually did arrive when I did! Although that is what is supposed to happen, I was actually quite impressed.

  • Anonymous

    Fortunately my “lost luggage” experience with Delta was far more positive. A delay leaving Hartford, Connecticut, nearly caused me to miss my connection in Atlanta to Nashville. I made it; my bag didn’t. (I now leave myself a lot more time between connections and do everything I can to avoid connecting through Atlanta!) Since the bag contained the gown I was going to wear to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding the next day, I was understandably upset. The Delta claims personnel were very helpful. They were able to locate my bag, which had ended up in Cincinnati, and promised to deliver it to my host’s address that evening. They did!

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