No luggage, no refund

by Christopher Elliott on March 29, 2007

Question: Recently, my wife and I flew from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Montego Bay, Jamaica, on Spirit Airlines, but our luggage didn’t make it. Apparently, it was left behind in Florida.

We filled out a claim form in Jamaica and an airline representative told us there was little chance that we would see our luggage until the next day. We spent $133 the following day for clothes and toiletries. Our luggage finally arrived that evening.

For passengers whose luggage cannot be delivered within 24 hours, Spirit’s delayed-luggage policy allows for “reasonable interim” expenses for customers away from home on a round-trip reservation.

A few weeks later, Spirit sent us a letter denying our claim. The reason? Our purchases were made during the initial 24-hour period of the delay.

I wrote back to contest the airline’s decision. After all, you need personal items shortly after you arrive and certainly need a change of clothes for the next morning. Of course I understand that, had our luggage arrived within 24 hours, we would not have been eligible for reimbursement. But that wasn’t the situation.

Can you help me persuade Spirit to reconsider its decision?

– Jim Mesick, Royal Palm Beach, Fla.

Answer: If Spirit says it will reimburse you when your luggage is delayed by more than a day, then it should honor your claim. It shouldn’t be able to reinterpret — or rewrite — its own rules on a whim.

Your only worry should be whether $133 is a “reasonable” amount to spend on clothing and toiletries. I think $66 per person is more than enough to buy a nice outfit and a toothbrush. But if you’re on vacation, and the closest store is the resort gift shop, then you might be making some difficult choices. So in my book, your expenses were reasonable.

Airlines often misplace or lose luggage. On average, about two pieces of luggage is mishandled on every airline flight, but most of it is found and returned within a day. That’s why carriers like Spirit have a 24-hour rule.

Most passengers decide to wait a full day before buying new clothes, in the hope that they will recover their belongings and can avoid more paperwork. I don’t know how many customers call Spirit’s bluff and go shopping before the clock winds down, but my instinct tells me it probably isn’t a lot of them.

You could have taken a different approach to your refund. Rather than wait for a formal response by mail, you might have made photocopies of your receipts at the airport and taken the matter up with your ticket agent when you checked in for your return flight. In my experience, ticket agents and their supervisors can often make decisions about disbursing funds, and they might have issued a credit to your card or given you a cash refund.

I contacted Spirit on your behalf, and it took another look at your claim. A representative said there had been a “mix-up in the initial determination” and said your claim would be honored.

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