Pilfered luggage on Air Jamaica

by Christopher Elliott on July 21, 2003

Q: My family and I traveled to Cuba recently on Air Jamaica. When we arrived for a stopover in Montego Bay, we discovered our luggage had been broken into. Bags were torn, locks were broken, our personal belongings were rummaged through and stolen, adding up to about $850 in lost or damaged goods.

We tried to file a claim immediately but we had to hurry to catch our connecting flight since we were late. The Air Jamaica representatives were rude and told us to just call once we got home.

Since then I have received nothing but the runaround. I have made numerous calls. They said they will call back but never do. They told me to write a letter. I did and then they said they lost it. I faxed them a letter. They said that they are working on it and will call me back – but then never do.

I feel the airline should compensate us for our stolen and damaged goods, not to mention the unhelpful representatives guilty of causing months of frustration. Can you help us?

– Hugo Sandstrom

A: If we could get compensated for poor treatment at the hands of an airline – any airline – then the worlds’ carriers would wither into insolvency within days. To paraphrase the song, if I had a dollar bill for every time I’d been treated rudely by an airline employee, there’d be a mountain of money piled up to the sky.

But pilfered luggage? That’s another story.

Air Jamaica’s contract of carriage limits its liability on checked baggage to $9.07 per pound based on the weight of your bag or $634.90, if it is unweighed. There’s a waiver for fragile or perishable items, too. (This is significantly less than the liability assumed by U.S. carriers domestically, which is generally $2,500 per bag.)

The runaround you’re getting from Air Jamaica is not unique to the Caribbean carrier. I’m currently trying to help a US Airways passenger process a claim on pilfered luggage dating back to 1999, for example, and the airline is being far less cooperative than Air Jamaica was when I contacted it. Airlines just take time in processing luggage claims – more time than they probably should.

Air Jamaica spokeswoman Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon apologized for the delay and said her airline “fell short of our standards” of customer service. “After completing our investigation, it appears that Mr. Sandstrom’s baggage was indeed tampered with and items removed at some point during his journey from Havana to Montego Bay,” she told me.

The airline offered you $500 in compensation for your loss. Why $500 and not $850? According to a series of follow-up e-mails we exchanged, an airline representative told you, “$500 was the amount for which she could easily settle claims.”

You could have further pursued this with Air Jamaica, but it would have entailed submitting receipts for all of the items you were carrying, and being subjected to additional delays. You accepted the $500, which given the circumstances was the correct decision.

Greaves-Gabbadon recommended that in the future, you transport any items of value in your carry-on luggage. I think that’s great advice, but I would go one step further. Don’t travel with anything that’s of value – period – if you can help it.

If you must check-in valuable items, make sure they’re insured (you can buy insurance from the airline or from a private insurance company). Or, if you’re able, send it to yourself via the postal service – but again, make sure it’s insured.

As I’ve said in previous columns, when it comes to your checked-in luggage, trust no one.

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