Airlines drop the ball on stolen property

  • By Christopher Elliott
  • Saturday, August 6, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

When Jaime Sigal discovered the zipper on his heavy-duty ballistic nylon suitcase had been forced open on a flight to Sao Paolo, Brazil, he made a beeline for the LAN Airlines counter. Three items were missing from his luggage: a blazer, a leather jacket and boots, totaling $1,700 for the items.

Every day, the same scenario repeats itself in airports everywhere. Luggage is lost or pilfered, and airlines do their best — or not — to find or replace it.

Last year, there were more than 2 million reports of mishandled luggage among domestic airlines, according to the Transportation Department. While the government doesn’t distinguish among lost, damaged, delayed and pilfered baggage — referring to it all as simply “mishandled” — airline passengers certainly do.

The biggest offender? Among the major nonregional carriers, American Airlines had the worst record, with 3.82 reports per 1,000 passengers. The second- and third-most loss-prone were Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines.

The problem isn’t just lost luggage; it’s what happens next. The rules vary.

Consider what happened to Sigal. After he filed a claim, LAN offered to pay him either $300 or cut him a $600 flight voucher. He refused both. “The reimbursement is not even close to the replacement cost of the items.”

Under the Montreal Convention, an international treaty that governs compensation for the victims of air disasters, Sigal was entitled to a maximum of about $1,800. When Sigal mentioned to LAN that its offer came nowhere near to what the Montreal Convention calls for, LAN asked for receipts for the stolen items, which he sent.

The airline offered him about $1,800 in flight vouchers, which he accepted.

There isn’t always a happy ending, though. Earlier this year, reader Leonard Henderson’s ski gear got lost on a flight to Telluride, Colo. He had to buy new clothes, for which US Airways promised to reimburse him. But when the time came for the airline to pay up, it balked. Henderson had paid $2,500 for new gear, but the airline covered only $800.

Part of the problem is that Henderson’s luggage was eventually recovered. According to federal law, the airline is liable for a minimum of $3,300 per customer if lost bags are never found.

But when luggage is delayed, the rules say that an airline must reimburse passengers for “reasonable” expenses, such as tuxedo rental for a wedding or purchase of underwear and toiletries, or a bathing suit at a beach resort.

US Airways’ policy is more noncommittal. “We’ll consider reimbursement for reasonable items such as toiletries while you’re waiting for us to return your property,” it says on its website.

Effective Aug. 23, new rules will require airlines to refund any fee for checked luggage if the bag is lost. However, the current requirements for compensation won’t change.

How do airlines persuade us to accept less? They ask for original receipts that they know we don’t have. They claim that they don’t cover fragile items. They drag things out for so long that we forget what we lost.

The industry collected more than $3 billion in baggage fees in 2010, and anticipating the new rule, carriers have become more cautious about how they treat your property. The Department of Transportation last year fined Delta $100,000 for capping expense reimbursements on lost luggage. Perhaps not coincidentally, Delta recently introduced a new tracking system.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, or email him at

© 2011 Christopher Elliott/Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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