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Know your rights regarding lost luggage

Rohn Robbins
Vail, CO, Colorado

I recently returned from Greece. The price of flying… ridiculous. The delays, missed connections and flight conditions… wretched. The Aegean under cobalt skies… priceless.

Despite the ever-increasing frustrations of coming and going abroad, the time off in foreign climes was well worth the annoyance, inconvenience and general decline of commercial air travel, and lost bags.

After almost unimaginable frustration, false leads, rising blood pressure and misinformation, the bags were found and returned and only one bag (a different one than those which had been lost) was badly damaged. But this is not intended as a screed against the airline. Instead, it is a paean to your rights when the airlines lose your luggage.

Here’s what you need to know:

Delayed bags

Trust no one. If your bags don’t arrive at the baggage claim, report it immediately. Insist that the lost baggage desk fill out a lost baggage form. You may have to wait in line for what may seem like several months. Patience is a virtue.

Make sure you get a copy of the completed lost baggage form. Give up your luggage tags only if the tag numbers and the fact you’ve given up the tags are noted on the form, as well as the name of the clerk who helped you.

Your purchase of a ticket is a form of contract, and your particular carrier may have a policy to deliver your luggage to you but not necessarily for free. Make sure you know the policy before you leave the claim desk.

If you are informed that there will be a delivery charge, throw a tantrum. Believe me, it helps to be a lawyer. What few people know is that the claim desk has a certain latitude to grease the squeaky wheel. Not only will you likely get your bags delivered for free, but if you are insistent, you may also score a little cash for emergency purchases.

Even if you don’t succeed, keep your receipts, and you may get reimbursed later. Take names and numbers: keep a record of everyone with whom you deal and retain all travel documents until the deal is done. Reimbursement may have to wait.

The next form

Once your bag is officially lost instead of just missing, you will get to fill a out a second form. This form will, of course, be more burdensome than the last. Once the form is completed, your travails have just begun. When the proper airline functionary gets your claim, he or she will contact you and will try to negotiate a settlement with you.

You should note that failure to fill out the lost bag claim form in what the airlines consider a timely manner could invalidate your claim. You should note, too, that where there were connecting flights with different carriers, it is normally the final carrier who is responsible to you.

When the airline opens negotiations with you, they may ask you to estimate the value of your belongings and provide them with receipts. They will try to depreciate the value of your belongings. Hang tough but don’t exaggerate. If the airline feels you’re trying to con them, they may claim fraud and deny your claim altogether.

Rather than a cash settlement, the airline may offer you tickets. Often, the “value” of these tickets will be higher than the cash settlement offered. Before you accept, ask about restrictions, expiration dates, black out periods and the like.

Hit the ceiling

If your bags are delayed, lost or damaged on a domestic trip, the airlines can invoke a ceiling of $1,250 per passenger as their limit of liability. If what’s inside is more valuable than that, you may wish to purchase “excess valuation” from the airline when you check in. This is not really insurance in the usual sense but, instead, raises the airline’s limits of potential liability. Of course, the airline can refuse to sell it to you where, for example, the contents are rare or unusually breakable.

The liability limit for lost bags is about $9 per pound. If your bag is 49 pounds at weigh-in, for example, the airline’s maximum liability will be $444.43. If the weight is not noted on your ticket, the bag is presumed to weigh 70 pounds. The international limit also applies to the domestic segments of an international trip.

If the airline’s settlement does not fully reimburse you for your loss, check your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Some credit card companies will pick up the tab as long as you have paid for the flight with their card.

In these days of Greyhounds with wings, you’ve simply got to grit your teeth and stiffen your backbone when you travel and hope the travel gods smile on you. When they don’t and your bags end up in the netherworld of displaced luggage, a cool head, firm hand, broad smile and infinite patience are virtues. Coupled with a knowledge of your rights, you just might emerge from the baggage nightmare at least relatively unscathed.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. Robbins may be reached at 926-4461 or by e-mail robbins@colorado.net.


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