Robbins: When the airlines lose your bags |

Robbins: When the airlines lose your bags

I recently returned from an overseas flight. Despite the ever-increasing frustrations of coming and going abroad, the time off in foreign climes was worth the annoyance, inconvenience and general decline of commercial air travel. One thing which can be particularly aggravating is … gulp … lost bags.

Although we didn’t this time, I have lost bags before, four times to be precise; as I don’t fly for a living, the odds are grim.

Rather than a screed against the airlines though, this column is, instead, a paean to your rights when the evil airlines lose your luggage.

Know before you go

Here’s what you need to know:

Before you fly, make sure your bags are tagged both inside and out.  Take a photo of the bags as well. A picture is, after all, worth a thousand tantrums at the lost baggage counter.

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First, trust no one. If your bags don’t pop up like magic at the baggage claim, report it immediately if not sooner. Insist with foot-stomping determination at the lost baggage counter for your particular airline that both heaven and earth be moved to find your bag. Dutifully fill out a lost baggage form. Do so even if the weary face behind the desk assures you that your bag will be on the next flight or tries to play on your sympathy about how overworked and overwrought they are (Of course they are! They are losing bags at a record pace!). You may have to wait in line for what may seem like several months. Patience is a virtue. Practice voodoo in your head.

Once the golden moment arrives and it’s your turn at the head of the line, 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 that you’ve given up the tags are noted on the form. Make sure the name of the clerk who helped you is also on the form.

As part of your contract with the airlines (your purchase of the ticket is a form of contract), 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 (better yet, know the policy before you book). If you are informed that there will be a delivery charge, throw a wild and demonstrable fit. It helps to be a lawyer. 

Be assertive, be thorough

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. The amount may vary depending on any number of things. Even if you don’t succeed, keep your receipts, 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 for the letter you write when you get home.

Once your bag is officially lost instead of just AWOL, you will — to your utter delight — get to fill out another 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 gloms onto your claim, he or she will contact you and will try to negotiate a settlement with you.

You should note that failure to timely fill out the lost bag claim form 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 to provide them with receipts. Um, yeah …  like we all keep receipts for every pair of underwear we ever bought! They will try to depreciate the value of your belongings: “You’ve worn that pair of shoes twice? Surely it can’t be worth more than one percent of its original value!” Hang tough but don’t exaggerate. If the airline feels spun, they may claim fraud and deny your claim altogether.

Rather than a cash settlement, the airline may offer you tickets to fly their fickle skies again. Often, the “value” of these tickets will be higher than the cash settlement offered. Before you accept, ask about restrictions, expiration dates, blackout periods and the like.

At the end of the day, if your bags are delayed, lost or damaged on a domestic trip, the airlines can invoke a maximum ceiling of $1,500 for delayed bags and $3,500 for lost. If what’s inside is more valuable than that limit, 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.

Pursuant to the Montreal Convention which applies to international flights, the liability limit is a nice, round $1,131. The international limit also applies to the domestic segments of an international trip.

Other avenues to get reimbursed

If the airline’s settlement does not fully reimburse you, your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy may make up the difference. Many credit card companies will pick up the tab so long as you have paid for the flight with their card. Some travel agencies offer supplemental baggage coverage.

In these days of Greyhounds with wings, you’ve simply got to grit your teeth and stiffen your backbone when you fly 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.

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