In November, my wife and I flew from San Francisco to Los Angeles on United Airlines. At the ticket kiosk, an agent advised us to check our carry-ons because the bins over our last-row seats were filled with emergency equipment. We agreed. When we got home, I unpacked my bag and discovered that a new $1,800 laptop had disappeared. The Transportation Security Agency said it didn't open the luggage. United sent a form letter, denying responsibility. Do I have any recourse?
Many travelers think, incorrectly, that Department of Transportation rules cover them for all losses. Not true. Neither the airlines nor the TSA is liable for big-ticket items such as electronic equipment. But the rip-off and runaround could have been avoided if you had removed the computer before checking the bag.
Even when a carrier is at fault, it routinely denies claims for "excluded" items. These exclusions, which include money, jewelry, cameras, heirlooms and "irreplaceable documents," are listed online in the airlines' contracts of carriage. (Search airline Web sites for "baggage liability.")
Proving theft is tough because most screening and handling happen out of public view. And although surveillance systems have become more sophisticated, they are not bulletproof.
Protect your valuables by following these rules:
Don't pack anything you can't afford to lose. Once that bag hits the conveyor belt, it's touched by many hands. Almost 90 percent of claims filed with the TSA in 2005 cited theft from checked luggage, said spokesman Nico Melendez.
File twice - with the airline and the TSA. The agency has been known to settle claims even when it's not at fault. If you have no hope of getting a refund, it's still a good idea to register your gripe because complaints help officials identify and fix recurring problems or violations.
Only a quarter of complaints filed with the TSA are approved for a full refund; most are settled for an average of $110. You can appeal a refund, but it takes time.
File police reports. Don't assume the TSA routinely turns over complaints to local authorities. The onus is on fliers to put officials on alert.