You made the flight, but your bags didn't

As reports of lost luggage rise, learning airline rules can save time, aggravation

Strategies

August 26, 2007|By MICHELLE HIGGINS | MICHELLE HIGGINS,New York Times News Service

For a vacation to Italy in June, Dominique Linchet had packed everything she thought her family of four would need when they arrived: toiletries, bathing suits, dental retainers. But when they stepped off their Alitalia flight in Rome, the suitcases they had checked were missing.

After filing a claim with the airline and being reassured by an Alitalia employee that they would be reimbursed for half of the expenses incurred because of the delay, the family frantically shopped for bare necessities.

"Underwear is not easy to find in Rome," said Linchet, an associate professor of French from Birmingham, Ala., "except for the high-end kind." Finding clothes that would fit her husband, whom she describes as "a big American guy," proved difficult as well. "It wasn't like going to an American mall and finding what we need at the Gap," she said.

The Linchets ultimately spent 2,300 euros (about $3,250 at $1.41 to the euro) on everything from bathing suits to tennis gear as the days passed and the bags remained lost. "I think we were pretty good at just buying what we needed," Linchet said. "At the same time, we had to buy enough so we could have a nice week of vacation."

She added, "When you think about it, 2,300 euros for four people is not outrageous, but it was about $3,000 more than we had planned on spending."

Finally, nine days into the trip, the Linchets were reunited with all of their luggage, thanks in large part to repeated visits to the airport to search for their belongings.

But as August wore on, they still hadn't received any compensation for their inconvenience in June. "What is the airlines' responsibility in such a situation, and what are the travelers' options in making sure that this responsibility is fulfilled?" Linchet asked.

It's a question on many travelers' minds these days as reports of mishandled luggage continue to increase. The top 20 domestic airlines mishandled 7.92 checked bags per 1,000 passengers in June, higher than both June 2006's 6.30 rate and May 2007's 5.93 mark, according to the most recent Air Travel Consumer Report issued by the Transportation Department.

The answer largely depends on the carrier. Most will pay for reasonable expenses you incur while your bag is missing, but specifics are often vague. For example, if you are traveling away from home on United, its Web site says, it "may consider up to 50 percent reimbursement of the necessities purchased, taking into account your ability to use the new items in the future."

Other airlines state that they will attempt to return your luggage within 24 hours but make no promises about reimbursing you for your costs. Northwest is among the most straightforward. Its Web site states that a customer whose luggage is delayed may request a free toiletries kit at the airport and reimbursement for personal items purchased as a result of the delay, limited to $50 for the first 24 hours and $25 for each additional day of delay, up to $150 per ticketed passenger. Alitalia says it refunds all expenses incurred by clients during the period they are without luggage. The airline is investigating why Linchet has not received reimbursement.

Airlines are required to pay valid claims for luggage that is never returned, but the Transportation Department doesn't specify how much. In fact, liability rules favor the airlines, not the passengers. For a trip within the United States, an airline can invoke a ceiling of $3,000 per passenger on the amount of money it must pay, up from $2,800 before Feb. 28, according to the "Fly-Rights" guide of the Transportation Department (airconsumer.ost.dot.gov / publications / flyrights.htm).

On international round trips that originate in the United States, the allowable liability limit is set by a treaty called the Montreal Convention at about $1,500, depending on the exchange rate of the dollar against foreign currencies.

When Air France misplaced her bag for her entire weeklong trip in Europe last month, Rebecca Bernstein, 13, from Bergen County, N.J., spent $564 to provide herself with clothing, luggage and toiletries. Her father, Peter A. Bernstein, a marketing communications consultant, paid for the items and eventually received an apology letter and a note saying he would be getting a check for the full cost.

But that was only after he made multiple long-distance calls to the airline's Paris office (after being turned away by the state side customer service office), wrote a letter to the airline detailing the issue, and eventually tracked down the assistant to an Air France executive to hear his case.

"All in all, not exactly a ringing endorsement of Air France," Bernstein said. His advice for getting the airline to pay up: Go through the appropriate channels to start. Keep a diary of what you're told, and include the names of people you speak with. "If that's unsatisfactory, call headquarters and ask to speak to the secretary of whoever is in charge," he said. "Then you say, 'OK, here's what I've done.'"

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