Rights if Your Bags are Delayed
You'd think with all the latest bag bar coding and
security matching against passengers, lost and delayed bags
would be a thing of the past.
Alas, for many reasons, bags still go missing and
sometimes still get lost.
Use this information to minimize the likelihood and
inconvenience to you of a lost/delayed bag.
Part 1 of a 2 part series -
part 2 tells you
what to do if your bag ultimately ends up as lost forever.
Most of the time, our bag
obediently appears on the carousel. But, once in a rare
while, it doesn't.
Not many people know - and the
airlines surely don't want to tell you - that airlines are obliged
to cover all expenses caused by lost or delayed baggage up to
$3,300 per passenger on domestic flights in such a case. This
article tells you what to expect, and how to
hopefully persuade the airline to be more helpful.
The first part of the process -
your bag doesn't arrive
So there you are, waiting
for your bag by the carousel, and it doesn't appear.
What you need to do at this
stage is beat the rush to get to the lost luggage claim counter.
Often you'll find that you're not the only person with
missing/lost luggage, and you'll almost never find more than two
people working the counter (and often only one). If there
are three or four people ahead of you in line, and if each claim
takes 5 - 10 minutes to process, you could find yourself
spending up to an hour just waiting to file a claim.
So, while you're waiting for
your bag, look around and find out where you'll have to go if
your bag doesn't arrive. And as soon as bags seem to stop
coming up, hot foot it over to the claim counter to be the first
Note that just because one
of your bags arrives, that does not guarantee that any other
bags you also checked will also arrive. As soon as it
seems that no more bags are coming, rush to the claim counter.
You can always go back to the carousel if necessary - if there
are two of you traveling together, one of you can stay behind at
the carousel while the other of you goes ahead to start the
Which claim counter do you go
This might seem obvious, but
if you flew on two (or more) flights, operated by two (or more)
airlines, which airline do you file your claim with?
Believe it or not, good
sense prevails in this case. The last airline to fly you
is the airline that will be responsible for solving your baggage
problem. The airline that flew you the final leg to your
destination will at least have an airport office, but the
airline you started your journey with (perhaps in a different
country) may be totally unknown at your destination.
So go to the counter for the
airline you flew with to your destination. All the
airlines have agreed, among themselves, that no matter who is at
fault, the last airline the passenger flies is the one that will
solve the problem.
What to expect at the claim
At this point, your bag is
either delayed or missing. If it is delayed, that means
the airline knows exactly where your bag is, and also is 99%
sure as to when your bag will arrive at your destination.
Hopefully your bag is only
delayed. But don't panic if it is declared missing.
Good news - your bag is only
Sometimes, the baggage claim
staff may be a bit careless with the facts, and will try and
tell you 'Oh yes, don't worry. Whenever bags miss this
flight, they put them on the next flight, which is due in
another hour. If you just wait for an extra sixty minutes,
your bag should arrive at that time.'
Don't accept this statement
without querying it carefully. Ask 'Can you confirm, then,
that you have located my bag in your system, and that it is
(currently loaded onto that flight/due to be loaded on that
flight) for sure?' Get a feeling for what they're doing
with their computer. If they haven't keyed your bag tag
number into their computer and paged through a screen or two of
data, you know they're just making it up as they go along.
Next, if they've absolutely
assured you that your bag 100% will arrive on a specific flight,
consider if you want to stick around the airport or not.
Chances are you've already spent close on an hour at the airport
between landing, waiting for your bag, and now this. And
when the rep says 'your bag will arrive in an hour' he probably
means 'the plane is scheduled to land in an hour'. Even if
the flight arrives on time (have him check) there's still
perhaps 30 minutes from when it lands to when your bag arrives
on the carousel.
Maybe you'd rather go to
your hotel or wherever rather than hang around the airport for
another hour (or two or three). Or maybe you have a
touring schedule that doesn't allow you to stay longer at the
airport. In such a case, refuse to stay and insist they
send the bag on to you.
Alternatively, if you're
willing to stay, ask if they can give you a meal voucher or
something so you can go to a restaurant while waiting for the
hour. It is usually cheaper for the airline to buy you a
meal than it is to pay a courier service to deliver your bag to
you (you might need to point this out to them!), so they should agree to this.
Bad news - your bag is missing
Maybe the bag claim
representative is unable to tell you what has happened to your
You might think that with
all the bar-coding, scanning, bag-matching, and security in
general, it is impossible for bags and passengers to get
separated. Unfortunately, it is still very possible for
this to happen, and - suggestion - don't get into a detailed and
heated discussion on this point with the lost baggage claim
representative at the airport! It isn't his fault and it
isn't something he can control or fix. By all means write
a letter to the airline subsequently, but for now, concentrate
on resolving your missing bag problem as best you can.
One more admonition.
If the baggage claim representative does tell you your bag is
currently completely lost, don't panic. 98% of all bags
that are missing at this stage will be found in the next four or
five days, and most of those will be found in the first 24 - 48
Are you at home or somewhere
If your bag disappeared on
your final flight home, the airline isn't going to feel a need
to provide much in the way of temporary assistance, for the
obvious reason that you probably have more of everything you
might need at home. But if you have to spend money on
buying things directly related to your baggage delay, you're
entitled to reimbursement the same as when your bags are delayed
on outbound flights away from home.
If you're at your home
airport, you only need to consider the first two of the three
points that follow. But if you're somewhere else, your
focus at this point is on establishing all three of these things
(a) How to keep in
contact with the airline, and how the airline can keep in
contact with you, until such time as your bag's status is
Most airlines now have
websites where you can key in their lost bag tracking number and
get real time information on the status of the bag. Other
airlines force you to rely on old fashioned phone calls, and
usually they do not have 24 hour service at their lost bag
centers. Get - and give - as much contact information as
(b) What the process
will be between now and the time at which your bag will either
be delivered to you or declared lost for good?
Ask them when is the soonest
they might get an update on the bag's status. Ask what
hours their lost bag service center is open for taking phone
Ask them how they will get
your bag to you, and how long that takes from when the bag
arrives on a flight to when it is delivered to your
Also ask them how long it
would be before your bag is declared lost and gone for good.
Will you then need to fill out a lost bag form (almost
certainly, yes)? If so, and just in case the worst does
come to the worst, can you take a copy of that form with you
now, so as to avoid an extra trip to the airport?
(c) What level of
reimbursement can you expect for anything you need to buy
between now and when your bags arrive?
In the good old days, a
delayed bag was a good thing - you could go on a shopping spree
and the airline would pay for the cost of quite a lot of
clothing and toiletries. I've managed to get several free
suits that way. These days, don't plan to profit or
benefit from your bag's delay at all.
The airline will expect you
to meet them at least halfway in dealing with your delayed bag.
You'll also find their definition of what 'halfway' might be can
vary depending on if you're a very frequent flier with them, or
someone they've never knowingly dealt with before, and if you
bought the most expensive first class fare, or the cheapest
discounted coach ticket.
Try and get a feeling for
reimbursement guidelines from the person at the airport.
He will probably try and avoid this question - it is a difficult
question, and there are probably people behind you waiting for
their turn, too. But insist on understanding what you can
and should do immediately, and then what extra you can do the
next day and the next day, until such time as your bag arrives
or is declared lost. Explain your reasonable needs and ask
how to resolve them.
If, for example, you were
traveling in casual clothes over the weekend, but on Monday have
an important business meeting to attend, you clearly need to buy
some business attire. However, the airline will reason
that you've now bought clothing that will have a lasting value
to you, which is of course correct.
On the other hand, you're
now out of pocket for the cost of that clothing, which maybe you
don't really have any need for. Perhaps you have a
wardrobe full of business attire back home already - in such a
case, the 'benefit' to you of having bought another suit is
minimal. Besides which, you probably ended up having to
buy a more expensive than normal suit because you're in an
unfamiliar place and less able to (and with less time to)
comparison shop for the best deal.
You could offer to return
the clothing you bought to the airline in return for full
reimbursement, because you might say 'instead of the $1000 suit
in my bag, I bought a $250 suit that was better than nothing,
but isn't something I'll regularly use in the future'. Of
course, the $250 suit is useless to the airline, other than as a
tax write-off for whatever value they can give it away for, so
they'll probably try and encourage you to keep it by upping
their offer of reimbursement.
Most airlines seem to
require a 24 hour delay in getting your bags to you before
they'll start to consider reimbursing you for new clothing.
Ask if they have any
overnight kits or immediate cash advance or something they can
give you if it seems you'll be without your bag overnight.
Suggested claim strategy
My suggestion is to be
conspicuously fair with the small things, in the hope that the
airline, in turn, will be fair with the big things.
I usually tell the airline
that I won't bother to claim the cost of a replacement
toothbrush or overnight toiletries, or any small things like
that, and offer to wash out socks and underwear that night in
the hotel rather than insist on everything new for the next
morning. This seems like a generous offer on my part, but
in reality, I know the airline is unlikely to give me anything
much until the bag has been missing for 24 hours. But by
voluntarily appearing to concede something up front, I seem more
like a good guy, and someone that hopefully the airline rep will
choose to then use his discretion positively with.
After this gracious
concession, I add 'obviously, I can't continue like this for
ever, and if it looks like you can't get my bag to me tomorrow,
I think it only fair to buy a change of clothing for the next
day.' If the person makes any sort of sound of agreement,
I then ask them 'could you put that in the record, please so
that there are no misunderstandings when I go to claim the
expense'. I back up this request by making sure I have the
name of the person I was speaking with, and when I leave the
airport, I call the baggage service to confirm that the
authorization is in the record.
But, remember. This is
not a chance for a free shopping spree. Buy sensible
priced moderate clothing, and only the bare minimum needed,
unless you've got the airline's approval to be more generous.
The airline will probably
insist on seeing receipts for anything you claim, and may even
require you to return the items to them in exchange for full
reimbursement of their cost.
Cash or travel vouchers
The airline will often offer
to give you travel vouchers instead of cash, and if it doesn't
offer, you should suggest. My rule of thumb is that $1 in
cash should be worth at least $2 in travel vouchers, and
generally that seems to be accepted by the airline.
Note that there are
different forms of travel vouchers they might give you.
The best sort is an 'MCO' - a 'Miscellaneous Charges Order'.
This is a bit like a gift certificate, and can be used to pay
for any and all future charges on the airline (unless it has
restrictions written on it).
The airline might try and
give you discounted travel vouchers which are capacity
controlled and subject to various restrictions and blackouts.
These are not nearly as good as MCOs. Perhaps - if offered
this type of voucher - you might ask for three times the value
of your claim.
Don't think you're
profiteering by doing this. These restricted certificates
cost the airline next to nothing - their actual direct cost to
the airline is perhaps 1/20th of their face value, and maybe
even less. On the other hand, the cost to the airline of
writing you out a check for your claim is clearly and exactly
the sum involved. Accepting three times as much restricted
travel value is much better to the airline than giving you cash
Maximum claim value
The airline isn't going to
pay you more, for delayed luggage, than it would for lost
luggage. See next week's article for their liability
What the Airline is Obliged to
Do For You
Recently (October 2009) the
Department of Transportation has taken an increasing interest in
airline policies and practices in the case of how the airlines
reimburse passengers with missing bags.
On October 9, 2009, they
issued a guidance letter to the airlines asking them to review
their policies related to the reimbursement of passengers’
expenses related to lost, damaged, or delayed baggage.
The airlines were warned to
not set arbitrary limits on reimbursements, such as the denial
of related expenses for baggage that is 'expected' to reach the
passenger within 24 hours, or limiting compensation only to
passengers on outbound flights (ie, if you're flying home, you
have rights for compensation too). The DOT’s baggage
liability rule contains no such limitations and even states that
an airline 'shall not limit its liability for provable direct or
consequential damages'. According to the DoT, an airline
should remain willing to cover all reasonable, actual, and
verifiable expenses related to baggage loss, damage, or delay up
to US$3,300 per passenger.
The airlines were given 90
days from the date of the notice to amend their contracts of
carriage and related policies to more correctly comply with the
Lastly, if you feel you've
been unfairly denied reimbursement by an airline, you should
file a complaint with the DoT at :
Office of Aviation
Enforcement and Proceedings (C-70)
United States Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave SE
Washington, DC 20590
You should also file a Small
Claim in your local Small Claims Court to recover the unpaid
To qualify for
reimbursement, the amounts you claim have to meet certain
They have to be provable, and
direct or consequential - so it has to be an identifiable
extra cost that you only had to incur because of the baggage
loss/delay, not something you were going to spend money on
anyway, and not something that has nothing to do with the
They have to be reasonable
and actual and verifiable - you can't go out and buy five
new changes of expensive formal clothing if your bag was
delayed just an hour ago and you were simply going to a
beach destination for a weekend break. That is not
reasonable. But, in the same example, you could buy a
change of clothing for the next day, and you'd be expected
to buy suitable casual sort of attire similar to what you
have in your bags.
You can only claim for money
you actually spent. You can't borrow something from a
friend and then seek some cash reimbursement for that.
Your expenses have to be
verifiable. Keep receipts and take pictures of the
items you buy.
Read more in Part 2
Part 2 we explain the airlines' liability for lost
luggage, and the various catches and exceptions where they might
end up not paying you, at all, for the most valuable things in
We also warn you how to
avoid paying 100 times the fair cost of extra luggage insurance,
and give suggestions for how to minimize the chances of having
your luggage go missing in the first place.
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28 Jan 2005, last update
19 Dec 2013
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.