Rights if Your Bags are Delayed
You'd think with all the latest bag-tag bar-coding,
real-time tracking, 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
$3,500 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, and perhaps with codeshares so that your ticket says
you flew with one airline, but the plane was operated by another, 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. You are not obliged to stay at the
airport, but they are obliged to send your 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.
You might need to point that out to them. :)
However, perhaps the promised
delay in your bag arriving might be longer than an hour.
Maybe it will be on the same flight, the next day. What
happens then? Read on, below, to understand your rights as
regards buying essential items and seeking compensation for them.
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
Note - although your bag may
be found quickly, that is not the same as arriving in your hands
quickly - there might still be another day or more of delay as
between when your bag is found and when it is delivered to you.
Are You at Home or Somewhere Else?
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 - and it is a big but. The
US Department of Transportation imposes the exact same
obligation on airlines to reimburse you for the cost of any
essential items you have needed to buy, no matter if you've
returned home or are somewhere else.
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.
However, the concept of what
is essential probably shifts. You might consider a change of
underwear to be essential when you're away from home, but this
would be harder to justify when you've returned home.
On the other hand, if you're a
man and you have an electric shaver in your bag, buying a new
electric shaver is much easier to justify as an essential
purchase. Doubtless there may be some similar essentials if
you're a woman.
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. A few
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 it 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) The paperwork is
Be sure to do everything the
airline requires you to do, and document every step of the way.
Airlines will sometimes try and avoid liability because you
failed to file a specific form within a particular time period,
so don't delay.
Keep details of everyone you
talk to and the conversations you had. Each time you have
any contact, you should make a note of the date/time, who you
spoke to (ask for their 'agent sine' and what city they are in),
the number you called them at or where you saw them, and a quick
summary of the conversation.
These notes are hardly legally
binding, but if you show due diligence and care in everything
you've done, it makes you a more credible claimant and may
encourage a Small Claims Court in particular to choose to 'reward'
your diligence in their finding.
For sure keep receipts for
(d) 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. Try and get their policy in writing -
there's a chance their written policy may be different - more
generous - than what you are being told, or, if read carefully,
you'll see that the policy has non-binding statements that are
voided by provisional vague clauses such as "in special
circumstances" or "at our discretion".
The 'special circumstances'
are when you know your rights and refuse to be bluffed by an
official seeming policy offering you nothing other than a half
squeezed out tube of toothpaste, a well chewed toothbrush, and an
The DoT requires airline
policies to be in writing, and have been known to fine airlines
that can't provide them on request. So a refusal/inability
to give you a copy of their policies definitely strengthens your
case if the matter progresses to a DoT complaint, and if you end
up pressing your case with a more senior airline staff member,
being able to tell them that the first person you spoke to was
unable to give you a copy of the airline's policies will also send
them a warning that they are creating added problems for
themselves if they don't quickly settle.
What the Department of
On 9 October 2011 the DoT
restated the obligations it imposes on airlines, and added
commentary to the effect that it takes breaches of these
obligations very seriously.
The essential element of their
statement says (underlinings are added by us) :
This notice is intended to
give guidance to air carriers on their policies relating to the
reimbursement of passengers’ expenses in cases where baggage has
been lost, damaged or delayed. We have learned that a number of
airlines have adopted policies that purport to limit reimbursement
for such expenses in a variety of ways. These policies may
be contained in contracts of carriage or, more often, in informal
printed advisory handouts available from ticket counters or
carrier agents. For example, we are aware of one such advisory
handout that denies any reimbursement “for necessities” where the
baggage is “expected” to reach the passenger within 24 hours of
filing a delayed baggage report and limits reimbursement to actual
expenses up to a fixed maximum amount per day after the first
day. Also, some carriers may be providing reimbursement to
passengers for incidental expenses incurred only after the
outbound leg of a roundtrip.
Department’s baggage liability rule, 14 CFR Part 254,
contains no such limitations, and
it is the enforcement policy of the Office of Aviation Enforcement
and Proceedings (Aviation Enforcement Office) to consider any
arbitrary limits on expense reimbursement incurred in cases
involving lost, damaged or delayed baggage to violate Part 254 and
to constitute an unfair and deceptive practice and unfair method
of competition in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 41712. Section 254.4
states that an air carrier “shall not
limit its liability for provable direct or consequential damages”
relating to lost, damaged or delayed
baggage to less than $3,300 per passenger. To meet the
requirements of Part 254 and the requirements implicit in 49
U.S.C. § 41712, carriers should remain
willing to cover all reasonable, actual and verifiable expenses
related to baggage loss, damage or delay up to the amount
stated in Part 254.
The key points are that
airlines have to pay up to $3500 (as of May 27, 2015 - this amount
is regularly adjusted up) to you, whether your baggage is lost,
damaged, or delayed. The $3500 is to cover all reasonable,
actual and verifiable expenses.
You can see the simple short
regulation that establishes this liability
Now what doe these three words
- reasonable, actual,
verifiable - mean?
The easy two words are 'actual'
and 'verifiable'. That means you need to
actually incur costs - ie, spend money - and must be able to show
receipts that clearly indicate the items purchased.
You can't just claim
compensation for 'pain and suffering and mental anguish'.
You can only claim for things you spend money on, and which you
Now, what about
reasonable? Does it mean reasonable in your
opinion, or in the airline's opinion - probably there'll be a huge
gap in interpretation between those perspectives! Don't get
greedy; be fair, and view every expense as if you will have to
justify it to a judge in a small claims court (as indeed you may).
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.
They do this based on their definition of 'reasonable', and
unless there are special circumstances that mean it is not
reasonable to wear the clothing you traveled in for another day,
they are probably correct.
But there can be cases where
it is reasonable to immediately buy new clothes.
If, for example, you were
traveling in casual clothes to fly somewhere on Sunday, but on Monday
an important business meeting to attend, you clearly need to buy
some business attire. This has happened to me several
If you've flown from a
tropical climate to a winter climate, or, vice versa, if you've
flown from winter at home to a lovely tropical beach, maybe your
appropriate seasonal wear is in your suitcase and it is
reasonable to immediately purchase heavy clothing for winter, or
light clothing and swimwear for summer.
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.
What About Expensive and Fragile
Airlines often seek limit
their liability for damage to or loss of electronics and fragile
items in baggage.
But the DoT regulation allows
no exception for any type of item within a lost or delayed bag.
Anything and everything is viewed the same.
So if it is reasonable
that you should urgently replace a camera or laptop or any other
item, then the airline is as obliged to reimburse you for that as
it is to reimburse you for a toothbrush and toothpaste.
If you're on a 'trip of a
lifetime' vacation that you want to film/photograph, then it might
well be reasonable to replace your camera with another one
immediately. If you're traveling for business and need your
laptop or tablet to give business presentations or to remain
connected to your office, then urgently replacing that too might
also be reasonable.
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. This
may or may not be naivety on my part!
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, and it is difficult, absent special circumstances, to
justify much as being reasonably necessary 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.
However, the airline doesn't
have discretion in this. It is required to reimburse us for
all such reasonable expenses, but it is often easier to do this
from a positive cooperative position than to try to beat up on
Also, remember. This is
not a chance for a free $3500 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 (which they can
definitely do under the 'verifiable' element of the regulation), and may even
possibly 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 our related article about airline luggage liability
limits and a technique to possibly double your payout.
What the Airline is Obliged to
Do For You
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
This was then followed up in
October 2011 with their notice that is excerpted from above.
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
They also have a
webpage with a form you can fill out online.
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 Oct 2017
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.