Airlines' claims of better baggage handling incomplete

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The airlines have been bragging about their improved handling of checked luggage, based on Department of Transportation data showing that only three out of every 1,000 passengers reported a bag lost, delayed, damaged or pilfered in 2012. Although that's the lowest level of mishandled baggage since the government started collecting reports in 1987, this statistic doesn't tell the full story.

First, it doesn't include bags that go astray during international flights or flights operated by Spirit Airlines and smaller regional carriers, which are not required to report this information. It also doesn't reflect that fewer passengers are checking luggage to avoid baggage fees -- so the airlines' improved performance is mostly due to about half as many bags being checked since the fees were instituted.

And it doesn't capture the headaches travelers often face when their bag is one of the roughly 2 million pieces of luggage that disappear, arrive late, become damaged or experience theft every year. Among the tales of woe friends have shared with me recently -- a bag's contents shredded en route, fishing gear that arrived late, a 12-hour window to wait for a delayed bag's delivery -- the common theme was an unhelpful response by the airline.

"You have to know your rights and basically fight for them because the airline is not going to offer them to you," said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a passenger advocacy group.

Government regulations leave a lot of wiggle room for airlines to stonewall customers who report baggage problems. Here is what you can expect to face if you have to deal with a luggage problem, along with some tips on how to keep track of your bags.

Filing a claim

Collecting compensation is complicated because policies vary depending on whether your baggage trouble happened on an international or a domestic flight, and the rules give airlines a lot of leeway to decide how much they'll reimburse you.

Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, said airlines must compensate passengers for "provable loss" resulting from delayed, lost or damaged baggage up to $3,300 per passenger for domestic flights and up to $1,742 for international flights (a number negotiated by treaty that varies with exchange rates). "This would include claims for incidental expenses like buying clothing and toiletries when a consumer's baggage is delayed," Mr. Mosley wrote in an email.

Because these amounts are in the upper limits on what passengers can claim, airlines typically require travelers to submit receipts documenting the value of lost items or the cost of "reasonable" interim expenses such as toiletries or underwear while a bag is delayed. Airlines often say they must first authorize these expenses (check your carrier's website for policy details), which gives them the discretion to decide whether they'll pay only for a toothbrush and a T-shirt, or for a new suit for a meeting you can't miss.

Another hurdle is the time limit on filing a claim. For international flights, Mr. Mosley said passengers must file a claim for damaged luggage within seven days of the flight and within 21 days after receiving a bag that has been delayed. For domestic flights, the time limit varies by airline but can be narrow: United asks customers to submit a written report of a delayed bag within four hours of the flight's arrival, and most airlines give passengers just 24 hours to report damage to a bag. If you miss this deadline, chances are your claim will be denied.

One positive change is that airlines now have to reimburse the checked bag fees they charge if your luggage is lost -- although not if it's delayed. Delta's website says the carrier "may" offer a customer a travel credit for $25 to $50 off a future flight if a bag is delayed more than 12 hours. However, carriers are prohibited from limiting their liability to less than the amounts mentioned above, so you do not have to accept a travel voucher instead of a check for your expenses, especially if the voucher is for a lower amount.

Pressing your case

After you contact the airline about a baggage problem, you may encounter resistance along the path to getting paid for your claim. Two friends told me that after many phone calls and emails reporting a luggage mishap, they gave up on trying to collect any compensation, a reaction that isn't uncommon, passenger advocates say.

"If you feel like you've been given the runaround or you weren't given compensation and you had to spend money out of your pocket because the airline didn't deliver your bag, send a complaint to the DOT," Mr. Leocha, of the Consumer Travel Alliance, said.

The DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division has a Web complaint form (dot.gov/airconsumer) that passengers may submit online. It may just get counted as part of the government's statistics on airline service, but some do get forwarded to the carrier for further action or result in policy changes.

"The DOT doesn't take every claim and work it," said Alexander Anolik, a travel lawyer in Sausalito, Calif. "But when they do it's helpful."

He also suggested taking your case to small claims court if you get an unsatisfactory response from the airline. Filing fees for small claims court are typically $25 to $75, and you don't need a lawyer.

"It's the only way some airlines have an attitude adjustment," Mr. Anolik said. "As soon as they see their names on a summons, many times a carrier will settle."

Tracking your bag

Given all the tracking technology that exists today, it's surprising that there aren't better ways of keeping tabs on checked bags. Delta's app allows passengers to track their luggage, using the number on the bag tag or a scan of the tag's bar code, and most airlines offer at least a rudimentary tracking tool on their websites. But for those willing to spend some money for peace of mind, another option is on the horizon.

In April, a company called GlobaTrac plans to begin selling a palm-sized device named Trakdot (www.trakdot.com) that passengers can place in their checked luggage in case it goes astray.

"It uses cell technology to figure out the city location of your luggage, and it'll text you that information," said Adrienne Cohen, a company spokeswoman. "You can also look it up on the Trakdot website."

The device will cost $50, plus a $9 activation fee and a $13 annual service fee. It senses the speed of the plane to deactivate during a flight, then will turn on once the plane slows down, thereby obeying rules prohibiting the use of cellular technology in the air, Ms. Cohen said.

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