5 On Your Side

Airlines give small compensation for lost luggage

Posted December 21, 2009 5:20 p.m. EST
Updated December 21, 2009 6:13 p.m. EST

Last year, airlines reported more than 3 million bags as mishandled – less than half of a percent. Considering half a billion passengers flew, that doesn't seem like a lot – unless, of course, it's your bag.

Last August, Amy Elliot traveled to Maine on JetBlue Airways. Her luggage did not make the return trip.

"I expected that they would deliver it to me in a day or two, because I've lost luggage before and never had a problem," she said.

When a week went by, Elliot said, "I was thinking, 'OK, it's somewhere in some random airport, and it's piled up with a bunch of bags, and they just haven't gotten to it yet. Once they open it and find my name on my medication, I'm going to get it back.'"

But unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Elliot waited the required 45 days and tracked down receipts for the new clothes, gifts and a camera that were inside the luggage. She filed a claim estimating her loss at more than $5,300.

She was relieved that she would at least be compensated.

"I'm at least going to get some money for this. If I can't have my stuff back, I guess this is the next best thing," she said.

JetBlue, though, offered her only $997.49. "I was just sort of in shock. I couldn't believe it," she said.

Elliott says the airline would only tell her that the items on her claim were depreciated. The offer was take it or leave it.

That's often the case, because under federal law, the maximum any airline ever has to pay is $3300 per passenger for a domestic flight.

And many items including laptops, jewelry, medicines, cash and cameras are not covered, so always carry those items onboard.

It's part of what's known as the Contract of Carriage. Airlines are also not required to compensate passengers for delays and/or cancellations, if they've been delayed for anything bond their control or even for mechanical reasons. Although with the latter – you should at least request a meal voucher. But again, getting it is at the airline's discretion.

As for Elliott’s lost luggage, she felt like she had no choice but to accept the offer.

JetBlue spokesman Mateo Lleras would not say how the airline determines reimbursement amounts or how a person can dispute the airline's offer.

"If you escalate one customer to a higher level, then all of them are going to think that they can escalate their problem, too," he said.

He said someone would review her claim, but added since she agreed to the settlement, the case is legally closed.

Elliot said she accepted JetBlue's offer because she had no choice. She thinks the policy is written to cover the airlines, not passengers.

"When push comes to shove, really, we don't have a leg to stand on if they lose our luggage," she said.

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation has a guide to consumer air travel rights. It has information on everything from overbooking to baggage to how to file a complaint.

The USDOT also keeps statistics a number of airline issues including mishandled luggage complaints.