International Travel: Baggage issues
Most travelers are not aware that in addition to the terms on their ticket jacket, what type of baggage you may use, what you may pack in it and how much the airline will be liable for if something happens to your luggage is governed by the airline's General Conditions of Carriage (a document far larger than what is found in the ticket jacket), international treaties, international agreements between air carriers, tariffs filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the laws of the country(ies) you are traveling to (the European Union having the most comprehensive set of regulations affecting airlines' obligations and liability to passengers).
The Montreal Convention of 1999 ("Montreal Convention"), arguably has the single greatest significance when it comes to determining airline liability. The Montreal Convention is the successor to what was known commonly as the Warsaw Convention and an amendment to it known as Montreal Protocol No. 4. The Convention became effective in the United States in November 2003, and became effective in most of Europe in the Summer of 2004.
Article 22 of the Montreal Convention addresses the airline's liability should your luggage (and the items inside it) be delayed, lost or damaged. Generally an airline's liability is limited to 1,000SDR per passenger. SDR's are the currency of the International Monetary Fund. The $US value of 1,000SDR currently hovers around $1,500. This is an increase, in most cases, of the liability limit found under the Warsaw Convention. However, the loss or destruction of an expensive suitcase, packed with expensive clothes and electronics, quickly surpasses the liability limitation. Also, note that the liability limit is per passenger, not per bag as it was under the Warsaw Convention. The baggage claim ticket will determine to which passenger the bag(s) belongs. The more bags you check under your name, the less relative compensation you will receive should something happen to those bags. So make sure everyone in your group (even if she is only 4 years old) has at least one bag checked in under their name.
You can declare a higher value for the contents of your luggage. Depending on the airline you will either not be allowed to check the bag until you sign a liability waiver, limiting the airline's liability to the Montreal limit even though you have valuable items inside the luggage; or you will be given the opportunity to pay the airline an additional fee to raise the airline's liability limit to the value you have declared -- in effect the airline is selling you a type of insurance for the bag.
Your bag is lost/damaged...now what?
If something does happen to your bags, the first thing your should do is immediately go to the airline's baggage office and report your bag as either missing or damaged, whichever the case may be. They will enter the information in their computer in order to conduct a search for it. They should give your a receipt, usually known as a Property Irregularity Report ("PIR"). The PIR will have have a file reference number. Do not loose this paper as you will need the reference number when communicating with the airline. But reporting your loss to the airline and receiving a PIR is not enough!
You must then follow-up in writing to the airline to make a claim for compensation for your lost, delayed or damaged property. Obtain the address for the airline's customer service office and send them a letter listing everything that was damaged/lost, any items you had to purchase to replace the lost/damaged property and the value of these items. You must do this within seven days of your receipt of your luggage in the case of damage to the bag or its contents, and within 21 days of your receipt of your luggage in a case where delivery of your bag to you was delayed. If you do not make a written claim to the airline within these deadlines, then the airline has the right to completely deny your claim; even if you immediately speak with someone from airline, at the airport, on the very day your bag is discovered to be lost or damaged.
Here are some things you can do to help ensure the least amount of aggravation should your bags get lost or damaged:
- Obtain travel insurance, and ensure you obtain coverage for damaged or lost baggage;
- Before you travel visit the website of your airline and read the airline's terms and conditions of carriage;
- Especially if you will be travelling with expensive items or odd sized/shaped luggage, consider calling the airline's customer service office before your flight to ask details about baggage rules;
- If you are traveling with your family, and have fewer bags than family, be sure to check each bag under the name of a different family member -- in this way you can maximize the compensation you are entitled to under the Montreal Convention's "per passenger" scheme;
- Make an inventory of the contents of your luggage -- leave a copy of the inventory at home, and keep another copy in a carry-on bag;
- If something happens: 1) report it immediately to the airline before leaving the airport; 2)provide a copy of your luggage inventory to the customer service representative at the airport; 3) make sure you obtain a copy of the PIR; 4) obtain the address of the Customer Service Department;
- Ask if the airline will forward some money to you to cover the immediate cost of replacing clothes and toiletries;
- Write a letter to the airline's Customer Service Department making a formal claim for reimbursement for your lost/damaged property. Do this within 7 days of obtaining your luggage if your claim involves damage, and within 21 days of obtaining your luggage if your claim involves the delayed delivery of your bag. There is no specific deadline for filing a written claim when your bag is completely lost, however, to be safe, file your claim within 21 days of when you first realized the bag was missing.