Lost Baggage Compensation and the Law

While you may try to cram everything into a carry-on when you fly, sometimes having to check a bag is unavoidable. Even if you haven't had problems with lost or delayed baggage in the past, watching your bag disappear through the conveyor belt flaps probably still makes you wonder when you'll see it again, if ever. With airlines earning such revenue from their baggage fees, it seems only fair that they adequately compensate you when your bags are lost or delayed.

Fortunately, there are laws in place to protect your baggage when you fly. Read on to learn more about these protections, including lost baggage compensation, and for guidance on what to do if your bags are lost or delayed.

What Laws Protect Your Baggage?

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates airline carriers and regularly issues rules governing their business practices, from advertising to policies governing lost baggage. Below are a few of the more important rules protecting your baggage while you fly.

Disclosure of Baggage Policies

Airline carriers are required to clearly disclose their baggage policies, including those relating to fees and lost baggage compensation, and must publish their contracts of carriage on their websites in an easily accessible form. These contracts cover such topics as an airline's legal obligations for lost or damaged baggage. The Department of Transportation has fined airline carriers for disclosing inaccurate information about lost baggage compensation, including where they simply fail to update liability limits set by the DOT.

Liability Limits for Lost Baggage

Airline carriers can legally limit their liability for lost or damaged baggage, but those limits are set by the Department of Transportation for domestic flights and by international treaty (the Montreal Convention) for international flights. The liability limits are currently:

  • $3,400 for domestic flights (as set by the DOT in 2013)
  • Between $1,700 and $1,800 for international flights (this limit fluctuates based on currency conversion rates)

Although an airline can place monetary limits on compensation for lost or delayed baggage, additional arbitrary limits are prohibited. Arbitrary limits include:

If you believe that the contents of your baggage exceed the liability limits, upon check-in you can ask to purchase "excess valuation.” Although an airline can refuse to sell excess valuation for certain items, if it does sell excess valuation, it can increase its liability limits.

What Should I Do if My Bags Are Delayed or Lost?

First, you should file a delayed baggage report with the airline before leaving the airport. Make sure that the airline documents your lost or delayed baggage on a form and obtain a copy for yourself. Ask for the name of the person who created the form or report as well as a phone number you can call and confirm that the airline will deliver your bag at no charge.

You can also ask for daily compensation for necessities you will need while your bags are delayed. Be sure to document your daily expenses and check your airline's website for any specific policies regarding such compensation. An airline may provide you with cash or specific items (i.e. a toothbrush, soap, etc.).

If your bag is lost, you will need to submit a claim to the airline carrier within a time period that it sets (this can be located on an airline carrier's website or obtained from an airline representative). Be specific when filing out the claim form because it will be used to estimate the value of the contents of your baggage. While an airline can limit its liability up to a certain dollar amount, it will pay less than that amount if your property has a lower value.

Next Steps  

If you believe that your baggage was lost or damaged by TSA agents at a security checkpoint, you can submit a claim form directly to the TSA. If an airline is refusing to adequately compensate you for your losses, you can contact an attorney who specializes in aviation law to assist you in recovering what was lost.

For more information on airline travel in general, see FindLaw’s section on Airline Rules. The Department of Transportation also provides a helpful Consumer Guide to Air Travel. For more information on consumer laws, see FindLaw’s section on Consumer Protection.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified consumer attorney to assist with protecting your rights with regard to travel rules and contracts.

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