Your flight was smooth and on time.
Now, to retrieve your luggage. The last bag has been belched up onto the conveyor belt, but yours is nowhere to be found.The fact that airlines successfully deliver vast numbers of checked bags to intended destinations on time doesn't impress you as you stand there, claim check in hand, surveying the empty carousel.
You report the bag missing, and the airline immediately puts a tracer on it. With luck, your luggage will be found and delivered to you within 24 hours. If not, what compensation can you expect?
For actual loss, if the bag cannot be found within a reasonable period (often specified as five days), the airline's liability is limited to the amount listed on the back of your airline ticket.
For domestic flights it's $1,250 per incident (not per bag), set by Transportation Department regulations. For international flights, it's $20 per kilo, or $9.05 per pound, of checked baggage, determined by the Warsaw Convention. That's $1,269.80 for the 70 pounds of allowable free luggage.
These amounts are frequently inadequate. And, to be compensated, most airlines require passengers to list contents of lost bags, with receipts or other proofs of value.
Passengers have little recourse. Most lawsuits are dismissed, resulting in further frustration.
One notable exception involved a technicality: the check-in agent on a New York to London flight hadn't written the luggage weight on the passenger's ticket. The Warsaw Convention states "if the baggage check does not contain the weight of the luggage, the carrier shall not be entitled to avail himself of those provisions of the convention which exclude or limit his liability." British Airways settled out of court for a sum substantially higher than $1,269.80.
You can take measures to protect against loss. If you know the airline's limited liability won't cover clothing, work-related items or other accouterments, you can buy additional baggage insurance - a maximum of $5,000 coverage per passenger - at check-in time. The cost is minimal. Delta, Continental and Northwest airlines charge $1 per each additional $100 of value, American and United charge $2 per each additional $100 of value.
What immediate assistance can you expect if your luggage arrives later than you do? Although you'll have to ask, even insist, most airlines reimburse you for necessary purchases. No, you can't buy a new suit. But toiletries, medicine, underwear and, depending on the time elapsed between lost and found, a change of clothing or cleaning services are reimbursable with sales receipts.
Some airlines are more liberal. Most give baggage service personnel some leeway in determining amounts and conditions of payment. Be prepared to state your case politely but strongly to get the best deal.
Delta Airlines, known to be particularly responsive, allows $150 for expenses incurred as a result of delayed luggage. Payment is made in cash upon presentation of receipts.
Northwest Airlines allows $50 if the bag has not been recovered within 24 hours. It adds $25 per day thereafter to a maximum of $150. Occasionally further expenditures are allowed but must be approved within four hours of your arrival.
American and United airlines have similar policies: $25 towards expenses in the first 24 hours, an additional $25 for the next 24 hours to a maximum of $100 if the bag has not been found within three days. Payment is made by check upon presentation of receipts. If the bag is lost, these amounts may be deducted from the settlement.
Continental Airlines covers 50 percent of clothing expenses to a maximum of $100 and pays $25 for toiletries.
With increased security, airlines are adhering strictly to one carry-on bag per person. Pack it with prescription medicines, toiletries, a change of underwear and other essentials. Just in case.
Travel Assistance International has set up a toll-free telephone number to offer up-to-date travel advisories.
TAI, part of Europ Assistance Worldwide Services Inc., in Washington, D.C., says it will continue the service so long as there is public concern over travel because of the war in the Persian Gulf.
Travel and health advisories, based on daily information from the State Department, are available for more than 200 countries.
The toll-free number is 1-800-821-2828.