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#361 Consumer Rights: Baggage Claims

mp3 #361 Airline Baggage Problems - What are your Rights? (mp3 file)

Probably the most frequent complaint against airlines is that of lost, damaged or delayed baggage. You might find yourself facing a conveyor belt minus your suitcase, or perhaps you will find your bag with a newly acquired large gash down the front. You can avoid at least some of the risks to your luggage by doing the following:

1. Get to the airport reasonably early and avoid split second connections. Give yourself extra time during busy seasons and on weekends. Lost luggage is often the luggage of someone who makes it onto the plane at the last minute.

2. Air carrier regulations require that you put your name and address on the outside of your luggage (you can fold the name tag over if you don't want to advertise your address). The airlines hope that this requirement will make it easier to trace lost bags. You can also put your name and address on the inside of the luggage. Don't leave on old tags as souvenirs--they can cause confusion. In addition, make your bag easily identifiable so someone won't mistake it for his and walk off with it at the airport. The airline will attach baggage destination tags to your luggage and give you the stubs for use as a claim check. Keep these claim checks; they are proof that you had the luggage on that-flight.

3. Don't pack your suitcase too full, and do lock it so that it won't pop open (and also prevent someone from rifling your bags without your knowledge).

4. Airline liability on baggage is usually no more than $1,250 per passenger, for flights on large aircrafts within the United States, and you are reimbursed on the depreciated value of your goods, which is determined by the airline.

For international travel, the airline’s liability on baggage is $9.07 per pound. If you think your luggage is worth more than these limits, you should buy "excess valuation" from the airline, which is available at a low cost.

You must purchase excess valuation when you check in. However, you should realize that this is not the type of insurance that pays you for the original cost, or for the replacement cost, of your goods. The airline will only pay you the depreciated value of your goods, when you buy excess valuation for your luggage, it simply raises the amount that you might be paid.

You must be able to show the value of your possessions. For instance, one traveler who did not declare "excess valuation," found it difficult to convince the airline that his backpack contained $5,000 worth of opals.

5. Don't pack fragile items -- the airlines won't reimburse you if they break. Put all vital belongings, such as medicine, in your carry-on luggage. Also, airlines may not be responsible for money, negotiable papers, art, or precious stones in baggage. Check with the airlines on their policy, before you pack anything of value in your luggage.

6. Airlines will usually pay for repairs for damaged luggage. If the damage is beyond repair, you may negotiate for the luggage's depreciated value, as well as for the clothing inside. Airlines will not pay for items damaged from carelessness in packing or when there is no evidence or external damage to your suitcase. If the airline has reason to believe that your luggage may not survive the trip, it must let you know when you check in. You may be requested to sign a statement to that effect. However, if damage is incurred as the result of the airline's negligence, this statement does not release the airline from liability.

7. If you can't find your bags, report your loss immediately. Your luggage might still be on the plane and by reporting the loss quickly; the plane can still be checked. If the airline can't find the bags within three days, it should send you a claims form.

If your luggage is delayed, the airline will usually pay reasonable expenses incurred during the search for your missing bags. If the items misplaced are sporting equipment, such as skis, the airline will usually pay the cost of renting that equipment. If clothing is misplaced, the airline will usually pay 50% on the purchase of new clothes or may even pay 100% if you return the clothes to the airline.

Before you leave the airport, you must fill out a form describing your luggage and its contents, along with other pertinent information. Missing luggage becomes classified as lost after a 3 day to 2 week period, depending on when the airline stops searching. At that time negotiations between you and the airline begin. You should ask the airline how long you have to fill out the form, but try to file your claim as quickly as possible because in practice airlines often reject claims not made within a few hours.

No matter when they are filed, claims are not necessarily speedily resolved. The airline does not have to settle your claim within any particular time limit, and in some cases the claim settlement has dragged on for a year or more.

If you have problems on a flight, complain immediately. If you don't get satisfaction locally, write the airline's president. Since the airline business is highly competitive, companies often want to please dissatisfied customers.

You should also send a copy of your complaint to the department of transportation, Washington, D.C. even if you don't think the agency can help you. You should let it know what has happened. The Department of Transportation cannot make airlines settle complaints, although it will log all complaints and try to mediate your problem. As a regulatory agency, the Department of Transportation can take enforcement action against the airline. The Department of Transportation may not levy fines for your particular problem, but complaints it receives may point up a need for a new or amended regulation to deal with the problem.

Complaint letters should be directed to:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
U.S. Department of Transportation
400 7th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590

Their telephone number is area code 202-366-2220 and their email is

Ralph Nader’s aviation consumer action project, or ACAP, staffers advocate airline consumer interests before regulatory agencies and the courts. ACAP represents the public interest in improved safety, affordable air fares and expanded passenger rights. You may also sue the airline in small claims court.

Air travelers’ information is published by the Federal Aviation Administration (an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation) and is available online at

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division also has information on passengers' rights, travel tips and other publications on their website at The booklet entitled, "Fly-Rights-A Consumer Guild to Air Travel" is available for free on their webpage and is also available for purchase from the Citizen Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009. The price is $4.00 which includes postage.

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