Airlines Use Loopholes To Avoid Paying For Damaged Bags

broken suitcase american airlinesIf an airline damages a piece of your luggage, surely they will pay to repair or replace it, right? Don’t be so sure. I’ve been very lucky over the years in checking bags but my luck ran out on a flight to Chicago from San Francisco over the weekend, when I found out that there are plenty of loopholes that airlines use to avoid paying for damaged luggage.

I prefer to travel light and bring my suitcase as a carry-on, if I can, but when I travel with my two young sons, as I did on this occasion, I tend to check my suitcase because we’re traveling with car seats, a stroller and a host of other items to keep our kids content on the flight. For me, it’s usually worth it to pay to check the bags at the curbside check-in, and I did so on Saturday.

The skycap was terrific; he actually came right to our car and wheeled our suitcases over to the counter himself. But when we arrived at O’Hare later that evening, the pull handle on my beloved Burton/Gravis suitcase was broken. I waited in line at the airline’s baggage counter and was told by a pretty young woman that I was, essentially, out of luck.”Our policy doesn’t cover protruding parts,” she said.

“Protruding parts?” I said, wondering what that included.

“Wheels, straps, pull handles, hanger hooks, nothing like this,” she said.

I appealed to her supervisor, who looked like a retired boxer.

“The suitcase is still useable,” he said, eyeing it over.

“How so?” I asked, showing him that the handle was completely broken.

“You can pick it up and carry it,” he said.

It seemed like a preposterous suggestion. Carry a suitcase through the airport? I think that Bernard D. Sadow invented the rolling suitcase back in 1970 precisely to relieve people of that burden, but technically the supervisor was right. He told me that I could send a complaint to the airline’s customer relations department but I know from past experience that doing that is typically the equivalent of urinating into a wind gust.

Many airlines apparently have the same policy regarding “protruding” baggage parts. (Though one airline apparently gave this writer a credit for their checked bag fee after they made a fuss.) The sheet that the airline gave me has a laundry list of items or for which it won’t assume liability. Here are some examples:

-Overpacked (zipper or seam damage)
-Damage resulting from TSA inspection
-Sports item not packed in hard-sided case
-Infant/child restraint devices, including car seats and stroller
-Photographic equipment, computers, any other electronic equipment, jewelry, cash, documents, furs, antiques, liquids, medicines, art or any other valuable items.

So forget about trying to tell them that you packed a Van Gogh, an original copy of the Magna Carta or a $50,000 mink coat. If you take a look at my suitcase in the photo above, you can probably tell that it isn’t very valuable, and in fact, I’ve gotten years of great use out if it. I should probably just get a new one, right? Maybe so, but I develop a strong attachment to a good piece of luggage. That bag has been my travel companion on dozens of memorable trips all over the world. I’m not quite ready to say goodbye.

I thought about trying to super glue or duct tape it, but now my plan is to bring the suitcase with me, broken protruding pull handle and all, the next time I travel to a developing country. I’m afraid that fixing things has become a lost art here in our disposable society but in some places, cheap fix-it people still exist and thrive. My suitcase will live to travel another day. But I think I’ll carry my bag on board with me next time, because in its weak and fragile state, it needs me now more than ever.

UPDATE, 5/22/2013: I sent a complaint e-mail to this airline and ten days later received a $150 voucher toward a future purchase with this airline. Not quite as good as money to repair or replace the bag, but not bad at all. The moral of the story is that even if they tell you at the airport that they aren’t liable for your damaged bag, it’s worth it to follow up with a complaint.

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]