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Lost luggage: Domestic vs. international

Call Christina viewer gets $500 voucher, 50,000 miles from American Airlines after luggage lost

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. "I feel like I am fighting for anyone who has ever lost a bag." -- Michael Travis Johnsen, Local 10 News ‘Call Christina' Viewer. 

How much can you get if an airline loses your bag? The answer depends on your destination.

For Local 10 News viewer Michael Johnsen, of Miami Beach, traveling to Japan and Vietnam was a trip of a lifetime.

"I had spent over a year saving for this trip. It was a great trip, a wonderful trip," he said.

While in Vietnam, Johnsen purchased hand-made tailored jackets and shoes. He also acquired specially made keepsakes that he planned to bring back to the United States to honor his late brother.

On his way home, Johnsen had a connecting flight in Dallas.

"The second you leave customs in Dallas there is a bag recheck," he said.

Johnsen said the last time he saw his bag was at the American Airlines recheck.

"Fly to Miami, no bag. It was a lot of loss because it was a big trip; it was a month of traveling," he said.

Gone were his treasured mementos from a distant land.

"It was a blessing to learn that one of the most healing aspects of my exposure to Eastern culture was the ritual of gift giving," Johnsen said. "Selecting unique handmade gifts for family and friends to be part of my brother's memorial service brought me peace. These lost gifts made in Japan and Vietnam cannot be replaced, and I had no memorial gifts to honor my brother as I had planned."

DOMESTIC VS. INTERNATIONAL

What Johnsen learned next prompted him to "Call Christina." If an airline loses your bag on a domestic trip, you are entitled to a claim limit of $3,400. If lost on an international trip, the settlement limit is about $1,500.

"I thought it was domestic," Johnsen said.

Johnsen did have the bag in Dallas and it was lost stateside. It turns out since that domestic flight was linked to an international itinerary, so he got just over $1,500.

These are limits governed by an international agreement known as The Montreal Convention of 1999.

LOST IS RARE:

"It means all of those gifts (and) keepsakes -- they are not in my house and they are not given to my family," Johnsen said. "I don't have the things I have bought and the credit card bills are coming and I am paying for things I don't have."

"He became one of the quote 'unlucky ones,'" former Washington State Assistant Attorney General and current Nova Southeastern University Consumer Protection Law Professor Michael Flynn said.

An airline losing a bag continues to be a rare occurrence.

While the Department of Transportation tracked an uptick in the number of mishandled bags late last year -- those are bags that are lost, delayed, damaged, or pilfered -- the rate of lost and damaged luggage is down more than 60 percent since 2007.

Those are the findings of a 2015 SITA Baggage Report.

"This improvement in baggage handling over the past seven years is largely a result of strong technology investment and innovation in baggage systems automation and processes," SITA CEO Francesco Violante said.

Of course when it happens to you, all the statistics in the world wouldn't make you feel any better.

"I want to unpack and say, 'Look at what I found in that faraway place,'" Johnsen said. 

In a statement American Airlines told Local 10 News, "Our team continues to actively search for the bag, and apologize that we have yet to locate it. Lost baggage is very uncommon for American Airlines; on average, we transport more than 40,000 bags -via Miami International Airport each and every day, and 50 percent of those are connecting bags."

At the time Johnsen "Called Christina," American Airlines had offered him a $300 voucher.

"Ticket prices these days are extremely expensive, so where do I go for $300?" Johnsen said. "I can probably go to Orlando, that's it. By me having the bag domestically, technically it was an international flight. I understand they need to follow the rules, but every situation is different, every situation is unique. Give me a ticket back to Asia."

Flynn agreed saying, "In this particular instance, because of the very, very, limited interpretation of the application of the international claim limit, I think the airline is being cheap with this.  I think the airline should turn around and give him a round trip ticket from where he was to where he wanted to be."

Since those interviews Johnsen confirms American Airlines has offered him 50,000 miles and a $500 voucher.

"We reimbursed the passenger the limit for international travel (amounting to $1,572 USD); his itinerary is based on the ticket from first leg to final leg. We also offered the passenger a voucher for a future flight on American Airlines," American Airlines said.

Based on American Airlines' award chart, 50,000 miles would get Johnsen a round-trip ticket to Asia.

CARRY IT ON OR SHIP IT:

Flynn's advice if you are planning a trip, especially if you are going overseas is, "if you can't afford to lose what's in your bags, carry it on. The other option is to ship it, to just take the stuff and ship it separately. So then you are not dealing with airlines and the baggage limits and the inventories, you ship it and you insure it and it ends up where it is supposed to go."

Plane Talk: Tips on Avoiding Baggage Problems

HOLDING OUT HOPE:

Local 10 News checked with Miami International Airport's Lost and Found Facility who confirmed they do not have Johnsen's bag.

Local 10 News also accompanied Johnsen as he made a last in-person check with both MIA's Lost and Found and American Airline's baggage area. Workers did not locate his bag at either location.

Local 10 News also asked American Airlines to again check their baggage holding facility in Dallas. Again, the carrier stated they were unable to locate Johnsen's bag.

Johnsen still holds out hope. 

"Because those things in there are my things, they are not anybody else's," he said. "Many souvenirs were unique, created for me as I watched. These small treasures that I bought were meant to bring me joy and serenity as I returned to my difficult family situation.  I just want my stuff back and that is not an unreasonable thing to ask for."

The Montreal Convention (MC99):

The Montreal Convention (MC99) has been ratified by the U.S. Senate and constitutes U.S. law.

If your bag is lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered, the airline is free to invoke a limit on the settlement that it offers you. The current limits are:

• Domestic passenger trips: $3,400 per passenger ($3,300 for travel before June 6, 2013)

• International passenger trips: 1,131 Special Drawing Rights per passenger. According the International Monetary Fund the value as of October 14, 2005 is 1 USD = SDR 0.707118, 1 SDR = 1.414190.

If the depreciated value of your bags and their contents are more than these limits, you may want to ask the airline if it sells "excess valuation" to increase the limits, explained a U.S. Department of Transportation spokesperson. You can purchase travel insurance that will supplement the airline coverage. Some elite credit cards provide such coverage automatically if your airline ticket is charged to that card.

The Montreal Convention permits airlines to limit their liability for baggage problems on international passenger trips to 1,131 "Special Drawing Rights (SDR)."  The SDR is an aggregate of currencies; its value floats daily. The Montreal Convention liability limit of 1,131 SDRs is worth U.S. $1,599 today, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The airline's actual settlement offer is based on the value of the passenger's property; airlines do not automatically pay the limit.

This Montreal Convention limit applies to all portions of a passenger's international itinerary, including segments between two U.S. points. This is the case even if the passenger claimed and re-checked his or her bags between the domestic and international flights and thus knows that the bag was lost on a domestic flight segment. The applicability of the Montreal Convention to domestic segments of international trips is usually stated in the baggage liability notice that accompanies most airlines' e-tickets.

Both DOT's domestic baggage liability rule and the Montreal Convention state that carriers may not apply lower liability limits than the ones specified in the DOT rule or the Convention, respectively.  A liability limit of zero would not be in compliance.  However, carriers are free to deny claims that they can show to be fraudulent. 

The liability limits are just that – limits.  The actual settlement is based on the value of the lost or damaged property, up to the applicable liability limit.  Also, like insurance companies, airline settle claims based on the depreciated value of the property at the time of the loss or damage. For lost baggage they generally don't reimburse the replacement cost or the original purchase price.

RESOURCES AND REPORTS:

October 2015 Air Travel Consumer Report: The Air Travel Consumer Report is a monthly product of the Department of Transportation's Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings (OAEP). The report is designed to assist consumers with information on the quality of services provided by the airlines.

This section gives the rate of mishandled-baggage reports per 1,000 passengers by carrier and for the industry. The rate is based on the total number of reports each carrier received from passengers concerning lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered baggage.

Aviation Consumer Protection

Fly Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel

Baggage: A compilation of the most recent rules, guidance, enforcement orders and other related information regarding aviation baggage issues.

Plane Talk

File a Consumer Complaint

American Airlines' Policies on Baggage

American Airlines' Baggage Charges

American Airlines: Delayed or damaged baggage

Here is the advice offered by the U.S. Department of Transportation when it comes to baggage:

Baggage

Between the time you check your luggage in and the time you claim it at your destination, it may have passed through a maze of conveyor belts and baggage carts.  Once airborne, baggage may tumble around the cargo compartment if the plane hits rough air. In all fairness to the airlines, however, relatively few bags are damaged or lost. With some common-sense packing and other precautions, your bags will likely be among the ones that arrive safely.

Packing

You can pack to avoid problems. Certain items should never be put into a piece of luggage that you plan to check into the baggage compartment:

•             Small valuables: cash, credit cards, jewelry, an expensive camera.

•             Critical items: medicine, keys, passport, tour vouchers, business papers.

•             Irreplaceable items: manuscript, heirlooms.

•             Fragile items: eyeglasses, glass containers, liquids.

Things like this should be carried on your person or packed in a carry-on bag. Remember, the only way to be sure your valuables are not damaged or lost is to keep them with you. Full flights sometimes run out of room in the cabin for full-size carry-on bags. In those situations the airline must sometimes "gate check" the carry-on baggage of the last passengers to board the flight.  This happens near the door to the aircraft.  Pack your carry-on bag in a manner so that if it must be gate-checked you can quickly remove the fragile, valuable and critical items described above.  For example, consider packing all such items in a small, soft bag that will fit under the seat in front of you, and make sure that this small bag is easily accessible in your carry-on bag.

Although only a tiny percentage of checked bags are permanently lost, your bag might be delayed for a day or two. Don't put perishables in a checked bag; they may spoil if it is delayed. It is wise to put items that you will need during the first 24 hours in a carry-on bag (e.g. toiletries, a change of underwear). Check with the airline for its limits on the size, weight, and number of carry-on pieces. As of this writing, on most flights you are allowed to carry on one bag plus one personal item (e.g., purse, briefcase, camera bag, laptop computer bag).

If you are using more than one airline, check with all of them. Inquire about your flight; different airplanes can have different limits. Don't assume that the flight will have closet space for every carry-on garment bag; yours may have to be checked. If you plan to go shopping at your destination and bring your purchases aboard as carry-on, keep the limits in mind. If you check these purchases, however, carry the receipts separately; they may be necessary for a claim if the merchandise is lost or damaged. Don't put anything into a carry-on bag that could be considered a weapon (e.g. certain scissors, pocket knives). Check the web site of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for restrictions on carry-on baggage by click "Travelers."

As with carry-ons, checked baggage is subject to limits. Some airlines permit one or two checked bags at no charge; other carriers charge for even one checked bag. There can also be an extra charge if you exceed the airline's limits on the size, weight or number of the bags.

On some flights between two foreign cities, your allowance may be lower and may be based primarily on the weight of the checked bags rather than the number of pieces. The same two bags that cost you nothing to check when you started your trip could result in expensive excess-baggage charges under a weight system. Ask the airlines about the limit for every segment of your international trip before you leave home, especially if you have a stopover of a day or two or if you are changing carriers.

The bags you check should be labeled ? inside and out ? with your name and phone number. Add the name and phone number of a person to contact at your destination if it's practical to do so. Almost all of the bags that are misplaced by airlines do turn up sooner or later. With proper labeling, the bag and its owner can usually be reunited within a few hours.

Don't overpack a bag. This puts pressure on the latches, making it easier for them to pop open. If you plan to check any glassware, musical instruments or other fragile items, they should be packed in a container specifically designed to survive rough handling, preferably a factory-sealed carton or a padded hard-shell carrying case.

Check-in

Don't check in at the last minute. Even if you make the flight, your bag may not. If you miss the airline's check-in deadline, the carrier might not assume liability for your bag if it is delayed or lost. If you have a choice, select flights that minimize the potential for baggage disruption. The likelihood of a bag going astray increases from #1 to #4 below (i.e., #1 is safest): 1) nonstop flight; 2) direct or 'through' flight (one or more stops, but no change of aircraft); 3) online connection (change of aircraft but not airlines); and 4) interline connection (change of aircraft and airlines)

When you check in, remove straps and hooks from garment bags that you are sending as checked baggage. These can get caught in baggage processing machinery, causing damage to the bag.

The airline will put baggage destination tags on your luggage and give you the stubs to use as claim checks. Make sure you get a stub for every bag. Don't throw them away until after you get your bags back and you check the contents. Not only will you need them if a claim is necessary, but you may need to show them to security upon leaving the baggage-claim area.

Your bags may only be checked to one of your intermediate stops rather than your destination city if you must clear Customs short of your final destination, or if you are taking a connection involving two airlines that don't have an interline agreement. Be sure all of the tags from previous trips are removed from your bag, since they may cause your bag to go astray.

Claiming your bags

Many bags look alike. After you pull what you think is your bag off the carousel, check the name tag or the bag tag number. If your bag arrives open, unlocked or visibly damaged, check right away to see if any of the contents are missing or damaged. Report any problems to the airline before leaving the airport; insist on having a report created. Open your suitcase immediately when you get to where you are staying. Any damage to the contents or any pilferage should be immediately reported to the airline by telephone. Make a note of the date and time of the call, and the name and telephone number of the person you spoke with. Follow up as soon as possible with a certified letter to the airline.

Damage

If your suitcase arrives smashed or torn, the airline will usually pay for repairs. If it can't be fixed, they will negotiate a settlement to pay you its depreciated value. The same holds true for belongings packed inside. Airlines may decline to pay for damage caused by the fragile nature of the broken item or inadequate packing, rather than the airline's rough handling. Air carriers might also refuse to compensate you for damaged items inside the bag when there's no evidence of external damage to the suitcase. When you check in, airline personnel may let you know if they think your suitcase or package may not survive the trip intact. Before accepting a questionable item, they may ask you to sign a statement in which you agree to check it at your own risk. But even if you do sign this form, the airline might be liable for damage if it is caused by its own negligence shown by external injury to the suitcase or package.

Delayed bags

If you and your suitcase don't connect at your destination, don't panic. The airlines have very sophisticated systems that track down the vast majority of misplaced bags and return them to their owners within hours. In many cases they will absorb reasonable expenses you incur while they look for your missing belongings. You and the airline may have different ideas of what's reasonable, however, and the amount it will pay is subject to negotiation.

If your bags don't come off the conveyor belt, report this to airline personnel before you leave the airport. Insist that they create a report and give you a copy, even if they say the bag will be in on the next flight. Get an appropriate phone number for following up (not the Reservations number). Don't assume that the airline will deliver the bag without charge when it is found; ask the airline about this. Most carriers set guidelines for their airport employees that allow them to disburse some money at the airport for emergency purchases. The amount depends on whether or not you're away from home and how long it takes to track down your bags and return them to you. If the airline does not provide you a cash advance, it may still reimburse you later for the purchase of necessities. Discuss with the carrier the types of articles that would be reimbursable, and keep all receipts. If the airline misplaces sporting equipment, it will sometimes pay for the rental of replacements. For replacement clothing or other articles, the carrier might offer to absorb only a portion of the purchase cost, on the basis that you will be able to use the new items in the future. (The airline may agree to a higher reimbursement if you turn the articles over to them.)

When you've checked in fresh foods or any other perishable goods and they are ruined because their delivery is delayed, the airline won't reimburse you. Carriers may be liable if they lose or damage perishable items, but they won't accept responsibility for spoilage caused by a delay in delivery.

Airlines are liable for provable consequential damages up to the amount of their liability limit (see below) in connection with the delay. If you can't resolve the claim with the airline's airport staff, keep a record of the names of the employees with whom you dealt, and hold on to all travel documents and receipts for any money you spent in connection with the mishandling. (It's okay to surrender your baggage claim tags to the airline when you fill out a form at the airport, as long as you get a copy of the form and it notes that you gave up the tags.) Contact the airline's baggage claims office or consumer office when you get home.

Lost luggage

Once your bag is declared (permanently) lost, you will have to submit a claim. This usually means you have to fill out a second, more detailed form. Check on this; failure to complete the second form when required could delay your claim. Missing the deadline for filing it could invalidate your claim altogether.

The airline will usually refer your claim to a central office, and the negotiations between you and the airline will begin. If your flight was a connection involving two carriers, the final carrier is normally the one responsible for processing your claim even if it appears that the first airline lost the bag. Airlines don't automatically pay the full amount of every claim they receive. First, they will use the information on your form to estimate the value of your lost belongings. Like insurance companies, airlines consider the depreciated value of your possessions, not their original price or the replacement costs. If you're tempted to exaggerate your claim, don't. Airlines may completely deny claims they feel are inflated or fraudulent. They often ask for sales receipts and other documentation to back up claims, especially if a large amount of money is involved. If you don't keep extensive records, you can expect to negotiate with the airline over the value of your goods. Generally, it takes an airline anywhere from four weeks to three months to pay passengers for their lost luggage. When airlines tender a settlement, they may offer you the option of free tickets on future flights in a higher amount than the cash payment. Ask about all restrictions on these tickets, such as "blackout" periods.

Limits on liability

Airlines assert a limit on their liability for delayed, lost or damaged checked baggage.  When your luggage and its contents are worth more than the liability limit, you may want to purchase "excess valuation," if available, from the airline as you check in. This is not insurance, but it will increase the carrier's potential liability. The airline may refuse to sell excess valuation on some items that are especially valuable or breakable, such as antiques, musical instruments, jewelry, manuscripts, negotiable securities and cash.

On domestic trips, the airline can invoke a liability ceiling that is regulated by DOT and that is adjusted for inflation every two years. That limit is currently $3,400 per passenger.

On international round trips that originate in the United States, the liability limit is set by a treaty called the Montreal Convention. This treaty also governs liability on international round trips that originate in another country that has ratified this Convention, and one-way trips between the U.S. and such a country. This international limit is adjusted for inflation every five years; it is currently 1,131 Special Drawing Rights.  The SDR is a currency surrogate that floats daily; go to www.imf.org to see the current value in dollars.  At this writing 1,131 SDRs was worth about $1,675. The international limit applies to domestic segments of an international journey. This is the case even if the domestic and international flights are on separate tickets and you claim and re-check your bag between the two flights.

Keep in mind that the liability limits are maximums. If the depreciated value of your property is worth less than the liability limit, this lower amount is what you will be offered. If the airline's settlement doesn't fully reimburse your loss, check your homeowner's or renter's insurance; it sometimes covers losses away from the residence. Some credit card companies and travel agencies offer optional or even automatic supplemental baggage coverage. Special liability requirements apply to the domestic transportation of assistive devices used by passengers with disabilities.  See the publication New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability.

Follow Christina Vazquez on Twitter @CallChristinaTV

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