What Travelers Need to Know When Airlines Handle Lost or Delayed Baggage

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Air travel has been hectic this summer – and baggage issues are among many other problems for travelers, such as flight cancellations and delays.

Nearly 220,000 bags were ‘mishandled’ by US airlines in April 2022, meaning they were lost, damaged, delayed or stolen, according to the most recent data released by the US Department of Transportation.

The number of mishandled bags in April was more than double the roughly 94,000 mishandled baggage cases in April 2021, although slightly less than the March 2022 tally and April 2019 level, before the Covid-19 pandemic. 19, according to department data.

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What do these numbers look like to travellers? Consider this: Last week, Delta Air Lines flew a plane full of 1,000 stranded bags — and no passengers — from London Heathrow Airport to Detroit to expedite the movement of delayed baggage.

Why airlines struggle with baggage management

Airlines have faced a shortage of baggage handlers, pilots and other staff as demand for travel has increased, after declining at the start of the pandemic. More than 2.4 million Americans passed through airport security on Sunday, an increase of 10% from a year ago and more than triple on the same day in 2020, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

While a lost bag or a delay in getting to your belongings can ruin an otherwise amazing trip, there’s a silver lining: travelers can, in many circumstances, get financial compensation from airlines when their luggage goes missing. . There are also steps to follow before flying to make the process easier.

“Passengers have recourse,” said Sara Rathner, travel expert at NerdWallet.

Here’s what to know if your checked bags go MIA or come back with a few bumps.

Airlines must compensate passengers for lost luggage

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According to US regulations, airlines must compensate passengers for lost, delayed or damaged baggage, up to a certain limit.

  • If your bag is declared lost: The airline must compensate you for the contents of the bag, subject to depreciation, up to a predefined maximum. That maximum liability is $3,800 for domestic flights and about $1,800 for international flights, according to the Department of Transportation. (Airlines may pay more but are not obligated to do so.) The carrier must also reimburse the fees paid for checked baggage. Airlines are also required to pay up to an additional $20,000 for lost or damaged “assistive device” for a traveler’s disability, including crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, hearing aids or prostheses, for example.
  • If your baggage is delayed: These maximum liability limits also apply to delayed baggage. Payment to travelers may include personal expenses for additional clothing or other purchases they make out of necessity due to the delay. These are referred to as “reasonable, verifiable and actual incidental expenses” incurred during the delay of a bag. Airlines are not allowed to set a daily cap on these intermediate expenses (up to $50 per day, for example).

“The financial compensation is helpful because it’s not money you would normally spend,” Rathner said.

Policies may vary from carrier to carrier. For example, airlines have different time standards when baggage is considered “lost”; most report a bag lost after five to 14 days, depending on the Department of Transportation. Airlines may ask for receipts or other proof for the items in your bag.

Airlines may also exempt certain items from reimbursement, including cash, electronic devices and fragile items.

Make the lost baggage office your “first stop”

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If the baggage carousel is empty and you haven’t found your bag, speak to an airline employee before leaving the airport to file a baggage claim, according to travel experts.

“For lost baggage, the first port of call should be the airport lost baggage office to report the case,” said Aiden Freeborn, editor of travel site The Broke Backpacker.

Airlines are responsible for locating checked baggage that does not arrive where and when it should.

“In some cases, they may be able to locate the item and arrange for it to be routed,” Freeborn said. “Unfortunately, that may mean waiting a few days and having to return to the airport to pick it up.”

Airlines vary in terms of accepting liability and claim processing times, he added.

The same advice applies to delayed baggage, damaged baggage or the contents of baggage: file a report before leaving the airport. As for a damaged bag, the airline may be able to argue that damage occurred after leaving the scene, experts said.

After leaving the airport, travelers must also file a complaint with the Department of Transportation, according to Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, an advocacy group. The agency will forward your complaint to the airline, helping to put yours at the top of the queue, he said.

How to pack to reduce the risk of a baggage accident

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There are things travelers can do before flying to reduce their risk of losing a bag – or reduce the headaches that could result if they do, experts say.

Perhaps the most obvious – but most impactful – advice is to avoid checking a bag when possible.

“Right now, if you could always travel with carry-on luggage; that’s my #1 rule for you,” Leocha said.

Of course, this is not always possible. If you need to check baggage, consider booking a nonstop flight instead of a multi-leg trip (again, if possible) to eliminate any baggage errors that may come with changing planes. If a layover is necessary, opt for a longer layover to ensure there is enough time for your luggage to be transferred.

Don’t put anything valuable, like jewelry or camera gear, in a checked bag: they’re unlikely to be covered in the event of loss. It is also better to keep travel necessities like certain clothing or medical prescriptions in your carry-on baggage, if delayed or lost could affect your health or prevent you from enjoying your trip.

“Travelers would do well not to put all their eggs in one basket. Instead, it’s worth dividing items into bags,” Freeborn said in an email. “I personally always take a few days worth of clothes and underwear in my cabin bag in case my luggage gets lost.”

Experts also recommend taking photos of what you’re packing (an easy task with cellphone cameras) and writing down the value of anything you’ve paid for in cash on a trip. These steps will help you in the event you need to file a baggage claim and list your belongings and their cost to the airline, Leocha said.

Additionally, some travel insurance policies may cover costs associated with lost, stolen, damaged or delayed baggage, experts said. Purchasing an insurance policy may not be necessary however; travel-oriented credit cards used to finance a trip may already have certain baggage protections.

Travelers can also consider shipping some must-have items to a destination ahead of time, though it will almost certainly cost more and airlines won’t pay, Leocha said.

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