Dear Tripped Up,
I regularly travel between Houston and Atyrau, Kazakhstan (via Newark and Amsterdam) for work, taking United for the first two legs and Air Astana for the third. The trip is long but the routine is always the same: check your luggage in Texas and pick it up upon arrival. But this past January, United didn’t follow the routine: When I boarded in Newark, I saw on the United app that at least one of my bags had stayed behind. I alerted the flight attendant, who alerted the gate staff, who in turn suggested I get off the plane, get my luggage and fly the next day. But there are limited connections, I had to get to work and I had no idea where my second bag was. (Also lost, it turns out.) Thirteen days and countless calls and letters later, Astana delivered my luggage in Kazakhstan. United eventually offered me $150 in compensation. I believe this is not nearly enough, especially considering their policy on “delayed bags” says I may be eligible for $1,500 per bag if they can’t find my luggage in five days. Can you help? — Laura, Missouri City, Texas
You know all those apocalyptic reports of lost luggage we’ve been reading recently? It turns out the problem actually picked up steam this winter, when Omicron hit, and just in time for your flight in January. That month, according to Transportation Department numbers, U.S. airlines “mishandled” 8.1 per 1,000 bags checked, compared to fewer than 6 per 1,000 that was the average in 2021.
Still, I’m guessing “you’re not alone” doesn’t make you feel much better about what must have been a maddening 13-day delay. So how about the $3,000 they have now offered in compensation?
Yes, it took some back-and-forth with United spokespeople, but I managed to convince them that your interpretation of United’s policy — that if your bags are not found for five days, you are owed $1,500 per bag — was right. Only problem is, I’m not sure I believe it myself.
But more on that later. First, let’s go over what happened. When we spoke on the phone, you told me of one telling incident from your trip, that when you checked in at the Houston airport, you noticed you had not received a boarding pass for your final leg. But after speaking to several agents, you were assured that both you and your luggage were checked through to Atyrau.
Nevertheless, when it seemed like one bag was being left behind in Newark, you did just what you should have done, reporting to staff that United’s app showed one of your bags was now in baggage claim. The next day, exhausted in Atyrau, you filed a lost luggage report for both bags and kept all the printed evidence. (Readers, you should see the documentation I got along with this complaint — when you’re writing in, please do the same!)
Pointing me to the delayed luggage page on United’s website, you argued United owes you $1,500 per bag even though the airlines eventually found and delivered your luggage. Let’s look carefully at the wording:
“If we’re unable to find your bag after five days, you may be eligible for $1,500 for the value of your baggage and its contents without requiring any documentation.”
I certainly see what you mean, although you don’t have to be an attorney to see the textual hemming and hawing here. You “may be eligible” is far from a promise, and United might have argued that they were able to “find” your bags in five days, even if it took another eight to get them to you.
So I was not surprised when I originally contacted United and a spokeswoman promptly passed the buck. “On code-share and connecting flights, the operating carrier to the final destination is responsible for the delivery of the bag(s),” she wrote in an email. She suggested I reach out to Air Astana directly.
I wasn’t born yesterday. Elvira Nurbayeva, the Kazakh carrier’s manager for corporate communications, had already passed along documentation from WorldTracer, an international service that works with airlines to track lost luggage, saying that your bags were left in Newark. The reason: That you “DID NOT CLAIM AND CHECK IN FOR INTL FLT.” This “obviously means that the passenger should have received luggage on arrival in Newark,” wrote Ms. Nurbayeva. So you blamed United, United blamed Astana and Astana blamed you.
But when I went back to United with the additional details, things changed. In a statement, the spokeswoman admitted the bags had actually been tagged through to Atyrau but were not transferred correctly. And then:
“When this happens, we work hard with our interline partners to connect customers with their bags as quickly as possible, including compensation for the delayed bag. We sincerely apologize for the frustration this caused.”
Just days ago, you let me know what happened next: United and Astana agreed to compensate you $3,000, or $1,500 for each mishandled bag.
I’m happy for you, and I think your argument about United’s stated policy is reasonable, but I’m unpersuaded and left uneasy by this decision, because I fear it does not portend the dawn of an era in which airlines make generous payments to everyone suffering over lost luggage.
George Hobica, founder of the bargain travel site Airfarewatchdog, agreed. He was shocked to hear that United agreed to pay the full amount. He suspects the scrutiny of a certain major newspaper may have played a role. Airlines are required to pay you back a reasonable amount for items you had to purchase, he noted, but you had told me that amount of items was under $75.
“She is entitled to be compensated for her $75, but not for pain and suffering,” he said. “We all go through pain and suffering these days.” Legally, Mr. Hobica appears to be on strong ground. The 1999 Montreal Convention, covering international travel and signed by all three countries on your route, states that restitution is due “if the carrier admits the loss of the checked baggage, or if the checked baggage has not arrived at the expiration of 21 days.” (For domestic flights, the Department of Transportationhas similar rules, offering leeway for the airlines to decide when to declare luggage “lost.”)
Eventually, Mr. Hobica softened a bit — remembering his outrage and lack of restitution when a furniture company once fumbled a sofa delivery — and relented that you might deserve something. But, he said, it would be a disservice to other passengers to think they were going to get $1,500 per bag that was, eventually, found.
Instead, he noted that fliers are entitled to purchase reasonably priced replacements when their luggage is delayed, and the airlines must pay. Again, both international and domestic policies are largely aligned that airlines are “liable for damage occasioned by delay” of luggage — that’s the convention — and should pay for reasonable, verifiable and actual incidental expenses that they may incur while their bags are delayed.
Passengers should insist on those payments and never give up, researching if the credit card they bought their ticket with also offers coverage, filing an online complaint with the Transportation Department and, in a worst-case scenario, going to small claims court. “The airline won’t show up and you’ll win by default,” Mr. Hobica said. “But it shouldn’t come to that.”
Paul Bland, executive director of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Justice, agrees that small claims court is a viable option, and not just those outraged at airlines but also other situations where travelers feel a contract has been breached. He noted that even when it seems we sign away our rights to sue through small-print arbitration clauses, an exception is usually carved out for amounts eligible for small claims suits. (In New York City, that means anything under $10,000; in Texas, where small claims courts are called justice of the peace courts, the amount is now $20,000.)
You can take companies to court in any jurisdiction where they have a business address, and fees to file are usually under $50. You do not need a lawyer.
Do note that in less straightforward cases like yours, Laura, you will need to make a good case, even if the defendant does not show up.
“The truth is that small claims judges do what they think is fair,” Mr. Bland said. “They decide the cases quickly and with a certain element of rough justice, a sense of what’s right.”
In other words, Laura, there’s a chance you would have gotten your $3,000 in small claims court as well — especially if you don’t call on Mr. Hobica or me as expert witnesses.
If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to email@example.com.
52 Places for a Changed World
The 2022 list highlights places around the globe where travelers can be part of the solution.
Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation.