What to do if an airline damages or destroys your luggage

I'm standing at the baggage carousel waiting for mine to arrive and there's a soft-sided case that's been gutted. Zipper ripped open, contents bulging out the sides like an overstuffed sandwich, it's held closed with a couple of wraps of gaffer tape, and I can't help thinking that's probably not the way it was when its owner fronted up to the check-in desk.

The baggage handling business is a rough and tumble world. Dents and scuffs are the order of the day. Most passengers will shrug them off. Airlines specifically disclaim responsibility for damage that results from inferior workmanship, and also for regular wear and tear, including cuts, scratches, dents and damage to a case that results from overpacking. But if the damage is more severe, you may be entitled to compensation.

What's your entitlement?

In regard to airline passengers' rights, most airlines are governed by the Montreal Convention of 1999. Article 17 of the convention states: "The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of destruction or loss of, or of damage to, checked baggage, provided the damage occurred while that baggage was in the charge of the carrier." The same article also stipulates that "baggage" applies to both checked and unchecked baggage.

That's pretty watertight. In Article 22 the convention also stipulates: "In the carriage of baggage, the liability of the carrier in the case of destruction, loss, damage or delay is limited to 1000 Special Drawing Rights for each passenger."

SDR is a fluctuating index based on a basket of international currencies. At the current SDR rate, that entitles you to a maximum compensation of $1960. While that's generous, even a completely destroyed bag is not going to see you walk away with anything within cooee of that sum. The best you can hope for is replacement value.

Most major airlines will usually play fair and square in the matter of compensation for damaged luggage. If they don't your recourse under the convention is a legal one, and the airline knows very well you're unlikely to take that path given that the convention also states that, "In any action for damages… punitive, exemplary or any other non-compensatory damages shall not be recoverable." The most you could hope to get under the convention therefore would be the replacement value of your luggage, up to a maximum of those 1000 SDRs.

Getting redress

As soon as you've heaved your case off the carousel and ascertained the damage, head straight for the baggage claim office and get a written report to back your claim. Staff there should fill out a Property Irregularity Report and give you a copy, however this might be difficult or even impossible if you've just landed at a small third-world airport.

Evidence is crucial. Keep your baggage tags, your boarding pass and while you're still in the baggage claim area, take photos of the damaged case. Lots and lots of photos. Since a before-and-after comparison lends credibility, it will also help your claim if you've photographed your bag at the check-in desk.

Don't delay. Article 31 of the Montreal Convention requires that damage must be reported in writing to the airline within seven days after the damage occurs. However, some airlines apply a much stricter time limit, which can be a matter of hours in the case of some domestic carriers. According to Qantas the time limit for reporting a damaged bag is three days in the case of a domestic flight.


Travel insurance

If you've received compensation from the airline, even if it's small, you can't claim against your travel insurance. If your airline won't come to the party this is going to be your last resort. Travel insurers generally take the view that when baggage was damaged while in the care of an airline it's up to the airline to provide compensation.

If you fail to get satisfaction from your airline, you might then turn to your travel insurer but insurers have limits on the amount they'll pay out for a damaged case and it can be as low as $250. Your insurer might ask for the original receipt, and they'll probably depreciate the value of the item.

At the end of the day, the amount an insurer might be prepared to offer for the damage to a suitcase you bought for $350 four years ago is probably going to be less than the excess on your policy.

See also: US airport security trashed my bag and then taped it back together

See also: The worst part of flying is the idiots at the baggage carousel