Government says airlines are responsible for valuables checked on international flights

When Pina Belfiore-Benvenuto’s bags were lost on a recent flight from New York to Paris, the missing contents included a digital camera and a watch — two items that her airline’s contract of carriage exclude from liability. And to absolutely no one’s surprise, her carrier told her she was out of luck.

Maybe it shouldn’t have.

A recent Transportation Department guidance statement on airline baggage liability and responsibilities (PDF) says those blanket disclaimers are out of line with international law.

We have become aware of tariff provisions filed by several carriers that attempt, with respect to checked baggage, to exclude certain items, generally high-cost or fragile items such as electronics, cameras, jewelry or antiques, from liability for damage, delay, loss or theft. A typical provision found in carrier tariffs and disclosed on carrier websites states that the carrier does not assume liability for loss, damage, or delay of “certain specific items, including: . . . antiques, documents, electronic equipment, film, jewelry, keys, manuscripts, medication, money, paintings, photographs . . . .”

Such exclusions, while not prohibited in domestic contracts of carriage, are in contravention of Article 17 of the Montreal Convention (Convention), as revised on May 28, 1999.

In other words, an airline can continue to refuse to compensate passengers for lost items that are considered “valuables” on domestic routes. But not internationally. Specifically,

Article 17 provides that carriers are liable for damaged or lost baggage if the destruction, loss or damage” occurred while the checked baggage was within the custody of the carrier, except to the extent that the damage “resulted from the inherent defect, quality or vice of the baggage.”

Article 19 provides that a carrier is liable for damage caused by delay in the carriage of baggage, except to the extent that it proves that it took all reasonable measures to prevent the damage or that it was impossible to take such measures. Although carriers may wish to have tariff terms that prohibit passengers from including certain items in checked baggage, once a carrier accepts checked baggage, whatever is contained in the checked baggage is protected, subject to the terms of the Convention, up to the limit of 1000 SDRs (Convention, Article 22, para.2.)

Carriers should review their filed tariffs on this matter and modify their tariffs and their baggage claim policies, if necessary, to conform to the terms of the Convention. In addition, carriers should ensure that their websites do not contain improper information regarding baggage liability exclusions applicable to international service.

Belfiore-Benvenuto should have received compensation for her lost camera and watch, and so should you if your domestic airline loses your checked valuables on an international flight.

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