Q: I had the misfortune of Southwest Airlines losing my luggage last Friday. What are its obligations to replace it?
— Steve Berry
A: If you haven’t already filed a claim, might as well kiss your luggage bye-bye. Damaged or lost baggage must be reported in person within four hours of your arrival.
Assuming you didn’t make any special arrangements with the airline when you checked in your luggage, and you remembered to fill out the paperwork, the airline’s liability is limited to a total of $1,250.
A look at the fine print in Southwest’s luggage policy suggests that when it comes to anything checked-in, there’s little love lost between the airline and the passenger. The fun starts with reading travelers the riot act on its two carryon limit (note the name of the URL contains the word “binhog”. Guess the Web programmers kept their sense of humor about it.) It continues with a maze of rules and regulations that’s dense enough to confuse a lawyer.
Now, brave as Southwest may be for posting its entire contract of carriage — and really, that’s something to be proud of — studying it will probably get you no closer to the compensation you’re looking for. It may actually just confuse an already confusing problem.
Does the carrier owe you anything? Depends on how you interpret Southwest’s own rules. And what you did when you checked your luggage in.
If you suspected that your luggage might go missing in action, you could have paid an additional charge of $1 for each $100 of excess valuation. Exempt from the $1,250 limits are mobility aids and assistive devices, for which the carrier will compensate you up to $2,500.
Under the rules, the declared value of your personal property can’t exceed $2,500. You also can’t purchase this de-facto dollar travel insurance for items such as money, jewelry, cameras, video and electronic equipment (including computers), silverware, negotiable papers, securities, business documents, samples, items intended for sale, paintings, antiques, artifacts, manuscripts, furs, irreplaceable books or publications and similar valuables.
Just as an aside, ever wonder who these rules are meant to protect? Sure seems like they’re shielding the airline against people like you who want to collect every last penny in damages when luggage goes missing.
So I’m guessing that you didn’t make any special arrangements, aren’t missing a wheelchair and forgot to make a claim when you landed. I’m afraid you’re out of luck.
But you’re not alone. Last year, Southwest chalked up 267,689 reports of mishandled luggage, according to the US Department of Transportation. That’s 4.53 reports per 1,000 passengers. This March, the most recent month reported by the DOT, the Dallas carrier was running at a more respectable 3.95 complaints per thousand.
Southwest has blamed its lost luggage problems on the fact that it began strictly enforcing its carryon limits last year, but that’s probably too simple of an explanation. An airline like SWA is more likely to lose luggage because its turnaround times at the gate are often half that of its competitors, meaning there’s less time to get everything loaded up — and more of a chance that some items will be left behind.
It’s also statistically true that most luggage is eventually recovered, and I can only hope that your bags will turn up sooner or later. A good number to keep handy while you’re waiting is Southwest’s baggage claim department at its corporate headquarters. The number is (214) 792-6012.
Final word of advice: don’t ever check anything that you can’t live without. The management of airlines like Southwest know that they could be doing better when it comes to luggage handling, but they don’t have much incentive to improve service. I’ve heard from reliable sources that it’s actually more cost-effective to continue paying damages to the folks whose luggage is permanently lost than to install a tracking system like the one used by Federal Express that virtually guarantees you’ll see your check-in item again. And there’s still too much resistance to baggage-match, a practice common in more security-conscious countries, because it would absolutely ruin every airline’s on-time record.