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The One Who Pays When Airline Loses the Bags

August 25, 1985|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — In 18 years as a foreign correspondent, traveling throughout the world, I had never permanently lost a piece of baggage on an airline flight until I traveled from Madrid to Lisbon in May. I was not too upset, naively assuming that airlines make an effort, perhaps after some red tape, to reimburse you for your loss--but I had not taken into account the small print on the back of an airline ticket.

I had checked two pieces of baggage in Madrid for a TAP (Air Portugal) flight, but received only one back when the plane landed in Lisbon. The TAP personnel were very polite and efficient in dealing with my problem at the airport, but they surprised me by going through the seemingly pointless trouble of weighing the suitcase that had arrived.

After a few days, when my bag did not show up, TAP asked me to list the items lost and their value. In what I regard as a rather conservative estimate, I came up with a total of $339, counting a leather toilet case, toiletries, a computer cable, medicines, batteries, shirts, other clothing, and the canvas bag itself. I was told that if the bag did not show up in a month, the TAP office in Paris, where I live, would take care of the claim.

Nothing Yields Nothing

A month later, Ondina Carvalheiro, who handles claims at the TAP office in Paris, notified me that there was a problem. Under international rules, she said, airlines do not base their reimbursement on the value of the lost baggage but on its weight. TAP was liable, under these rules, to pay me $20 for every kilogram (or $9.07 for every pound) of baggage lost.

According to her records, she said, my bag had weighed nothing and TAP therefore legally owed me nothing. Her logic, according to her rules, was easy to follow:

The clerk at the check-in counter in Madrid had noted on my ticket that my bags weighed a total of 20 kilograms (44 pounds), the limit allowed. Outside the United States, airlines still put a weight limit on checked baggage. To avoid a hassle over charging for excess baggage, clerks often mark baggage on European flights as weighing no more than 20 kilograms, no matter what the true weight.

Because TAP's records showed that the suitcase that did arrive in Lisbon had weighed 20 kilograms, Carvalheiro said, simple arithmetic showed that the missing suitcase had weighed nothing: The total weight of the two bags (20 kilograms) minus the weight of the returned bag (20 kilograms) equalled the weight of the missing bag (zero). I had therefore lost nothing.

The 'Final Offer'

She, of course, recognized the absurdity of this and said that TAP would probably set the weight of my lost bag at one or two kilograms, paying me somewhere between $20 and $40. When I refused that, she came through a few weeks later with "a final offer," which she described as "a commercial gesture." TAP would accept 4 1/2 kilograms as the weight of the suitcase and pay me $90. When I protested, she expressed surprise, saying, "We do not really owe anything."

In the end, TAP upped the weight of my lost baggage to 5 1/2 kilograms and sent me a check for the equivalent in French francs of $110. It seemed pointless to argue any more.

Carvalheiro, according to the small print on the back of airline tickets, was technically correct. U.S. federal regulations require airlines on flights within the United States to have a liability of "at least $1,250 a passenger." But the small print states that on all international flights an airline's maximum liability for lost baggage is only $20 a kilogram.

This works in a complex way. There are all kinds of variations. Airlines set different limits on the amount of weight they will insure. The rules are different for planes that begin or end their flights in the United States. The U.S. government interprets regulations differently from European governments. It is very difficult for a passenger, even after reading the small print, to know the maximum amount of reimbursement for a lost bag.

Taking Out Insurance

But in many cases the maximum is likely to be smaller than a passenger believes the baggage is worth. A passenger can get around this by taking out insurance at a small cost. But few know about this.

"If your eyes are good enough," said John Brindley, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Assn. (IATA) in Geneva, "it's clearly stated on the ticket that if you have something of excess value, like a Stradivarius or your wife's collection of jewels, you should declare it and insure it. But nobody thinks to look at the ticket."

The whole airline industry seems rather defensive about this problem of lost baggage. A series of phone calls showed a good deal of confusion, resentment, suspicion and reluctance to talk about the subject. There is little doubt that airlines have dealt with a lot of passengers unhappy with their settlements over the years.

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