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CONSUMER REPORT

Batting Around the Luggage Issue : Air travel: Many passengers simply don't bother to assess damages to baggage before leaving the airport. But carriers generally offer some form of compensation.

May 05, 1991|JACK ADLER

Damaged baggage is one of the nuisances of air travel. Considering the beating that luggage can take while being transported--the scratches, dents, punctures, torn fabrics and broken zippers and handles--it's no surprise that suitcases may fail to emerge unscathed.

Many travelers are uncertain what to do about damage to their baggage. Coming off a flight, passengers are generally anxious either to get home or on to their hotel, business appointment, etc. Consequently, many travelers make a quick assessment of their luggage and simply decide not to bother with filing a damaged-baggage claim.

But getting satisfaction from an airline when your baggage is damaged may be easier than you realize. Here are some general guidelines:

Before leaving the baggage area, check both the exterior and interior of your luggage. See if zippers and locks still function, and how severe--if any--the damage is. If you think the suitcase is unusable, or that it would need to be repaired before undergoing another bout with baggage handlers, you should register a claim.

Be prepared to show your ticket stub. If you're asked to surrender this stub with your claim, make sure to copy the stub number.

Airlines have different policies for handling baggage claims. Some carriers may offer an on-the-spot cash settlement. Replacement luggage can often be provided if the airlines think your luggage is a lost cause.

If bags have to be replaced, travelers may be compensated for the depreciated value, not the original price of the luggage. The same holds true for the contents.

An airline will likely get the opinion of a luggage repair store, which may well indicate that your suitcase is older and less costly than you claimed.

At USAir, airport personnel evaluate the extent of the damage. If minor scratches are the assessment, this is considered normal handling and the carrier doesn't hold itself responsible. However, if it's determined that the damage is more significant, the consumer has several options.

"You can submit the piece of luggage to a repair shop, either one we work with or one of your choice," said John Zimmerman, USAir's director of system baggage service. "The vendor sends us the bill. If we feel the bill is unreasonble, we take it up with the vendor, not the traveler. The average repair bill is around $30."

Travelers who choose to leave their luggage for repair with USAir will get a loan bag to put their things in. "This is a vinyl collapsible bag, which we really don't expect to get back," Zimmerman said. "Your repaired bag will be sent to you by the vendor."

If the bag is judged to be irreparable, the options for travelers are to accept a replacement bag or a cash settlement of up to $50. "If the bag was purchased within the last two years, we try to replace it with the exact style and model," Zimmerman said.

If the bag is deemed older than two years, USAir tries to provide a bag of comparable value. This value, however, is based on the bag's market value, with bags depreciated by about 12% per year. "Some travelers get upset about depreciation," Zimmerman said. "They say, 'But we only used the bag once or twice.' Bags depreciate whether they're used or not, just like cars."

United has a similar policy. Travelers can leave damaged bags for repair or take them to any of the vendors that the airline works with. Loaner bags are available. If the bag can't be repaired, and is less than a year old, United's policy is to offer a new piece of luggage comparable to the original value of the damaged one. Or travelers can choose a cash settlement of up to $50 or travel certificates. If the bag is more than a year old, new luggage is offered based on the depreciated value of the damaged bag. United depreciates luggage by 15% a year.

On the issue of contents inside the baggage, it's up to travelers to prove the value of any damaged items. However, if fragile items have been packed carelessly (one test would be whether they are in containers suitable for shipping), airlines can decline to pay for damage. One preventive option for travelers is excess valuation insurance to cover fragile items inside checked-through luggage.

Domestically, airlines are limited to a liability of $1,250 per passenger, not bag. Internationally, the U.S. is party to the Warsaw Convention that sets a maximum payment of $9.07 per pound of luggage.

Most travelers are at some odds on how to assess the damage to their luggage, and how repairable it is. Here are some ballpark figures from Marv Lucoff, president of LAX Luggage, which works with many of the carriers at the airport.

Figure an average of $17.50 to $25 to repair broken handles; locks average $15-$25, and individual wheels $10-$17.50. Worn and torn corners would run $15-$30. Zippers can cost from $15 up. With punctures, expect a charge of $15-$30. Fixing a crack can run from $22.50. The problem with punctures and cracks is often matching as closely as possible the color or pattern. Cleaning is about $25 for an average piece of luggage.

Broken frames can be repaired, but often aren't worth the effort for less expensive luggage.

"The best bet for luggage is a good grade of soft-side luggage, especially those made of Cordura nylon or a ballistic weave, which is a heavier weave of Cordura nylon," Lucoff said. "This kind of bag gives when it takes a hit, it doesn't dent and it doesn't require as many repairs. Hard side is more brittle; it's like hitting a car."

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