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Macro View of Micro Print: 'Sorry, Not Our Problem' : Airlines: Disclaimers allow carriers to wiggle out of problems with overbooking, lost luggage and late passengers.


United flight 1069 out of Medford, Ore., on May 24 could have been a flight like any other flight. But while we boarded, a storm sneaked up on us. This caused the pilot to delay takeoff while ominous gray clouds rolled past, and that in turn caused me to do something I'd never done in 25 years of flying.

I read my entire ticket folder.

I'm not sure exactly what provoked this--I've certainly had time to kill on airplanes before--but once I'd started, the fine print held my attention (well, except for the AT&T ad on the back) all the way through takeoff and those first bumpy minutes aloft. These disclaimers, delivered with subtle variations but the same essential legal intention, are found on the folders of all U.S. air carriers. They tend to support a common theme: Don't expect too much from your airline .

The most frequent fliers know these rules inside out and make a sport of exploiting or defying them. But for less-frequent travelers, it's likely that your airline is imposing more restrictions and taking less responsibility than you think. And with this year's peak travel weeks approaching, now is a good time to remind yourself what you are entitled to as an air traveler, and what you aren't.

Your lost possessions, whatever they are, are worth $1,250 or less: Baggage forever lost is a rarity, especially in domestic travel. Which is a good thing, because the standard provisions for compensation are designed to protect the airline, not the passenger. Domestically, airlines generally pay no more than $1,250 per paying passenger for baggage loss, damage or delay on domestic flights. (On international flights, the limit works out to about $9 per pound, which the Consumer Reports Travel Letter calls "an industry disgrace.") Also, airlines make a point of taking no responsibility for cameras, electronic equipment, jewelry, cash and various other costly items, whether checked through or carried on. To get more coverage, ask a travel agent about travel insurance.

About that 71-pound suitcase with the matches and pepper spray inside: Most domestic travelers are allowed to check two pieces of baggage, each weighing up to 70 pounds. The combined height, length and thickness of one may be up to 62 inches; the other, 55 inches. (Varying fees are assessed for bags exceeding limits.) Carry-on packages must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you or into the storage bin overhead, with a general limit on each piece of 45 inches in combined dimensions. (Some domestic carriers have a 50-pound limit; others say 40 pounds.)

Inside your checked baggage (and sometimes your carry-on baggage as well), you are forbidden from packing obviously dangerous objects, such as explosives, but also other objects that might not occur to you: matches, irritating or incapacitating sprays, briefcases with alarm devices.

What you lose when you're late: If you haven't reported to the gate 10 minutes before a domestic flight's scheduled departure time on most major U.S. carriers (or 30 minutes ahead for most international flights), the airline can cancel your reservation. Similarly, if you haven't checked in 20 or 30 minutes before a domestic flight (depending on the carrier), the airline can reassign you to another seat.

What you might lose even if you're on time: In two words, your seat. "We overbook," confesses Southwest Airlines, straight out. "Some flights may be overbooked," says United, slipping into a responsibility-free passive voice. Everybody does it. But on domestic flights, everybody is also supposed to pay a price to compensate wronged travelers.

If you have a good ticket, show up the required 10 minutes ahead of time and get bumped from your flight anyway, the following make-good provisions generally apply.

If you're involuntarily bumped, but the airline is able to get you to your destination within an hour of your original schedule, you get no compensation. If the airline gets you there one to two hours late, the airline may be required to pay you as much as $200 (depending on the cost of a one-way fare to your destination). If the airline gets you there two or more hours late, compensation can go as high as $400. (Compensation for voluntary bumps is more variable.) One big catch: Those provisions don't apply to aircraft that hold 60 or fewer passengers.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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