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Lost Baggage Compensation and the Law

There are laws in place to protect your baggage when you fly. With airlines earning revenue from baggage fees, they should adequately compensate you for delayed or lost bags.

You can't always cram everything into a carry-on, so sometimes checking bags is unavoidable. Even if you've never dealt with lost or delayed baggage, it's not uncommon to feel relieved when you see your luggage on the baggage claim carousel.

Read on to learn more about legal protections for your belongings when you fly. You'll also find guidance on what to do in the event of lost or delayed luggage.

What Laws Protect My Baggage?

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates airline carriers. It issues rules governing its business practices, ranging from advertising to policies governing lost baggage. Below are a few critical rules protecting your baggage while you fly.

Disclosure of Baggage Policies

Air carriers must disclose their baggage policies, including those relating to fees and lost baggage compensation. They also must publish their contracts of carriage on their websites in an easily accessible form.

These contracts cover an airline's legal obligations for lost or damaged baggage. The Department of Transportation has fined airline carriers for disclosing inaccurate information about lost baggage compensation. This includes instances where they fail to update liability limits set by the DOT.

Liability Limits for Lost Baggage

Airline carriers can legally limit their liability for lost or damaged baggage, but those limits are set by the Department of Transportation for domestic flights and by the Montreal Convention (an international treaty) for international flights. The liability limits are:

  • $3,800 for domestic flights, as set by the DOT in 2024
  • Between $1,700 and $1,800 for international flights as this limit fluctuates based on currency conversion rates

Assistive devices like hearing aids, wheelchairs, walkers, and prosthetics are not subject to the limits above. Airlines must compensate passengers for the original purchase price of the assistive device.

Although an airline can place monetary limits on compensation for lost or delayed baggage, additional arbitrary limits are prohibited. This means airlines cannot set additional limits that aren't based on reasonable factors or lack a justifiable basis.

Arbitrary limits include:

  • Providing no compensation for delayed baggage
  • Denying reimbursements for passengers who will receive delayed baggage within 24 hours
  • Limiting reimbursements to a fixed amount per day regardless of the amount of expenses claimed or whether they are documented
  • Limiting all delayed baggage reimbursements to 50% of the claimed expense
  • Denying lost baggage compensation for particular types of items such as money, jewelry, electronic devices, or silverware

Excess Valuation

If you believe that the contents of your baggage exceed the liability limits, you can ask to purchase "excess valuation" upon check-in. Excess valuation is not insurance, but you can receive increased compensation if the airline loses your baggage. The cost of excess valuation varies by airline.

Consider excess valuation if checking designer clothing, artwork, or other valuable items.

Airlines can refuse to sell excess valuation for highly valuable or fragile items, like antiques, manuscripts, jewelry, or cash.

What Should I Do if My Bags Are Delayed or Lost?

Begin with filing a delayed baggage report with the airline before leaving the airport. Ensure the airline documents your lost or delayed baggage on a form and obtain a copy for yourself. Ask for the name of who created the report and a phone number to confirm the airline will deliver your bag at no charge.

You can also ask for daily compensation for necessities you need until you receive your lost luggage. Document your daily expenses and check your airline's website for any specific policies regarding compensation. An airline may provide you with cash or specific items like a toothbrush, soap, and other toiletries.

If the airline loses your checked luggage, you must submit a claim to the airline within their set time period. You can find this information on an airline carrier's website or from an airline representative.

Be specific when filling out the claim form because airline staff will use it to estimate the value of the contents of your baggage. While an airline can limit its liability up to a certain dollar amount, it will pay less than that amount if your property has a lower value.

If you believe a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent damaged or lost your baggage at a security checkpoint, you can submit a claim form directly to the TSA.

Other Tips for Lost or Delayed Baggage

Hopefully, an airline never loses your luggage. Regardless, planning ahead can give you some peace of mind when traveling. Consider these tips:

  • Consider travel insuranceSome policies compensate for lost, delayed, damaged, or stolen luggage.
  • Buy airfare with a co-branded credit card: Airline credit cards, like Delta's SkyMiles American Express, sometimes offer protections for lost baggage.
  • Check your renters or homeowners insurance: Some of these insurance policies cover expenses for lost or delayed bags, if you've met your deductible.

What Happens to Unclaimed Luggage?

Airlines set their process for handling unclaimed luggage. Check the airline's official website or speak with a representative for specifics.

Most airlines will contact the owner if the bag has a tag with passenger information. If not, they may open the luggage to find identifying information.

Most airlines will hold unclaimed baggage for 90 days, either in their baggage office or other designated area. If not claimed, most airlines sell the luggage and its contents to an unclaimed baggage center. At that point, items are resold to the public.

Some airlines donate unclaimed luggage instead of selling it to a baggage center.

Need More Help? Talk to an Attorney

You have rights as an airline passenger. Consumer protection laws cover certain aspects of air transportation, including flight cancellations, overbooking, and lost luggage.

If an airline refuses to adequately compensate you for your losses, you can contact an attorney who specializes in aviation law to assist you in recovering your property or compensation.

For more information on airline travel in general, see FindLaw's section on Airline Rules. You can also find help in the Aviation Consumer Protection section on the Department of Transportation website.

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