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The airlines' treatment of baggage is a constant source of passenger complaints. At some point, nearly every airline passenger has waited for what seemed like an eternity for his or her baggage to show up on the baggage carousel.
To be fair, most of the time baggage does arrive in good shape on the same flight that you were on. When your luggage is damaged, delayed or lost, however, the results can be disastrous. The best way to protect yourself from the most serious losses is to follow one simple rule: Never put anything valuable or irreplaceable (such as jewelry), or that you might urgently need (such as medications), in checked baggage. While the airlines may compensate you for lost baggage, the compensation will rarely cover the actual cost of expensive items or your inconvenience.
If your baggage is lost or destroyed, the compensation that the airline owes you depends on whether you were flying on a domestic or international flight.
Domestic flights. An airline can limit the amount it must pay if baggage is lost, damaged or delayed to $2,500 per passenger. You can get around this limit by declaring at check-in a higher value for the baggage, up to the airline's maximum. If you declare a higher value, the airline will charge you a fee based on a percentage of the declared value. The airline then becomes liable up to the declared value if it loses, damages or delays delivery of the baggage, unless the airline can prove that the actual loss was lower than the declared value.
International flights. The Warsaw Convention provides the rules that determine the liability for lost, delayed or damaged baggage. Unfortunately, these rules will not work to your advantage. Damages are calculated based on the weight of the baggage, regardless of the real value of the baggage or its contents. The Warsaw Convention states that the value for lost or damaged baggage is $400 per passenger for unchecked baggage and $9.07 per pound (or $20 per kilogram) for checked baggage. If your bag was weighed before the flight, then the value is determined by multiplying the weight of the bag times $9.07. For example, a 20-pound bag would be valued at $181.40. If your bags were not weighed, the airline will generally assume that all of your bags weighed a total of 70 pounds, and will reimburse you $634.90.
To add insult to injury, an airline can completely avoid responsibility for lost or damaged baggage if it can prove that the damage was caused by error in piloting, in the handling of the aircraft or in navigation, and that, in all other respects, the airline and its agents took all necessary measures to avoid the damage.