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How to cope when airlines lose your luggage


It was my first two-way airline baggage mishap.

On a recent trip, Northwest Airlines misplaced my luggage on the flight out and on the return flight as well.

At departure, the checked bags were improperly tagged by the skycap. It took a day to find them in San Francisco, rather than in my destination city of Seattle. On the way back, the bags didn't make the connection between Northwest flights in Detroit, although I did. A day later, the bags were delivered to my home.

My inconvenience, of course, is small potatoes compared to the experience of Felice Lippert, whose bag containing more than $400,000 worth of jewelry was lost at a Palm Beach International Airport security checkpoint in 1986.

She has to settle for a payment of $1,250, the limit on an airline's liability for lost luggage, because the Florida Supreme Court recently declined to hear her lawsuit against Delta Air Lines challenging that $1,250 limit.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, its most recent monthly air travel consumer report showed a modest increase in mishandled-baggage complaints. There were 5.17 reports per 1,000 passengers, compared to 4.81 a year ago.

Least likely to misplace baggage was Southwest, at 3.45 reports per 1,000; followed by America West, at 3.73; and Alaska Airlines, at 4.37. Next came TWA (4.45), Northwest (5), American (5.14), USAir (5.25), Continental (5.69), United (5.74) and Delta (5.8).

"A ton of items are excluded from the $1,250 maximum," said Randy Peterson, editor of Inside Flyer magazine. "When my new computer didn't arrive with me after I checked it in, I was told it wasn't covered, and I wasn't given one cent."

No liability is assumed for electronic equipment, antiques, nTC documents, jewelry, photographic equipment, photographs, paintings, manuscripts, keys or animals, said James Faulkner, a spokesman for Northwest.

If bags are delayed, lost or damaged on a domestic flight, the airline will likely invoke the $1,250 ceiling on the amount of money it will pay you. When your luggage and contents are worth more than that, you may want to buy "excess valuation" from the airline as you check in. The airline may refuse to sell excess valuation on some items.

"What you're doing with excess valuation is increasing the airline's ceiling on what it will pay if you can prove your loss," said Con Hitchcock, counsel for Public Citizen, a nonprofit group in Washington. "The airlines pay the current value of items you've lost, not replacement value, so they've got schedules that say how much a 2-year-old suit is worth."

On international trips, the liability limit set by the Warsaw Convention treaty is $9.07 per pound of luggage.

Report problems quickly and be persistent. Be careful from the start.

The Department of Transportation offers these baggage tips:

* Never put money, jewelry, cameras, medicine, liquids, glass, negotiable securities or other valuables or delicate items in a bag you plan to check. These should be packed in a carry-on bag that fits under the seat. The only way to be sure that valuables aren't damaged or lost is to keep them with you.

* Label the bags you check inside and outside with your name, address and phone number. Add the name and address of a person to contact at your destination if it's practical to do so. Most bags that are misplaced by airlines do turn up, and proper labeling can help the bag and its owner be reunited within a few hours.

* Lock your bags to help prevent pilferage. If they arrive with broken locks or torn sides, check inside immediately. If something is missing, report it to the airline right away.

* At check-in, the airline will put baggage destination tags on luggage and give you stubs to use as claim checks. Each tag has a three-letter code and flight number that show baggage sorters on which plane and to which airport your luggage is supposed to go. Double-check the tag and flight number before your bags go down the conveyor belt. Be sure all tags from previous trips are removed. Hold your claim checks.

Finally, American Express cardholders enrolling in its baggage delay and loss protection program ($39 annually) obtain reimbursement up to $200 for purchase of replacement items if bags are delayed six hours or more from the time they arrive at their destination away from home.

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