Despite an earlier windfall in terms of baggage 'entitlements', I recently found out that airlines may actually be tightening up on their policies on replacing old damaged suitcases damaged in transit with new models.
I enjoy traveling light, and for a two-day trip to Geneva eight years previously my suitcase seemed too large so I asked my cousin Sabi, who lives in Paris if she had a medium sized bag to loan me. She cleaned out a black Samsonite once I had looked at it and approved the size and I thought no more of it. On my return to Paris after a hectic two days of travel and sight seeing, as I picked it up off the baggage belt at the airport I noticed that it had been badly dented on one side. Small, but very distinct. Hell, I thought, the only time I borrow something of hers and this has to happen.
I stopped by the Airline office for them to take some pride in their achievement and was met by a very courteous Airline official who pursed his lips in sympathy on seeing the suitcase. 'Pardong,' he said, and politely asked me to for my ticket. 'Will you come with me?’ he said, ‘We may have a solution for you.' He led me to an inner section of the airport and produced a dark blue Samsonite Silhouette before which the damaged suitcase paled in comparison. 'Is this all right?' he said.
When I got back to my cousin’s flat I told her that I had some news for her. ‘I have some good news and some bad news,’ I said, and hastened to tell her the good bit. ‘I have a new Samsonite for you instead of the old suitcase I had borrowed.’
‘I don’t want a new suitcase,’ she exploded. ‘I like my old one.’
‘Well, its got damaged,’ I said regretfully, turning it around and showing her the dent.
‘That dent has been there for the last ten years!’ she said.
I am not honest enough to go back to the airline and return their suitcase to them. My English friend Tim Robinson, whom I consulted on the issue simply laughed when I broached the idea. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘these airlines are milking us with their high tariffs. It’s only when the low cost airlines came, we realized how much profit the big outfits were making. They expect to write off a few thousand suitcases every year. In fact, it’s like passenger entitlement. In five star hotels they expect some of the guests to take away the ashtrays and towels with them.’
Tim may have been exaggerating but I do know of the case of a friend of mine Nusrat Zaidi who has collected eight suitcases over a period of three years. ‘It all started whilst I was a research student at George Washington University,’ he explains. ‘I was flying in from Paris and my suitcase was dented. I used to live on a low budget in those days and was very upset. When I went to the airlines at the airport they were very friendly and issued me a luggage voucher for me to take to a big luggage showroom downtown. When I went downtown there were all these wonderful big suitcases to choose from. It was so easy that even though I moved up in life and my earnings grew I somehow couldn’t resist the temptation and began to use the same suitcase every now and again to get myself a brand new suitcase.’
As a matter of fact the fear of losing baggage is an important reason why some passengers prefer traveling by Eurostar if they are going to Paris or Brussels. According to Julie Martin Pascale, 41 employed in London but a frequent traveler to Brussels where her mother lives, in the train you feel completely secure about your baggage and this is the reason she prefers train travel to jet setting across the continent.
‘Whenever I come back from Brussels I have loads of shopping, that I bring back with me,’ she explains, and it’s nice to have it beside me. In the aircraft I’m always worrying if it will turn up at the Baggage reclaim area and if the suitcase and all the things inside would have got damaged with all the shaking around inside the aircraft.’
Airlines are conscious that if passengers find their luggage missing or damaged, they will remember the incident and mentally blacklist the airline if they don’t find they have been helpful. It was this reason that the airport employee was so kind with me, and it is true that I have made a mental note of their cooperation and given them some brownie points that I will factor into my calculations next time I am making an airline booking.
A visit to the web sites maintained by most airlines indicates that most of them do indicate some kind of implied liability for damaged luggage but they do keep carefully worded exit clauses as well. American Airlines (www.aa.com) provides that passengers must ‘report any damage immediately in person to the baggage service center of the airline on which you arrived’ failing which they may not be entitled to be covered under the airlines policy. Northwest Airlines (www.nwa.com) provides greater latitude to passengers traveling internationally providing that ‘for International travel, all reports of damage to luggage or property must be filed within 7-days of arrival’. British Airways (www.ba.com) uses the most reassuring language on their web site telling passengers:
‘Should you find your baggage is damaged or has not arrived, please contact the British Airways staff immediately. Details of your luggage will be taken and you will be offered immediate assistance.’
The language used on web sites generally does however leave them enough leeway to do what they like. With his huge collection of bags acquired on his frequent trips to the States using only the one damaged suitcase, I consider my friend Nusrat to be something of an expert on airline baggage policy.
‘Airlines are tightening up on baggage entitlements,’ he complained to me recently. ‘I have never experienced any problem in getting a replacement but on my last visit to Washington, for the first time in eight years they did not volunteer to replace my ‘damaged’ suitcase. They only offered to have it repaired.’
‘And did you accept?’
‘It’s beneath my dignity,’ he said.