DOT Warns Airlines on Damaged Bags

If an airline damaged your bag and you weren’t fairly compensated for it, guess what—you’re not alone. Now the DOT is taking notice.

The airline industry’s record of delivering passengers to their destinations may not be perfect, but it’s awfully good. Air travel is very safe. For humans, that is. For their luggage? Not so much.

Any traveler who has watched baggage handlers loading a plane’s cargo hold knows that the airlines treat checked bags callously at best. And that’s what happens on the tarmac, in full view of the traveling public. What goes on behind the scenes is the stuff best left to grim imaginings.

Some bags arrive at their intended destination; some don’t. Some circle the carousel in pristine condition; others arrive torn, shredded, bashed, and mashed.

In the latter event, the airlines are required to take a report and, if the damage is deemed to be reimbursable, to compensate the passenger for the harm done to his bag.

But, according to a recent report by the Department of Transportation’s Enforcement Office, the airlines have routinely rebuffed customers’ damaged-bag claims. At the 16 U.S. airports investigated, the Office found the following:

(C)arriers routinely exclude from liability damage to specific parts of checked baggage, such as wheels, straps, zippers, handles, and protruding parts. Carriers often post signs indicating that they categorically refuse to compensate passengers for such items. In some instances, carrier agents also discouraged or refused to accept reports of such damage.

In response to the findings, the DOT on November 25 issued a “Notice Regarding Damage to Wheels, Handles, and Other Components of Checked Baggage,” reminding the airlines that reports must be taken on all damaged-bag claims, and that adequate reimbursement is required for any harm to handles, straps, wheels, and zippers that goes beyond “fair wear and tear.”

The notice is strongly worded, referencing “unfair and deceptive practices,” and gives the airlines 45 days to bring their policies and procedures into compliance. After that, enforcement action — fines, in other words — will be taken.

Know the Rules, and Take Pix

The unusual DOT action in this case serves as a reminder that the airlines can’t be trusted to accurately disclose the rules governing their operations, much less to act within those rules. There’s no telling how many flyers with legitimate claims for damaged bags were turned away by the airlines. Travelers must know their rights, and insist that the airlines honor them.

And on a more tactical note, the focus on bashed bags suggests yet another travel-related use for your smartphone: Take a quick pic of your bag before checking it with the airline. In the event it’s damaged in transit and you have to file a report, you’ll have proof of its pre-flight condition.

Reader Reality Check

Has an airline damaged your bag? Were you fairly compensated?

This article originally appeared on

By Tim Winship

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.