Avoiding airport luggage woes

It’s the end of your vacation, you’ve packed your bags, you’re queuing up at the airport and looking forward to getting home with all your newly acquired goods.

But, wait, hold up a minute. Are you sure about packing all those items into your checked luggage?

As one former airline industry employee and former baggage manager puts it: ‘If you can’t replace it, live without it, or seal the deal without it, don’t pack it.’ These words of advice are from Scott T. Mueller, author of The Empty Carousel, A Consumer’s Guide to Checked and Carry-on luggage.

He warns: ‘Claims for lost baggage are skyrocketing with 10,000 bags lost every day in the US alone. In 2006 more than 240,000 bags worldwide never found their owners.’

From May to July 2007, he notes, more than one million pieces of luggage were lost, damaged, delayed or even pilfered while in transit through airports according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

One such victim of luggage pilfering recently was Cayman resident Marc Thomas who went to New York last month on a short trip.

Little did he know that he would arrive back in Grand Cayman only to discover that one of his suitcases was missing its most important contents, but that’s exactly what happened.

Mr. Thomas had travelled to New York on Cayman Airways’ direct flight from Grand Cayman on 20 January.

There he purchased a Nintendo Wii and related games and consoles for his three young children. He packed the newly acquired items in their requisite seven boxes and surrounded them inside the suitcase within clothes and dirty laundry. The new purchases came to about US$415 before tax.

‘If I’d broken it all down I probably could have fitted it in hand luggage but the weight and size might have been an issue,’ he said.

‘I didn’t know what security would be like with that. I didn’t want to put it in my hand luggage in case it would be taken away from me after I had checked my luggage in,’ he explained.

So the items were already packed in his suitcase when he arrived at the check-in counter at JFK airport at 6.10am on 24 January.

Mr. Thomas did notice a sign on the Cayman Airways desk which stated not to pack certain items, such as jewellery, electronics and a laptop in checked luggage. ‘I did not pay much notice to the sign and might have thought they [the mentioned items] should not be included for other reasons. I wasn’t told by anyone in advance or at check-in why I should not pack these items in checked luggage.’

Once back in Grand Cayman the suitcase felt very light when Mr. Thomas picked it up off the conveyor belt. ‘I opened it and found the main box in the case emptied with the empty trays put back inside. The other boxes (six of them) were gone.’

He went to a Customs Officer and showed him that the items on his customs form were gone. He then spoke with a baggage representative who said personal items such as electronics are not covered by the airlines.

‘He told me that those type of items are not covered because they are always getting stolen.’

The following week when Mr. Thomas called the airline to report his loss he was told that in its policy it states that items of value such as electronics or jewellery are not covered.

He told the representative that he and other members of the public were not aware of this policy and that it should be communicated to passengers.

He said if the airline had put on the sign at the check-in counter not to pack these items because of a risk of theft then he would not have left them in the suitcase.

Mr. Thomas was told by the representative that Cayman Airways has been aware of the pilfering/lost luggage situation for some time.

He asked that the airline’s policy in assuming no liability with regard to electronics be faxed to him, but a week later he had still not received it.

Global problem

When sent questions on this particular situation Cayman Airways declined to make any comment to the Caymanian Compass because they said the issue is not a Cayman Airways issue, but one that all airlines worldwide face and continue to work on tackling with industry partners and law enforcement.

Cayman Airways noted that assuming no liability for such items as jewellery or electronics is a standard airline policy and the information printed on the inside of the ticket jacket states: ‘Unless excess valuation is purchased, the airline assumes no liability for valuable and or commercial items including but not limited to: money, negotiable papers, securities, irreplaceable business documents, books, manuscripts, publications, photographic/electronic equipment, jewellery, silverware, precious metal, furs, antiques, artefacts, paintings and other works of art, lifesaving medication and samples.’

It also states on its website, ‘Never place money, cameras, binoculars, fragile items or valuables such as jewellery in luggage you plan to check’.

But Mr. Thomas feels the airline needs to take responsibility because he was given no verbal warning at the desk about what not to pack in his check-in luggage.

‘If we the paying public were told this information in advance, there is no way I would have put it [the electronics] in my luggage.’

‘As soon as I buy my ticket they [the airline] are contracted to get the luggage there in one piece, but does an 8×4 sign mean they don’t have to? I don’t think so.’

Mr. Thomas is now in the process of lodging an irregularity report with CAL and he faxed off a report to the New York Police Department also, but has heard nothing back.

‘It’s going to happen to someone else, so the public needs to know about it happening,’ he said.

But he believes the fact that his items are electronics should not make a difference. ‘I also had a pair of $10 gloves that went missing. It’s ridiculous.

Mr. Thomas expressed his frustration with the airline industry in general.

‘At what point is this industry going to take responsibility for this? You pay for a service and you get robbed as a matter of course with no possibility of compensation – if this happened in any other industry companies would be going out of business very quickly,’ he said.

‘Irrespective of whether they deny liability, what sort of service are they providing?’

Mr. Thomas said he feels annoyed that passengers follow the rules: keep carry on items a certain size, don’t padlock bags, don’t carry certain sized liquids in carry-on, and still they lose out, or, in his words, ‘get shafted’.

The bottom line, in what is a global problem with baggage, seems to be that airlines won’t reimburse you if valuables are lost, so bring them in your carry-on bag or ship them separately.

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the US Department of Transportation advises customers to try to limit items in checked luggage to clothes and toiletries.

Passengers are advised to always tag the outside of the bag with name, home address, and home and work phone numbers and to put the same information inside each bag.

Also, pay attention when destination tags are affixed and be sure to have all your claim checks.

Don’t over-pack a bag as it can put undue pressure on it causing it to break or burst open.

Check with the airline you are using for any limits it has on size, weight or number of carry-on bags and if using more than one airline for a trip, check on all of them.

Remember, don’t pack anything in a carry-on that could be considered a weapon (scissors, knife).

With revised rules now allowing for liquids and gels in three ounce quantities there is the option of packing light, with just a carry-on.

Let it be a warning to passengers worldwide that: two baggage handlers at JFK airport were charged last month with stealing more than $250,000 worth of jewellery and diamonds; two baggage handlers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were arrested and fired in separate theft investigations last year; last November a former baggage handler at Stansted Airport in England was sentenced to eight months in prison after admitting stealing from luggage. According to a BBC investigation, the former employee of handling company Swissport was among 22 baggage handlers arrested for theft while working at the airport since the previous December.

If your suitcase is worth more than the airline would give you if it goes missing, consider buying excess valuation coverage, if available, from the carrier when you check in. Travel insurance or homeowner’s insurance may also pay for lost-luggage claims.

Scott Mueller also notes that expensive luggage is an indication of possible wealth to a potential thief. ‘Nondescript mid-priced bags are less likely to be noticed.’

So the next time you prepare to pack for a trip, remember the words of advice of Scott Mueller and think of those three disappointed little faces looking up at their dad, Mr. Thomas, when they realised that someone else somewhere was playing their computer games on their computer console.

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‘If you can’t replace it, live without it, or seal the deal without it, don’t pack it.’

– Scott T. Mueller

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