Mishandled Bag Reimbursements Land on DOT To-do List

Airlines and government agencies slashed payments in recent years to passengers for lost or damaged belongings, research shows, but a proposed federal rule would ensure passengers get back at least checked-bag fees for mishandled luggage.

"I think that is the least they could do," said Annie Gensheimer, 48, of Edgeworth.

Gensheimer, a photographer, said she remains "scarred" from three summers ago when airlines mishandled bags belonging to her and family members almost every time she flew and never paid her a dime.

"I try whenever possible not to check my bags because of that terrible summer," Gensheimer said.

The Department of Transportation is accepting comments through Sept. 23 on proposed reimbursements of checked-bag fees and other airline passenger protections.

FlyersRights.org founder Kate Hanni thinks stiffer penalties are necessary, similar to those that almost eliminated lengthy terminal delays, as are measures to force airlines to disclose how much money they pay for losing or damaging passengers' belongings.

Airlines aren't required to disclose such information but would be under legislation Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., proposed. The bill would appoint the DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division to oversee lost and stolen baggage claims.

"People have a right to know how likely they are to get any money back in the event one of their bags is lost or damaged," Hanni said.

Although data on claims U.S. airlines paid to passengers are not available, a study released this spring by consulting firm SITA Inc. said airlines worldwide spent an estimated $2.5 billion last year to cover costs related to mishandling 25 million bags, down from $3.8 billion in costs for 42 million mishandled bags in 2007.

Hanni said the claims are frustrating, given that airlines sell unclaimed bags for $10 apiece to a Scottsboro, Ala., store that resells the bags and their contents separately at deep discounts. The Unclaimed Baggage Center, which did not return calls for comment, says on its website that it sells "lost treasures from around the world," offering 7,000 items for sale on an average day.

"No wonder people are so frustrated," Hanni said. "It's almost impossible to get reimbursements from airlines, but they're making money off bags that can't be returned to their owners."

Although airlines don't release baggage-claim data, the Transportation Security Administration does. It is responsible for bags at checkpoints and screening areas. The data show the agency is less likely to pay claims and more likely to make smaller payments when it does.

David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the nation's major airlines, could not provide statistics on claims U.S. airlines paid but said the industry placed greater emphasis on improving baggage handling. Airlines received one report of mishandled baggage for every 272 passengers during the first six months of the year, lower than any annual rate this decade, government data show.

Castelveter said airlines have fewer checked bags to deal with, the result of less passenger traffic and people checking fewer bags to avoid related fees.

He said airlines "are not in support of additional data reporting," particularly as it relates to claims paid to passengers.

"It would be inconclusive and misleading. I'm not sure how that would help customers make decisions," Castelveter said.

Two out of three people who reported lost or damaged belongings in 2003 received money from the TSA, but only one in five did last year, TSA data show.

The statistics show average TSA payouts are half as large today ($180.35 per claim) as they were eight years ago ($369.85) when record-keeping began. Total money paid decreased almost sevenfold, from more than $3.5 million in 2003 to $531,405 last year.

Two passengers whose belongings were lost or damaged at Pittsburgh International Airport received a combined $72.61 from TSA through the first four months of this year. The agency denied or is considering 15 claims, records show. In the last four months of 2002, the agency paid 18 local passengers almost $6,800 for lost or damaged belongings, or $376 per claim.

Airlines are responsible for claims when problems occur as bags are checked in, loaded onto planes and unloaded, carried during flights, transferred from one plane to another during connections and conveyed to baggage-claim areas after flights.

TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said the agency pays when bags or their contents are damaged or lost while in TSA custody. TSA pays when it can't determine who damaged a bag or lost its contents, but airlines generally assume responsibility for bags lost altogether, Davis said.

"We have become more adept at investigating our claims and discerning if there is any TSA responsibility," Davis said. "That's important because, unlike airlines, we're dealing with taxpayer money."

She said the agency placed more cameras and supervisors in areas where it handles checked bags and hired people to investigate claims.