I want to file a Delta Air Lines damage claim for my bike. Why can’t I?

The wheels came off Melanie Bergman’s Delta Air Lines damage claim when she filed it too late.

Bergman shipped her bicycle in the cargo hold of a Delta airplane. Prior to the flight, she disassembled the bicycle and placed the parts in a TSA-approved container. When she reassembled the bicycle one week later, she discovered that it had been damaged while in transit.

Her story is a warning that it’s not wise to transport high-value items by checking them on commercial flights. Airline contracts of carriage and industry agreements like the Montreal Convention set limits on liability for damage to checked items. All airlines restrict passengers from checking especially valuable items. They often have additional restrictions on the ability to recover damages for items shipped in their cargo holds.

Cargo hold restrictions

Delta’s domestic general rules tariff prohibits or restricts passengers in checking items it deems “fragile, perishable or precious.” According to the tariff,

Any item … which, by its nature or packaging, is subject to damage or spoilage during its carriage as checked baggage, despite exercise by the carrier of ordinary care in its handling. …

Acceptance of Properly Packaged Fragile Items
[Fragile] items will be accepted as checked baggage only if, in Delta’s sole determination, the items are appropriately packaged in an original factory-sealed carton, cardboard mailing tube, a container or case designed for shipping such items, or packed with protective internal material sufficient to protect the items from damage during ordinary handling, and are otherwise suitable for transport under these rules.

Bicycles are among these items:

Bicycles will be accepted as checked baggage. These items will be subject to a charge of USD150/CAD150 each way. …Nonmotorized touring or racing bicycles with single seats may be accepted as checked baggage on most flights: Bicycles must be packaged in a cardboard or canvas container with handlebars fixed sideways and pedals removed, or with handlebars and pedals encased in plastic, Styrofoam, or other similar material.

Other Delta Air Lines damage claim limits

In addition to these restrictions, there are other conditions Delta requires successful damage claims to satisfy. It caps claim values at $3,500 per each fee-paying passenger, who must file the Delta Air Lines damage claim within 24 hours of the flight. And more rules apply to interlines and code-shared flights.

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For international flights, Delta issues reimbursement for damages in accordance with the Montreal Convention, which provides that

In the carriage of baggage, the liability of the carrier in the case of destruction, loss, damage or delay is limited to 1,000 Special Drawing Rights for each passenger unless the passenger has made, at the time when the checked baggage was handed over to the carrier, a special declaration of interest in delivery at destination and has paid a supplementary sum if the case so requires. In that case, the carrier will be liable to pay a sum not exceeding the declared sum unless it proves that the sum is greater than the passenger’s actual interest in delivery at destination.

If Bergman was flying overseas (we don’t know the origin or destination of her flight), then unless she declared and prepaid a special declaration of interest in delivery at her final destination, the maximum reimbursement she could receive from Delta would be limited to 1,000 SDR (about $1,454).

When airlines won’t accept liability for damaged luggage

Bergman isn’t the only one to fall afoul of airline regulations in shipping valuable goods. Rohit Sud experienced similar frustration when he couldn’t ship a flat-screen TV home from India on Etihad Airways. In Sud’s case, the TV itself fell within Etihad’s limits on allowable baggage dimensions. But when it was packed inside a container that was 52 inches long – two inches too long to qualify for shipping in an Etihad cargo hold unless Sud paid excess baggage fees. The TV arrived broken at Sud’s final destination, but Etihad refused to accept liability for the damage.

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Our advocates felt that they couldn’t help Sud. They don’t believe that they can assist Bergman with her Delta Air Lines damage claim either because she didn’t discover the damage until more than 24 hours had elapsed since her flight. (Our website contains executive contact information for Delta and Etihad.) Bothairlines required that Bergman and Sud accept responsibility for the damage to their property.

The only thing we can do is warn our readers not to check high-value goods as luggage on commercial flights. If you need to ship such an item, we advise you to ensure it and send it through a shipping company.

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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