Why a luggage delay does not entitle you to a ticket refund

Erin Hill is invited to be a bridesmaid in her friend’s destination wedding in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Air traffic delays cause her to miss her original flight to St. Thomas. Sympathetic to Hill’s situation, United routes her through Miami on another carrier. Arriving in St. Thomas that same night, she can still be in the wedding the next day as planned. But Hill’s luggage doesn’t make the trip. She’s forced to borrow clothes from her friend and misses participating in the wedding. Now Hill wants a full refund. Will our advocates be able to help her get it?

Hill’s story about missing her friend’s wedding is sad, indeed. But unfortunately, what airlines are obligated to provide once a consumer purchases a ticket is an area where emotion isn’t part of the equation. Hill, on the other hand, was very emotional about the situation, “Over a year ago, I was invited to be a maid of honor in one of my best friend’s weddings in the US Virgin islands. I booked and departed United Airlines on April 27, 2017. Considering this was my first flight, naturally I was filled with anticipation. What I expected and hoped to be an enjoyable initial aircraft experience turned out to be a complete hellish and dreadful nightmare.”

Thus began Hill’s long, explicit and emotional plea to United Airlines that she forwarded to our advocates seeking assistance. “Originally, my flight was set to depart Raleigh-Durham (RDU) on April 27 at 7:00 a.m. to Newark, N.J. I would then board another United Airlines plane to St. Thomas with an expected arrival time of 1:26 p.m. However, once on board the flight from RDU to Newark I was told that take-off would be delayed due to heavy air traffic in Newark. My plane sat delayed on the runway in RDU for approximately 30 minutes.”

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As a first-time flier, Hill had no idea of the ripple effect those 30 minutes would have on her carefully planned weekend. When she arrived in Newark, a United customer service representative informed her that her flight had already left to for St.Thomas and that United didn’t have another flight leaving until the next day.

United took pity on her situation, (probably encouraged when Hill “began to cry hysterically”) and routed her on an American Airlines flight arriving at 8:40 p.m. instead of 1:26 p.m. The United representative assured Hill that her bags “were already en route to St. Thomas and that they would arrive before [she] would. [She] could pick them up in St. Thomas once [she] arrived.”

Hats off to United for stepping up to assist a customer in obvious panic and dismay. While missing some of the planned festivities, Hill would still arrive in time to be a bridesmaid in the main event. Hill was sure the nightmare of her first flying experience would have a happy ending when she touched down in St. Thomas and claimed her luggage.

You guessed it — when Hill arrived in St. Thomas, she didn’t find her luggage, as United assured her she would. She didn’t even find a person at the United baggage claim office in St. Thomas. Tired of waiting for someone to help her, she went to the American baggage claim office. Her bags weren’t there either, but the American representative attempted to trace their whereabouts. By 11 p.m., Hill was informed that her bags never left Newark.

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Hill proceeded to file claims and fill out forms for her missing luggage, She was assured by American and United that her bags would be placed on the next day’s flight and she could pick them up at 1:26 p.m., roughly 90 minutes before the bride was scheduled to walk down the aisle.

Bottom line, on the day of the wedding, despite numerous phone calls, broken assurances, desperate waiting, crying and hysterics, Hill’s luggage didn’t arrive until 11:45 p.m. So no bridesmaid dress, and one less bridesmaid. Fortunately, the bride provided Hill with an outfit appropriate for the occasion so she could attend the wedding.

Even a novice traveler like Hill might have asked what she should do about essential items, clothing and toiletries that were missing because of the baggage delay. Likewise, United and American both should have explained that she was entitled to reimbursement of expenses under the Montreal Convention for clothing and essential items because her bags were delayed. But few airlines, if any, willingly assume liability for passenger reimbursement.

The Montreal Convention applies to baggage transported between two member countries. It says, in part

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 [about $1,365] 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.

We encouraged Hill to post her story in our help forums, which are monitored by advocates and industry experts. She may get further advice there. Unfortunately, because Hill didn’t declare any additional value, she isn’t entitled to anything, especially not the full cost of her ticket, the cost of her bridesmaid dress and accessories or punitive damages as she’s requesting. We’re going to tag this one as a “case dismissed” and hope that Hill has learned a valuable lesson for her future travels.

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Chip Hiebler

Chip enjoyed a successful career in the IT field. Now he's retired and splits his time between experiencing destinations and cultures beyond his home in Baltimore and generally having fun. He currently supports the mission of Elliott.org as the co-director of the research department.

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