Why you shouldn’t expect American Airlines to support your luxury lifestyle

Daniel Zabek wants our help getting reimbursed for purchases he made when American Airlines lost his suitcase on a recent trip. American has already apologized and cut him a check for $1,575. Is that enough?

Here’s Zabek’s problem: To replace what he needed when American lost his suitcase, he spent four times what American paid — and is legally liable for.

Zabek’s case raises important questions about what you’re entitled to when an airline loses your checked luggage, and what steps to take if you should be so unlucky. It’s also a reminder to all of us that when someone else is footing the bill, you have to make purchases conservatively.

There’s no doubt that American Airlines, and airlines in general, are no good at keeping track of checked luggage. Despite the fees that most passengers pay to check bags, 23 million bags were mishandled by airlines globally last year. And when it happens to you, you are entitled to compensation.

For his part, I can understand how Zabek ended up in this position. His itinerary on American Airlines began in Rochester, N.Y. and took him all over North America. Over the course of 30 days, he took flights that dotted the map, making stops in Las Vegas, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Aspen, Miami and Dallas.

Zabek had apparently packed for a month’s worth of activities, which included skiing in Colorado, being poolside in Florida, and taking business meetings in Texas. Somewhere in the early part of his trip, American lost track of his bag, and it never resurfaced.

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We asked Zabek to send us the documents related to his claim. His receipts raised even my eyebrows, which have arguably seen it all. His first receipt for skiing gear, all purchased in Aspen at stores like North Face and Burberry, totaled $1,400.

Zabek continued his travels to Miami, where he no longer needed ski clothing, but apparently needed a $210 pair of jeans by Diesel, a $265 dress shirt by Armani, and a $100 necktie by Hugo Boss.

It’s unclear whether Zabek has always had expensive tastes, or whether he thought the missing suitcase was an opportunity to get American to foot the bill for his shopping spree. It also seems inconceivable that the sheer volume of items he purchased in four cities, incurring more than $6,000 in expenses, could have possibly fit in a single suitcase.

On domestic itineraries, the maximum per passenger liability for lost luggage is $3,500. Because Zabek’s travels took him to Toronto, his entire itinerary is considered international, and is subject to the liability limits of a treaty called the Montreal Convention.

The treaty establishes certain limits of liability for airlines in all different types of scenarios where losses are sustained on international flights, including lost luggage. And according to the treaty, the airline’s liability is limited to $1,575 — exactly what American paid Zabek.

Zabek’s claim goes from challenging to mind-boggling when you consider that he wants to be reimbursed $6,000 for the clothing he purchased after his bag was lost, and the $6,000 worth of personal belongings he claims was contained in his missing suitcase.

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For passengers who have an entire wardrobe of luxury clothing, or a $4,500 suitcase by Louis Vuitton, for example, you might consider buying travel insurance before your departure.

American Airlines allows passengers to declare the excess value of checked luggage and purchase additional insurance at the ticket counter, which costs $5 for every $100 of additional value. The airline does not insure items in excess of $5,000.

Zabek wants us to contact American for him, and, while I’m sorry that he feels he is owed more than $10,000, I don’t foresee American budging on this one. He asks if we can recommend a lawyer — something we don’t do — and while I know many aviation lawyers, I don’t know any who take lost luggage cases. Even if he hired a lawyer who could successfully take his case to trial, what would a jury say about reimbursement claims for $70 Armani T-shirts?

If you find yourself in Zabek’s shoes, make sure you replace them with a sensibly priced alternative instead of the Gucci loafers you’d like to wear. And if you can’t live without the luxury, that’s your choice. But you can’t expect the airline to pick up the tab.

Should we advocate for Zabek?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation’s largest plaintiffs’ law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

  • Scott Fagen

    I wonder what the one person who voted “yes” was thinking.

  • AAGK

    While I don’t think $1400 is unreasonable for ski clothes, this guy missed the point. It sounds like he was reimbursed to the max he agreed to when he checked his bag. He is conflating the value of his lost used clothing and the practice to reimburse for essentials. His clothes may be valuable to him but are all junk to someone else. He got some new clothes and the airline picked up part of the tab. Not terrible, and if he can’t live with it then he should’ve used another option. People ship artwork that costs millions around the world everyday. They protect it bc it is valuable. There’s nothing more to be done.

    Packing tip: he didn’t plan well for a trip with that many stops and attire changes. He should’ve sent the ski stuff directly to the hotel in Aspen and he could’ve easily carried on the rest in a rolly bag with a garment bag for suits. The hotel will press the shirts, etc and take care of laundry and dry cleaning. A month does not require much more than a week.

  • Alan Gore

    Experienced travelers know that compensation for lost checked bags is by weight for a lowball standardized amount based in a treaty, and that if you check anything of high value, you should insure it for replacement cost and have receipts.

    There should be an exception – though there isn’t – for forced gate check of carryons. When you fly with something valuable and follow the rules by carrying it on, you should not expect to have to play checked bag roulette. If you do and they lose it, they should have to cough up every dime.

  • Dutchess

    Zabek should contact his credit card, I’m sure he’s using some kind of elite travel card. My CC that I use for travel expenses comes with travel insurance and lost luggage protection I’m willing to bet he’s using a card that comes with some additional protection.

  • taxed2themax

    Not exactly correct.. The older Warsaw uses a weight-only formula — so a 23kg bag of low-value items gets the same as 23kg of high(er) value items — because they are both 23kgs.. So, IF someones travel falls under Warsaw, for the carrier it’s pretty simple.. bag weight (if not recorded, assumed to be the maximum allowed for that type of ticket) times the 250 gold francs per kilo (which is then converted into a national currency)

    Montreal is where the items in the bag now become an issue.. because not only does Montreal have a higher cap/limit than Warsaw, it also takes the items into account as opposed to just their weight.

    I see, but don’t agree with your notion that a “forced” checked bag should be an exclusion and – by how I interpret your wording of “… cough up every dime…” then become a limit-less liability case for the carrier. Part of the reason I take this viewpoint is because the reason the bag needs to be “forced” checked gate side *may* be due to the bag being oversize/weight/ and/or excess by piece count..

    Under these scenarios, which I’d personally call cases of passenger non-compliance, I don’t think the carrier should then have a higher liability risk due principally due to what I’d see as the passengers choice of non-compliance. Now, IF the bag meets ALL their size/piece/weight counts *and* it still can’t be accommodated in the cabin, and therefore becomes a “forced” checked baggage matter — THEN I think there’s room for a higher (but not unlimited like “cough up every dime”) liability cap.

  • AAGK

    I agree. If we made carriers take on this liability, we would be forcing them to transport stuff that they actively inform us they are not positioned to take financial responsibility for. Instead, passengers disregard that message and take a risk, fair enough, bc usually the bag arrives. But that is a choice.

  • mbods2002

    I didn’t know a person could buy additional insurance for baggage so thanks for the tip! My first reaction was WHY would he pack such valuable clothing and even though I won’t, it’s really beside the point and a personal choice. The airline did all it was required to and next time he’ll buy the extra insurance. Obviously, he can afford it…..

  • CasaAlux

    Totally ridiculous. Worse than the woman who bought the iPad…

  • LeeAnneClark

    The eight “yes” votes are from North Face, Burberry, Armani, Hugo Boss, and Diesel, who are happy to support the idea that normal shmoes who would ordinarily never shop in their stores would drop a fortune in them if the airlines are paying for it.

  • Bill___A

    In my opinion, a “forced” checked bag is one that meets the requirements of a carry on and was “forced” due to the airline not having enough capacity, or, more likely, not reasonably enforcing the restrictions upon passengers boarding before the person “forced” to check the bag. I am certainly not at all interested in having my compliant bag checked against my will when they allowed the bins to fill by allowing previous passengers to bring in big things.

  • Vec14

    I’ll agree with additional compensation for ‘force checked’ bags – since they are items we weren’t planning on being separated from and had the misfortune of being in group 5 when the gate agents (sometimes arbitrarily) decide to start checking all bags. I have read reports (and had it happen -almost) of gate agents pretty much snatching bags away from people or not allowing people to pull important stuff out (or being so rushed they forget something). Yes I know there’s the strategy to pack a bag within a bag, but not everyone knows this, or when you simply have one bag, it doesn’t help.

    As I’ve said before, it’d make things either if the airlines either limited carry-ons to one piece or had tighter size restrictions – means everyone could get a bag of their essentials on board.

  • Altosk

    I need a “NOPE” meme for this one.

  • Annie M

    How do you know he didn’t have Walmart clothing in his bag and is trying to go designer on AA’s dime?

  • Nathan Witt

    Would Mr. Zabek ship the same contents and not insure the package? I’m guessing not. So maybe insurance was a good idea here, too. As an aside – I’m picking up a sort of incredulity and judgmentalism regarding the prices of this guy’s clothes. Why does it matter if Mr. Zabek’s clothes are relatively expensive? We don’t know what he does or why he needed those clothes. Maybe he works in a professional setting that requires dressing well to be taken seriously. If AA lost a professional photographer’s $12k camera, I’m guessing the underlying dismissiveness I read in the article wouldn’t be present.

  • Nathan Witt

    I don’t agree that AA should reimburse anything that anyone buys when the airlines loses their luggage – that’s like taking a suite at the Four Seasons when your flight is cancelled and then being mad when AA won’t reimburse you. But when the airlines make a big deal about what an awesome service they’re providing you by transporting your things (and charge you accordingly), it irks me when they lose your stuff and then hide behind limitations to avoid covering what they lost. Even so, I still didn’t vote “yes.”

  • C Schwartz

    I buy some expensive clothing — some well tailored pieces made in Europe or USA, that is my choice on how to spend my disposable income. That being said, the moment I wear it the value is diminished as it is not new. And I have baggage insurance that I pay extra for, just in case,

  • AAGK

    I agree definitely in theory but I usually have in the back of mind that I could be forced to check my carry on, and of course would remove any particularly valuable items. I was asked to check my carry on once bc they said it was overstuffed but I said no and that was fine.

  • AAGK

    I don’t care at all about the pricing. It wasn’t necessarily unreasonable. I care that he was expecting the airline to finance it and that is not what he agreed to when he checked the bag. He can dress however he wants. If it is a business expense, like a camera, he can claim a deduction for the loss, have an employer reimburse, and many other options for additional compensation.

  • AAGK

    You are so stylish:) Sometimes I have traveled with new unworn things, but my credit card would reimburse there.

  • Tom McShane

    I hear you, Scott. Often I wonder what the folks who vote “no” are thinking.

  • Tricia K

    We were nervous about buying some back up clothes when my husband’s suitcase didn’t make it to Rome in time for a business conference a few years ago (mine got there, no problem). The Delta agent asked him to try to be “reasonable,” but understood we were in Rome and he needed dress clothes. We spent around $700 for dress pants, a shirt, a belt, some underwear and a tie. His suitcase arrived 2-3 days after we did, but when we got home and submitted the receipts to Delta per their instructions, they cut us a check promptly. As for a suitcase that gets lost and is never returned to the passenger, often homeowners insurance kicks in after the airline hits it’s limit. Of course, if the insurance company thinks you are overstating the value, they aren’t going to pay. Back in my college years, my suitcase disappeared, never to be found again. Between the airline and my parent’s insurance, I was able to replace most of my clothes.

  • C Schwartz

    I should say that these are work trips, and I do “classics” that last for years, not a lot of throw away fashions. I have traveled also with new clothes, when I have taken advantage of sales when shopping. Last year on a trip to Boston the first TSA guy who checked ids said have a good business trip and I said it is that obvious — and he said yes, from the way I was dressed. It was just a day trip so I was dressed for work.

  • jsn55

    This guy has the brain of a pea. It’s very annoying when your luggage is lost (vs just a couple of days late) but it’s no excuse to attempt to cheat the airline. The chances of him originally packing all that stuff in his bag are small anyway, he’s just testing the system.

  • Rebecca

    I’ve accidentally clicked incorrectly two or three times. I’m guessing that happens at least once a poll. So when it’s super obvious ones like this, I assume that’s what it is. I was once 1 of 2 “no” votes purely by accident.

  • Rebecca

    We’ve purchased a few expensive items traveling. My husband has a thing for shoes. We always have them shipped home, because you can insure that very cheaply and send to the office so someone is signing for it.

  • C Schwartz

    A thing for shoes? I have the same ….

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    One packing tip that we use is to divide our clothes among our luggage. We will pack 1/3 (wife, son and myself) of our clothes among our luggage so if one luggage is mishandled, lost, etc…one person won’t be without clothes. Also, we carry one day of clothing in our carry-on luggage.

    Of course, if all of your luggage is mishandled, lost, etc. then this packing tip is ‘worthless.’ One time, all of our luggage were mishandled in London when we were making a connection (our luggage arrived 24 hours later). When we arrived at our destination we were told that our luggage was still in London and they will be on the next flight. We were paid $ 200 USD by the airline immediately for the inconvenience plus we had travel insurance.

    When we go on international trips, I will use our camcorder to record our items as well as to make an inventory of our items. It takes time but we are prepare in case our luggage is lost.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    The issue is that airline doesn’t know what is inside of your luggage as well as how many passengers have detailed inventory of their items in their checked luggage? It could be the Hope Diamond or costume jewelry. They can’t insure a risk without knowing what the value of the item. If it was something really expensive, prudent individuals will insure the item. As a side note, it is my opinion that you should NOT travel with expensive jewelry (rings, watches, etc.) because you can be a target for thieves.

  • joycexyz

    No, no, a thousand times no! It’s ridiculous claims like this that make it more difficult for honest people to be legitimately reimbursed. What nerve!!!!

  • joycexyz

    If you’re asked to gate check your carry-on, simply remove the valuable and necessary items before checking. You can carry a plastic grocery bag with you for those necessities (medications, jewelry, etc.).

  • joycexyz

    I’m betting the photographer would never let the camera out of his sight.

  • cscasi

    If he checked a bag with his $12,000 camera in it, shame on him! The airline has limits on what they pay for checked baggage.

  • cscasi

    Wonder how many people’s homeowner insurance have low enough deductibles that it would ever kick in to cover what was lost in a bag; especially after the airline reimbursed him/her for at least of a portion of what was being claimed?

  • Tricia K

    I like the way you used the word “avarice” in the same sentence as “nickel and dime us.” Nice juxtaposition.

  • Tricia K

    Obviously, that is a lesson we learned the hard way. We were especially nervous because we had just bought two rather expensive suits for this conference and they were in the suitcase that decided to see a bit more of the world. At the very least, we put one clean outfit into each other’s bags, we keep all meds in our carry one, along with a mini go bag that includes toiletries and clean underwear. It’s nowhere near as distressing to lose a suitcase, even temporarily, if you’re somewhat covered. I don’t know the current rules (my suitcase disappeared when I was in college–another whole lifetime ago), but I thought they had to give you a certain amount of cash to tide you over while they try to find your suitcase. I think this website has made me paranoid, but I do take pictures of expensive items or gifts (last year we brought a lot of Vikings gear to my husband’s nephew and his kids in CT. As often as I get my little “TSA Love Notes,” I wanted visual proof of what was inside, and carried the receipts with me.

  • Tricia K

    You’re probably right on that one. Mine is $1,000. Although, if I shopped where this guy did, it still might cover it!

  • Carchar

    While I did vote, “No,” I think that, because he traveled mostly in the U.S., he should be reimbursed according to U.S. rules. His one stop in Canada cut that in half. True, we don’t know what was in his bag, but if he travels in upper class circles, he may feel he needs to dress like his peers.

  • sirwired

    Let me begin by stating the obvious that AA is not on the hook for anything beyond the liability maximums (which he’s already received), and I highly doubt he’ll find a lawyer to take the case, because it’s hopeless. Statutory maxes are kind of cut-and-dried.

    But I think the article was unduly harsh (without foundation) on the criticisms of his purchases. Yes, if he had a bunch of well-used near-junk cast-offs, and he was replacing it with luxury gear, that’s a problem. But the article should not have gone on a rant about his expensive tastes without actually asking the consumer first. And if he had expensive tastes? There’s nothing wrong with that. At all.

    There’s a legit amount of contention when arguing over how much an airline should pay for “emergency” purchases (still under the max) when a bag is delayed, but that wasn’t the case here.

  • sirwired

    Bags aren’t compensated by weight; as detailed in the article, it’s a flat amount these days.

    But yes, I agree the limits should be higher (if not infinite) for force-checked bags. And there should be no item-type restrictions for force-checked.

  • James

    In this case — that international limit is too low. I won’t comment on what the original poster bough, but consider a properly fitted suit/shirt/tie could easily cost much of that compensation on short notice. That’s not an Armani suit or the like, but a reasonable mid-range suit from Men’s Warehouse.

    By law, the original poster won;t be compensated — but the changing that compensation level deserves some advocacy.

  • James

    You’d be surprised. For example. this lens: https://www.amazon.com/Nikon-200-400mm-Nikkor-Digital-Cameras/dp/B000144I2G costs well over the luggage compensation limit — and (in its protective case) is much larger than any allowed carry on. Same for the full size 400mm: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?Ntt=Nikon+400mm+f2.8&N=0&InitialSearch=yes&sts=ma&typedValue=&Top+Nav-Search=

    When I went on a safari in Africa, I had equipment similar to this. I had no choice but to check it — no way would it fit as crryon.

  • just me

    If the Four Season is the only available option – it is reasonable to expect to be reimbursed.

  • just me

    The thiefs do not know to target you either. Of course the airline would prefer that you pay for the ticket and do not travel ever.
    Is this that you advocate? They already do that with non-refundables.
    I have my stuff and they better gard it. Sure – they re-insured themselves with Montreal Convention and other limiting laws. They excused themselves from personal responsibility, and you all bought it.
    Of course they can insure the risks involved. They know exactly what gets lost and how much it costs – they just chose to insure none of it or a fraction of it.
    Sanity please – the listed clothing was on higher side for most poor people who think believe that they are in the middle class – but these were not 100,000 dollar diamonds.
    Else they can take your stuff and sell it directly in pawn shops — this is where your arguments leads.

  • LonnieC

    Boy, I’d like to see your photos!

  • JewelEyed

    If you are going to plan an insane trip like this, you should really get a travel agent and insurance. If he’d had both, he would have had an agent to run the claims and all he would have had to do was go shopping. Now, this isn’t helpful advice for a lot of minor trips that go unexpectedly pear-shaped, but if you can afford an itinerary like this and to purchase clothes that expensive, surely you can afford it and you should pay for it.

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