Missing on Southwest

Q: I had the misfortune of Southwest Airlines losing my luggage last Friday. What are its obligations to replace it?

— Steve Berry

A: If you haven’t already filed a claim, might as well kiss your luggage bye-bye. Damaged or lost baggage must be reported in person within four hours of your arrival.

Assuming you didn’t make any special arrangements with the airline when you checked in your luggage, and you remembered to fill out the paperwork, the airline’s liability is limited to a total of $1,250.

A look at the fine print in Southwest’s luggage policy suggests that when it comes to anything checked-in, there’s little love lost between the airline and the passenger. The fun starts with reading travelers the riot act on its two carryon limit (note the name of the URL contains the word “binhog”. Guess the Web programmers kept their sense of humor about it.) It continues with a maze of rules and regulations that’s dense enough to confuse a lawyer.

Now, brave as Southwest may be for posting its entire contract of carriage — and really, that’s something to be proud of — studying it will probably get you no closer to the compensation you’re looking for. It may actually just confuse an already confusing problem.

Does the carrier owe you anything? Depends on how you interpret Southwest’s own rules. And what you did when you checked your luggage in.

If you suspected that your luggage might go missing in action, you could have paid an additional charge of $1 for each $100 of excess valuation. Exempt from the $1,250 limits are mobility aids and assistive devices, for which the carrier will compensate you up to $2,500.

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Under the rules, the declared value of your personal property can’t exceed $2,500. You also can’t purchase this de-facto dollar travel insurance for items such as money, jewelry, cameras, video and electronic equipment (including computers), silverware, negotiable papers, securities, business documents, samples, items intended for sale, paintings, antiques, artifacts, manuscripts, furs, irreplaceable books or publications and similar valuables.

Just as an aside, ever wonder who these rules are meant to protect? Sure seems like they’re shielding the airline against people like you who want to collect every last penny in damages when luggage goes missing.

So I’m guessing that you didn’t make any special arrangements, aren’t missing a wheelchair and forgot to make a claim when you landed. I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

But you’re not alone. Last year, Southwest chalked up 267,689 reports of mishandled luggage, according to the US Department of Transportation. That’s 4.53 reports per 1,000 passengers. This March, the most recent month reported by the DOT, the Dallas carrier was running at a more respectable 3.95 complaints per thousand.

Southwest has blamed its lost luggage problems on the fact that it began strictly enforcing its carryon limits last year, but that’s probably too simple of an explanation. An airline like SWA is more likely to lose luggage because its turnaround times at the gate are often half that of its competitors, meaning there’s less time to get everything loaded up — and more of a chance that some items will be left behind.

It’s also statistically true that most luggage is eventually recovered, and I can only hope that your bags will turn up sooner or later. A good number to keep handy while you’re waiting is Southwest’s baggage claim department at its corporate headquarters. The number is (214) 792-6012.

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Final word of advice: don’t ever check anything that you can’t live without. The management of airlines like Southwest know that they could be doing better when it comes to luggage handling, but they don’t have much incentive to improve service. I’ve heard from reliable sources that it’s actually more cost-effective to continue paying damages to the folks whose luggage is permanently lost than to install a tracking system like the one used by Federal Express that virtually guarantees you’ll see your check-in item again. And there’s still too much resistance to baggage-match, a practice common in more security-conscious countries, because it would absolutely ruin every airline’s on-time record.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Kimberlie5461

    Unbelievable! I myself am in the same situation. Flew from LA to Vegas for business and arrived w/out my luggage. I had over $3400 worth of items and it has been over a month now w/out a resloution. However, they are stating I will receive a $1800 reimbursement check for lost luggage and items. This is NOT anything close to what I’m missing. So distraught. I really am at loss for words. After reading your comment and you stating,  “My former friend said if they hadn’t found it by now, it was likely stolen. If it wasn’t, when they read the description of everything in it, they probably will.” is mind-blowing.
    I had the skycap SW employee take my bag but never placed it on the belt behind him. He then, proceeded to escort me through the airport. Completely inappropriate and unprofessional. I was so uncomfortable and didnt know how to handle the situation. I’m sure this was his way of deterring me. At the time I didnt think anything of it, other than he was a weirdo trying to hit on me. Yeah, I guess I was the fool. How was I supposed to know any better?!? Im trusting a SW employee with my luggage for my flight.
    I, as well, have heard that the SW employees steal luggage or friends have had their luggage stolen.  I cant believe this. Arent there surveillance cameras outside the airport, in the airport, around the airport?!?!?! CMON! I will not be happy until I know what happened to my luggage. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!! You messed with the wrong Jersey girl.

    @kimberlyjerz on twitter

  • Amy Brown

    It’s been over a month now and still no word on my dad’s luggage. He came to Nashville to host karaoke for my son’s 18th birthday party and they lost his luggage!!! Are you freaken kidding me!!!! WTF southwest??? Not a happy Mom at all!! To make a long story short, No karaoke party, Dad lost $9,000 just in karaoke stuff! That’s not even including his clothing!! He also had all his medication in his luggage. I know I know you DO NOT put medication in your checked in luggage but he did. He was here for a week so we had to go to the VA hospital and still there all day long to get new medication and VA hospital is 50 mins away! This happend Feb 7th 20014 and we still have not heard a thing from southwest. My dad hosts Karaoke for a living for the veterans and now he has nothing to do karaoke with!!! REALLY SOUTHWEST!!!!

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