A flight attendant took my camera and I want it back

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By Christopher Elliott

Haijun Shan’s camera is missing – forcibly gate-checked on a recent flight. The camera isn’t covered under the airline’s contract. Is Shan out of luck?

Question

I need your help with a missing camera. I flew from Boston to Minneapolis on US Airways. When I boarded the flight in Boston, the overhead bins were full. A flight attendant told me I would have to gate-check my carry-on bag.

I didn’t have time to remove my camera — the attendant just asked me where I was going and took the bag from me quickly.

When I arrived in Minneapolis, the camera was gone. I filed a report with US Airways, but it now says it won’t reimburse me for the camera, because it isn’t liable for the loss under its contract. That doesn’t seem fair. Can you help? — Haijun Shan, Minneapolis

Answer

You’re right, it isn’t fair. US Airways, like other major airlines, has a provision in its domestic contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline — that it isn’t liable for electronics in your checked bag. So if you had willingly checked your camera in your carry-on, you’d be out of luck.

But you intended to carry your camera on the plane. So basically, US Airways was forcing you to check an item for which it wouldn’t assume responsibility. That’s not an ideal situation.

I mediated a similar case with US Airways years ago, and it got me into all kinds of trouble. A flight attendant had also forcibly gate-checked a bag that contained valuables, which were then pilfered. The airline refused to replace them, citing its contract. Eventually, the airline compensated the passenger, but only after a public and very messy fight with yours truly.

Let’s take a moment to understand what probably caused this problem: luggage fees. If airlines included the first checked bag in the price of their tickets, then more passengers would check their bags, freeing up overhead bin space. (Related: Are you allowed to take pictures on planes?)

If you’re ever in a situation like this again — and I hope you aren’t — try to slow things down. The attendant is in a hurry, preparing the cabin for departure. But you aren’t. Don’t let go of the bag until you’re sure all of your valuables are with you. (Here’s how to contact the CEO directly.)

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I reviewed the correspondence between you and US Airways. The customer service representatives responded to your inquiry with a series of form letters that invoked their contract. You were getting nowhere.

I contacted US Airways on your behalf. It has agreed to cover the lost camera.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Rio de Janeiro.

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