Who’s really to blame for these absurd luggage rules?

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By Christopher Elliott

Just the mention of the words “baggage” and “rule” in the same sentence is enough to raise the blood pressure of the average air traveler. But Ellie Duram’s story is special. It’s a series of run-ins with pure airline ridiculousness that it merits a closer look, and prompts a bigger question: Who’s responsible for the sad state of affairs, when it comes to luggage?

Let’s start with an incident that happened a few months ago on a Delta Air Lines flight from Wichita, Kan., to Detroit. Duram was spending a week with her sister, so she paid Delta $25 for a checked bag.

“At the luggage carousel in Detroit, everybody else on my flight picked up their bag and left,” she remembers. “After an hour my bag had not shown up, so I went to the baggage claim office. The gal asked me: ‘How long has it been?’ When I said an hour, she said: ‘It’s only been an hour? If it doesn’t show up in two hours, you come back and tell me.'”

Two hours later, still no sign of her missing bag. Her sister was circling the terminal, waiting to pick up Duram. Finally, she returned to the luggage office and asked again. An airline representative radioed someone, assuring her that the bag would be there. Sure enough, two hours and fifteen minutes later, she was reunited with her luggage.

Duram asked Delta to refund her $25, but it refused. After all, it had transported her bag from Wichita to Detroit; just not at exactly the same time as her.

The quirks of airline policies and compensation

New government rules require an airline to refund your baggage fee if it loses your property. But it wouldn’t have done her any good. Delta and other airlines typically only consider a bag “lost” if it’s missing in action for more than 21 days (have a look at Delta’s customer commitment).

Duram is baffled by the silliness of Delta’s refusal, so she decides to carry her bag on her next flight to Atlanta (again, on Delta). After her flight landed, the fun began. (Related: Who’s responsible for this pilfered luggage?)

“The compartment directly over my head, where my bag was, would not open,” she says. “The pilot showed up and pounded on it. He couldn’t get it pryed open either, so he said: ‘I’ll need to call a mechanic.’”

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The mechanic finally opened the compartment, but she missed her connecting flight and ended up spending the night in Atlanta at Delta’s expense. Delta even issued a voucher for the inconvenience. Somewhere along the way, a Delta representative claimed she had been bumped from her connecting flight. Technically, hers was a “mechanical” delay, but Delta treated it as an involuntary denied boarding situation. In either case, airlines are required to compensate customers when such situations occur.

The hidden costs of redeeming airline vouchers

And then, the kicker — when Duram tried to redeem the voucher, she encountered a common but aggravating problem: the phone reservation fee.

“The cost of the flight was $483 so with my $400 voucher I figured I would need to charge $83 to my credit card,” she says. “Wrong. They charged $108 to my card. Why? Because I phoned in my reservation!”

That’s right, a $25 fee applies to each phone reservation. And the only way to redeem the voucher is by phone.

If you didn’t hear yourself exclaiming, “That’s ridiculous!” as you read Duram’s account, then maybe you work for an airline. (Related: Help! WOW lost my luggage — and my claim.)

Her story is as absurd as it is common.

Here’s what should have happened: Delta should have coughed up Duram’s luggage fee without her having to ask for it. The $25 fee is paid with the understanding that the bag will be delivered with the passenger. (Here’s our guide to finding your lost luggage.)

That might have prevented her from wedging what was probably an oversize bag into her overhead compartment on her next flight, and maybe she would have made her connecting flight to Wichita. (Related: Should I have been charged extra for my checked luggage.)

Passenger complacency

And then Duram wouldn’t have had to deal with the preposterous voucher redemption system that requires users to pay a $25 usage fee. (You’d think an airline as sophisticated as Delta would figure out a way of allowing online redemptions – unless, of course, the phone redemptions were a profit center.)

I don’t mean to pick on Delta. The same kinds of stories are told about other legacy airlines, who have their own kind of logic and sense of customer service that defies any convention. (Here’s how to buy the best luggage for your next trip.)

But what’s truly amazing – ridiculous, really – is that we let them. So-called watchdogs say these dumb rules are necessary in order for an airline to turn a profit. Airline apologists who specialize in collecting useless airline miles say any criticism of the rules comes because we really don’t have an insider-level understanding of the airline business, which is apparently required in order to comment on anything an airline does, no matter how outrageous.

And, of course, we passengers perpetuate this system because we pay for it without questioning it. Perhaps that’s the most ridiculous thing of all.

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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.

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