Why won’t airlines cover stolen computers?

Here’s a question I get all the time: Why won’t an airline cover a lost or damaged computer in my checked luggage?

My answer is always the same: because!

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Well, it’s been that way since the Wright Brothers flew a kite at Kitty Hawk. Every airline contract specifically says it doesn’t cover lost or stolen electronics, among other things.

But when a friend asked me for help with a computer claim on United Airlines, I couldn’t say “no.” First, he’s an elite-level customer, the kind airlines like United often make exceptions for. Second, his bag was obviously pilfered either by a United employee or a TSA agent, he says, because his laptop never made it from California to New York.

And third – well, I’ve been repeating “because” for so long, that I had begun to wonder: why is this?

The Transportation Department, which regulates airlines in the United States, “does not prohibit” carriers from declining to pay compensation for a computer that’s lost, damaged or stolen when carried in checked baggage domestically, according to a department spokesman.

“Airlines have pointed to fraudulent claims by consumers for loss of electronics and other expensive items as the reason they exclude these from compensation,” he told me.

An airline doesn’t have that luxury when operating an international flight. Under the Montreal Convention, it’s on the hook for a damaged or pilfered computer in your checked luggage. Domestic airlines tried to weasel out of that one until the DOT issued a stern warning (PDF) telling them that the Montreal Convention applied to them, too.

Curiously, this hasn’t led to a marked increase in fraudulent claims.

Of course, stolen electronics aren’t the only thing United Airlines exempts itself from.

Take a deep breath and read this, folks:

BAGGAGE LIABILITY For travel wholly between points in the U.S., United will not be liable for loss of money, jewelry, cameras, negotiable papers/securities, electronic/video/photographic equipment, heirlooms, antiques, artifacts, works of art, silverware, irreplaceable books/publications/manuscripts/business documents, precious metals and other similar valuable and commercial effects.

Whoa. That’s a lot of items.

It gets worse. United “prohibits” such items from being place in checked baggage on international trips – presumably to avoid paying for them under its Montreal Convention obligations.


But back to my case. Richard Laermer, who runs a communications firm in New York and rarely if ever checks bags, was flying back home from California on United when the MacBook Pro he’d tucked into his bag disappeared. (He packed it because he was already carrying another Mac and an iPad and his carry-on was beyond filled.)

“Someone — TSA or United, who knows — went into my bag and stole a separate neoprene holder with my computer in it,” he says.

When the luggage arrived on the carousel it was casually left open. (As for TSA, Laermer points out, there was no explanatory note placed in his baggage as they must do when screening chosen suitcases.)

When he asked the airline to pay for his loss, it told him it didn’t cover electronics. Even after a written appeal to a supervisor, the answer remained the same.

I thought this was unusual, given Laermer’s status and the circumstances of the PCs disappearance. So I asked United to take a second look at this computer case.

A representative called me and explained that even United’s very best customers – they’re called Global Services – don’t get a check for missing electronics in their checked luggage.

“Our response was appropriate,” she told me.

And besides, didn’t I know the rules?

Yeah, I do, I told her. I just don’t agree with them.

Laermer is talking with an attorney about his missing computer and has taken his business to Delta. United, meanwhile, is still looking for his lost luggage.

Me? I’m one of the tens of thousands of passengers who don’t trust an airline with my checked bags. Ever. You should be, too.

Also, I’m not sure why airlines can’t take responsibility for some of our valuables. After all, aren’t we paying them extra to transport our luggage?

(Photo: Yu Ta Lee/Flickr)