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.

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