Who’s responsible for this pilfered luggage?

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By Christopher Elliott

Beth Graham’s daughter’s luggage is pilfered, but it’s not clear who is responsible — the TSA or her airline.


My 18-year-old daughter recently flew from Portland, Oregon, to Jacksonville, Florida, connecting through Atlanta. Her flight on Delta Air Lines was delayed more than three hours into the wee hours of the morning.

When she arrived home, a book with sentimental value, which she had been given for graduation, was gone from her luggage. Also missing: three books she purchased using her graduation money (she’s a photographer, so they were expensive nature photography books) and all of the souvenirs she had purchased for family members.

She was devastated about her pilfered luggage. I have provided all kinds of documentation to Delta and TSA, but no one is responding to me. Delta told me it was the TSA’s responsibility to handle the claim. But the TSA keeps passing it between the airports she passed through on that trip.

I just want my daughter to be able to replace the books that were stolen. Unfortunately, the souvenirs can’t be replaced at this point. We’re talking about $300 here, but neither company is being responsive! I know it’s a small amount of money, but it’s the sentimental items that are so devastating. I hope you can help. — Beth Graham, Fleming Island, Florida


I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s luggage. The TSA and your airline should have done a better job of preventing this incident and handling your daughter’s claim. The TSA is responsible for checked baggage from the time it is presented for screening until it’s been cleared after screening. The rest of the time, it’s the airline’s department.

Given that the TSA had control of her luggage for such a short amount of time, I might have started the claims process with Delta. If it bounced you back to the TSA, you might have appealed to one of Delta’s customer service managers. I list their names and contact information on my site.

This game of pingpong between the TSA and an airline is fairly unusual. The trick to fixing it is to keep a detailed paper trail — no phone calls — and to copy both the agency and the airline on your correspondence, to ensure that they aren’t telling you different stories. Apparently, Delta strongly believes the TSA had your luggage when it was pilfered. (Here’s our guide on handling the TSA.)

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I started by asking the TSA about your case. How could it be sure it didn’t have your daughter’s missing items? A TSA inspector in Portland called you. He said the agency knows because it has video surveillance of all TSA bag screenings. By providing the TSA a time and luggage description, it was able to watch the footage of your daughter’s bag being searched and all items returned.

Delta often passes the buck

The TSA inspector told you that Delta often “passes the buck.” They are claiming that it doesn’t handle the luggage after TSA inspections, except to load it on the plane.

You appealed this to Delta’s executive contacts, noting that you now had video surveillance of the screening. A Delta representative called you and said that while the airline doesn’t agree that the TSA was not responsible. It would write your daughter a check to cover the items taken from her luggage.

Complaints about air travel are not new to us. Here’s the best way to get your travel industry complaint resolved. And if that doesn’t work, you know where to find my advocacy team.

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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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