Key Takeaways

  • In general, an airline’s liability for lost luggage is limited under international agreements.
  • Which international agreement applies depends on the place of departure and the destination of the flight.
  • Under one international agreement, the Warsaw Convention, an airline’s liability is limited to about $33 for each kilogram of checked baggage.
  • It may be worth purchasing travel insurance that covers lost baggage, to be safe.

A Trip to Paris

This article is dedicated to a member of LegalVision’s IT development team. Over the Christmas period, he went on a holiday to his native France. While he was in Paris, he booked his ticket back to Australia on a Chinese airline through a French company. After touching down in Sydney, he waited for his baggage to appear on the conveyer belt. He waited and waited some more, before accepting that his eight-kilogram suitcase – full of clothes and Christmas presents – would not arrive.

He tried to make contact with the airline for a few days. He finally received a response, apologising for losing the baggage and giving him a choice: either he could continue the search for his suitcase or he could accept compensation of about $20 for each kilogram of lost luggage ($160 in total). This was less than the cost of the suitcase itself. He estimated that the value of the bag and its contents exceeded $1000.

Back in the office, he asked me what he should do. I’m not an aviation lawyer, and I’ve been lucky always to collect my luggage at the end of flight – so I didn’t know the answer off the top of my head.

It was time for some research. Here’s what I found out.

Which Laws Apply?

In most case, an airline’s liability for damaged, delayed or lost baggage is governed by one of two international agreements.

First, there is the Warsaw Convention of 1929 (which has since been amended by a few international protocols). When it comes to liability for lost baggage, the Warsaw Convention leans towards the airlines, rather than the passengers.

Almost 70 years later came the Montreal Convention of 1999, which is considerably more favourable to passengers.

To determine which Convention applies, you need to look at the country of departure and the country of destination. If the same Convention applies in both places, then that Convention will apply to the flight. To date, there are 118 state parties to the Montreal Convention, as well as the European Union. So the Montreal Convention will apply to flights between these places.

However, if the Montreal Convention doesn’t apply in either the place of departure or destination, it is likely that the Warsaw Convention will apply.

Limits on Compensation

Compensation under both Conventions is expressed in terms of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), a form of foreign exchange asset maintained by the International Monetary Fund. At the time of writing, one SDR was worth just under two Australian dollars.

An airline’s liability to compensate for lost baggage is:

  • Where the Warsaw Convention applies, 17 SDRs (about $33) per kilogram for checked luggage and 332 SDRs (about $645) for cabin baggage; and
  • Where the Montreal Convention applies, 1,131 SDRs (about $2,200) for checked baggage and cabin baggage together.

The Montreal Convention provides for the limits on airline liability. The Convention is reviewed periodically and adjusted for inflation. 

Some Tips

Below are some quick tips to help you with your lost baggage: 

  • Inform the Airline. As soon as you realise that your baggage has been lost, the first step should be to contact the airline. This is important because time limits may apply to baggage claims.
  • Check the Terms and Conditions. An airline’s terms and conditions will generally cover liability for lost baggage (like these Conditions of Carriage from Qantas). Unsurprisingly, most airlines’ terms and conditions will reflect the liability limits in the Conventions.
  • Get Insurance. Purchasing travel insurance is an easy way to provide additional cover for lost baggage. Just make sure the policy covers lost baggage before you buy it!
  • Get Social! In some cases, passengers may have trouble contacting the airline to make a lost baggage claim – particularly if the airline is based overseas. I have seen some great examples of frustrated passengers taking to social media to tell their stories, prompting the airlines to finally take steps to find the baggage or provide compensation. This might be an option if you have an unresponsive airline. But we recommend you try contacting the airline first, and make sure you don’t say anything misleading about the airline in your social media posts.

Questions? Extra tips? Tag us on Twitter @legalvision_au and let us know.

Thomas Kaldor

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