United Airlines misleads passengers on baggage claims

May 20 2012 by Ellen Roseman

Have you heard of Dave Carroll’s viral video, United Breaks Guitars? The musician spent nine months in a customer service maze, trying to get the airline to take responsibility for damaging his $3,500 instrument.

When he struck out, he wrote a song saying United was unfair to deny compensation because he hadn’t complained within 24 hours.

Now we know that United was misleading customers. There’s no such thing as 24-hour period for baggage complaints under international conventions.

Gabor Lukacs flew on United a year ago and found the name tag missing from his suitcase. The airline said it wasn’t responsible for normal wear and tear, which includes damage or loss to protruding parts.

Though he did get a $15 refund, Lukacs decided to challenge United’s denial of responsibility for normal wear and tear and for baggage complaints filed after 24 hours. The CTA agreed with him in a decision released last week.

Passengers can complain to a carrier about damage to checked baggage, at the latest, within seven days , the government agency said. They can’t be denied compensation because they didn’t do so within a short window of 24 hours.

Gabor Lukacs sent me a copy of the CTA’s decision after I wrote about Dave Carroll’s memoir of consumer advocacy in his new book.

I find it hard to believe that a U.S. airline was enforcing an illegal policy for years. How many other people lost out on reimbursement?

United suffered a hit when Carroll posted his first video on youTube in July 2009. Almost three years later, the company seems to have learned nothing from the experience.

United soars above its rivals in complaints, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s monthly rankings. The Untied gripe website had more complaints in April than in any month before.

Lukacs is a fighter when it comes to lost and damaged luggage. He successfully challenged WestJet Airlines’ $250 limit on liability and Air Canada’s no-fault policy.

“I view myself as an airline passenger’s rights advocate,” says Lukacs, adding that he travels frequently to academic conferences and to visit family in Europe.

When asked for advice, he tells people to keep detailed notes and to record their calls to customer service. If an agent refuses to comply with your request, ask him or her to put it in writing. You can also create a written record of the incident.

Learn what the law says about the issue under dispute And learn what your rights are.

“I’ve seen cases where airlines’ trained employees provided false or misleading information to passengers about their rights.This underscores the importance of knowing one’s rights,” he says.

Finally, if all else fails, he urges people to consider calling company directors at their homes and asking for help. Do it politely and at a reasonable time of day.

Lukacs and Carroll use different tactics to highlight flaws in airlines’ baggage policies. Both deserve thanks for fighting for our rights.