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Beat the lost luggage blues by knowing your rights

HAVE you ever stood at the baggage carousel on arriving at an airport, waiting patiently while all those around you spot their bags and lurch forward to grab them?

After a while it's only you and some other sad-looking individual standing on the other side of the carousel. You look at each other as if to say "yep, everyone is gone, so we better face it, our bags aren't coming"?

It's certainly happened to me more than once and interestingly each time my bag went missing I had transferred through Heathrow Airport. It's interesting because last year British Airways were losing a record 25,000 items each month at Heathrow. That's an awful lot of holiday shorts. It's also an awful lot of compensation that BA should pay to the luggageless passengers, but I wonder how many asked and how many got it.

Earlier this year the European Consumer Centre (ECC) surveyed 100 people at Dublin Airport. They asked three questions relating to cancellation, delay and lost luggage.

The question relating to luggage asked if you are entitled to compensation from the airline concerned for lost, damaged or delayed luggage. Only a third of those surveyed answered correctly that yes, you are.

The most common incorrect answer was that you are only entitled to compensation if you had travel insurance.

In fact, if your bag is lost, delayed or even damaged, you are entitled to financial compensation under the terms of an international piece of legislation called the Montreal Convention.

Under this you can claim up to 1,000 Special Drawing Rights (SDR) which is approximately €1,100.

If you find yourself gazing at an empty carousel when everyone else has already picked up their bags and left, the first thing you should do is head to the airline's information desk in the baggage hall and fill out a Property Irregularity Report (PIR).

Here you'll have to tell the airline what type of bag you have, the colour and size and if you had a name tag on the bag. This form proves your loss and will enable the airline to search for the bag. In fairness to the airlines, the majority of bags are reunited with their owners within a day or two, but to be on the safe side, keep a copy of this form for yourself.

However, the PIR form is only used to help trace your bag. It is not a complaint form, nor is it a request for compensation. This you must do separately yourself.

The Montreal Convention is clear on how you should complain and sets down time limits. If your bag is damaged you must complain to the airline in writing within seven days and if your bag is delayed you have to write your letter within 21 days of receiving the bag.

How you're supposed to know all this I'm not sure, and airlines aren't great at telling you. In fact, very often passengers seek compensation outside of these time limits and the airline often responds by saying they cannot give you anything as you contacted them too late.

Even if you get your letter in within the time constraints, don't think you're going to immediately get that much money for your missing bag though.

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An ECC spokesperson says "the legislation does not provide details as to how the compensation should be calculated, or whether receipts or other proof of purchases should be submitted by the consumer when making a claim. Airlines vary in their response to luggage-related claims and in many cases the results are unsatisfactory for the consumer".

This is where the rub is. You are definitely entitled to compensation but the legislation just isn't detailed or clear enough on how the sum should be calculated.

When you're submitting your complaint letter looking for compensation you should include a copy of the PIR form, evidence of damage to the bag if that's the case and receipts for necessary expenditure or for the contents of your bag.

But it's up to you to prove the loss. If your bag was delayed, let's say on arrival at your destination, but you receive it two days later, then it's pretty easy to collect receipts for toiletries and some clothes you may have needed in the meanwhile. But if your bag is gone forever, then it's unlikely you'll have receipts for the contents, when mostly the bag will be full of clothes you've had for ages. The legislation doesn't say whether you need receipts or not but most airlines ask for them.

You can get credit-card statements that relate to stuff in your bag from your bank, although there may be a small fee (about 20¢) if asking for a statement more than two years old.

You will undoubtedly not find statements covering everything in the bag, but you should still submit as much as you can, covering the equivalent cost of the lost items.

Often however, just submitting the cost of replacement items when your luggage has been lost won't do, you have to prove the cost of the actual loss, not the replacement.

And the lesson to be learned is that you should never travel with valuable items such as cameras, jewellery, money and laptops in your checked-in luggage. In fact, most airlines advise this in their terms and conditions.

You could also consider making a 'Special Declaration of Interest' at the airport. This is where, for a fee, you can declare to the airline that you are checking in goods of a particular value. You will then have the right to a higher compensation amount than normal if something goes wrong.

So you might think that despite the obstacles to claiming adequate compensation from the airline for lost luggage, you can claim on your travel insurance instead, provided it covers lost luggage. Yes you can, but you still need to submit proof of loss.

Joe Meade, the Financial Services Ombudsman, deals with complaints that consumers cannot resolve with their insurer. He says that most consumers have no idea what their travel policy contains in relation to any exclusions or excess charged for lost luggage.

He believes that "it is not fair and reasonable to expect a consumer to retain a proof of purchase for every item they purchase".

"That said, I also consider it appropriate that insurance companies have to take appropriate measures to ensure that a claim can be substantiated."

Mr Meade adds that their policy of requiring receipts should be "more clearly outlined on the policy schedule under the personal items section rather than towards the end of the policy terms and conditions booklet".

Finally, remember that your travel insurance may also cover stolen items from your luggage. But you may not get anything if you have not been responsible in safeguarding your luggage. For example, in one case where a woman had left her purse -- which was subsequently stolen -- unattended on a plane, her claim for €700 was refused due to lack of care on her part and this was upheld by the ombudsman.

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