Airlines Barred From Delivering Lost Bags

Did your bag go missing en route to Moscow? Don't expect the airline to deliver it to your doorstep.

Passengers are being told that they have to make the trip back to the airport to claim their baggage after authorities abruptly decided to start enforcing a five-year-old regulation that requires passengers to escort their own bags through customs.

The change is already creating headaches for people traveling to Russia, and an air industry expert could not recall another European country that requires passengers to pick up their own bags.

Travelers with missing luggage have typically signed waivers allowing airlines to take the bags through Russian customs once they are found and then deliver them to the owners.

These waivers, however, do not give the airlines the legal right to carry the luggage through customs, said Alexei Fomin, a customs officer at Sheremetyevo Airport.

"Before, it was just all being done illegally," Fomin told The Moscow Times in an interview.

The authorities are now enforcing a 2003 government regulation that says passengers must clear lost luggage through customs themselves unless they give power of attorney to another person or legal entity, Federal Customs Service spokeswoman Natalya Semikina said.

Airlines that have been delivering lost baggage without power of attorney have been violating the law, Semikina said.

Neither customs officials nor the airlines interviewed for this report could say exactly when the recent enforcement of the law began, offering estimates ranging from late November to last Wednesday.

The airlines, however, insisted they were not informed of the original 2003 law and placed the blame squarely on authorities for lack of enforcement.

Delta Air Lines had previously asked passengers to compose a handwritten note giving permission to the airline to clear the lost bags, which were then delivered at its expense, said Leonid Tarasov, head of Delta's operations in Russian and the CIS.

With the rules now being enforced, however, airlines will be unable to offer such a service because their are no notaries public in the customs control area who could sign off on power of attorney rights, Tarasov said.

"They understand that there is no notary there," Tarasov said. "That's how Russian laws work: It's easier to ban something than to solve a problem."

If customs officials have not been enforcing the law for several years, "it's not the fault of the airlines," said Aage Dünhaupt, Lufthansa's head of corporate communications in Europe. "We always abide by the law."

Lufthansa will compensate passengers for taxi expenses to travel to the airport from the Moscow area to collect lost luggage, Dünhaupt said by telephone from London.

Swiss International Air Lines will do the same for its passengers, said spokeswoman Yulia Fyodorova.

British Airways will "apologize to our customers and pay compensation for their unplanned travel" to the airport, said spokeswoman Victoria Mezhenina.

Delta, however, will not be able to compensate passengers for trips due to the cumbersome tax paperwork that would be involved, Tarasov said.

Not all airlines were aware of the ban of delivering lost baggage. Aeroflot spokeswoman Irina Dannenberg said the airline had been delivering lost luggage up until the New Year and that she was unaware of any changes. She said she could not say whether Aeroflot might compensate passengers who have to retrieve their lost bags.

The changes are catching passengers by surprise. Simone, a German citizen who asked that only her first name be used, said she learned about the new rule from a customs official after standing in a long line at the lost luggage desk at Domodedovo Airport on Jan. 12.

Simone said she spent three hours on the telephone with Lufthansa the next day trying to establish her suitcase's whereabouts and another four hours the following day driving to Domodedovo and back.

"With six years expat experience in Russia … I am able to deal with such situations, but there were many foreigners losing their nerves," she said by e-mail Friday.

In Europe, it is the responsibility of the airline to deliver delayed baggage to the address indicated by the passenger, said Stephanie Lericollais, a spokeswoman for the Association of European Airlines.

She said she had never heard of a system in Europe or the United States in which travelers are required to collect their lost luggage themselves. "It's more comfortable if luggage is delivered home because the airport can be far away," Lericollais said by telephone from Brussels.

Still, there appear to be ways to skirt the new rule, though not necessarily legally.

A Moscow-based businessman said in an interview Friday that one of his employees flew to Moscow from abroad in mid-December and caught a connecting flight to Siberia. The airline lost the employee's luggage, and despite the fact that he was already in Siberia, customs officials demanded that he return to Moscow to claim the baggage, said the businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Needless to say, the problem was only solved by the exchange of money," he said.

Ezekiel Pfeifer and Carl Schreck contributed to this report.