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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Luggage Goes AWOL

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A steady stream of reds, blues and greens flowed by on the carousel in front of Yulia Lyapunova. Each minute that passed by without her blue suitcase with red stripes sailing toward her, Lyapunova's heart sank a little deeper.

The feeling is familiar to anyone who has checked a bag through while flying anywhere. The question of whether it will arrive -- preferably intact -- hovers overhead like an ominous cloud until the recognizable belongings are in sight.

For Lyapunova, a 26-year-old who works in the fashion industry, the answer to that question was not the one she was hoping for. All the professional attire and documents critical to her upcoming business meetings were nowhere to be seen after two hours of keeping a trained eye on the bags thrown into her view.

In that foggy, slightly on-edge state of mind that often accompanies international travel, she approached an Air France office to inquire as to the whereabouts of her luggage. The response: Madrid -- not exactly the next town over from Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris, where she had just arrived.

"It was very bad," she recalled. "I asked them, if they lost my luggage, would they give me money to buy things I needed, because it wasn't my fault."

But she was told that she would have to write a letter to the appropriate office and if the cash were to be sent her way, it would not be for another two or three days -- about the time that she would eventually be reunited with her bag.

Though she scrambled to find a suitable sartorial solution, and did her best to work around the lack of key documents, when the bag eventually arrived it was all but too late.

Similar situations have played out for thousands of customers. While Lyapunova was lucky enough to get her luggage back in the end, plenty of others end up in the even less pleasant category of luggage considered to be permanently lost.


Marina Lystseva / Itar-Tass
Airlines are responsible for your luggage only until it goes onto the carousel -- so don't expect much if it gets stolen there.
Lyapunova's bag was one of about 30 million that are "mishandled" each year according to SITA, a Geneva-based technology company that sells airlines baggage-tracking software. Most are located within 24 hours. Still, about 200,000 annually are considered "lost" -- a designation assigned after about 14 days of not locating a piece of luggage.

Confusion surrounding the fallout of the terrorism scare at London's Heathrow International Airport, which prompted a tightening of restrictions on carry-on luggage, has passengers sending an increased amount of checked luggage. The amount of lost luggage skyrocketed in its wake as there were not enough luggage handlers to deal with the influx of baggage. Last August, 107,731 more missing bags were reported by the U.S. Transportation Department compared with the same period one year earlier. By September, the number had increased by another 183,234 more than the previous year -- a 93 percent jump.

International laws that govern the handling of lost bags make it clear that airlines bringing passengers to their final destination are to be held accountable for the bag until it hits the carousel. Thus, they are responsible for compensation for the ones that go missing.

The maximum airlines are required to dole out for lost bags under the Montreal Convention is 1,000 Special Drawing Rights -- the value of which will fluctuate with currency rates (currently 1 SDR is equal to $1.52).

Domodedovo International Airport, as part of its lost luggage policy, urges passengers to submit a form describing the lost luggage along with the airline ticket and luggage registration tags. Airport officials will issue a confirmation, and the luggage will be searched for within 21 days for domestic flights and 90 days for international flights.

"If the luggage is not found during this time, it is declared lost and you become eligible for reimbursement," the airport's policy states.

Many airlines that fly into Moscow have implemented tracking systems that allow passengers to use a reference number to track the luggage in question via Internet or by phone. For some airlines, if the luggage does not turn up within five days of submitting a Property Irregularity Report, a more intensive tracking system kicks into gear.

If a bag is declared lost, however, a claim must be submitted to the airline in a second, very detailed form. The form will be used by the airline to assess the amount of cash to be awarded to the passenger. In most cases, the airline sends claim forms to a central office -- the beginning point of all discussions about fair compensation. Airlines may take issue with the estimated value of belongings, as they use the lost items' depreciated value rather than the cost of purchasing replacements. Attempts to fabricate "lost" items do not fly with airline officials. Airlines may ask for receipts if they see high figures listed on the forms.

"If you're tempted to exaggerate your claim, don't," advises the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the United States Department of Transportation.

But don't expect to get the agreed-upon money right away -- it can take as long as three months to arrive. From time to time, airlines offer to give a ticket voucher for more than the agreed-upon payment, but there can be limiting restrictions that make the ticket not worthwhile, DOT warns.

Airlines are also quick to warn passengers that checking through certain valuable items is not worth the risk as they do not claim responsibility for a cadre of lost or damaged possessions.

"Items such as cameras, jewelry, cash, bottled liquids, business papers, laptops and other electrical items should be taken on board and kept in your possession," Maria Shlyakhtova, a spokeswoman for British Airways, said by e-mail.

Also worth noting: airlines often set a deadline and can nullify claims that come in after that date.

Lyapunova said that while she pressed hard to get a cash advance from the airline right away, and was unable to get that, she has since given up and is not filling out any reimbursement forms, considering the extra money she had to spend a sunk cost.

"I understand that it's a normal situation for them," she said. claim, don't," advises the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the United States Department of Transportation.

But don't expect to get the agreed-upon money right away -- it can take as long as three months to arrive. From time to time, airlines offer to give a ticket voucher for more than the agreed-upon payment, but there can be limiting restrictions that make the ticket not worthwhile, DOT warns.

Airlines are also quick to warn passengers that checking through certain valuable items is not worth the risk, as they do not claim responsibility for a cadre of lost or damaged possessions.

"Items such as cameras, jewelry, cash, bottled liquids, business papers, laptops and other electrical items should be taken on board and kept in your possession," Maria Shlyakhtova, a spokeswoman for British Airways, said by e-mail.

Also worth noting: airlines often set a deadline and can nullify claims that come in after that date.

Lyapunova said that while she pressed hard to get a cash advance from the airline right away, and was unable to get that, she has since given up and is not filling out any reimbursement forms, considering the extra money she had to spend a sunk cost.

"I understand that it's a normal situation for them," she said.