Lost items from luggage - what can I expect?
June 27, 2007 8:10 PM   Subscribe

I flew with JetBlue last month. Some small items were missing from my luggage when I arrived at my destination. I am trying to figure out how far I want to go with this to try to 1) get reimbursed for lost/stolen items and 2) get them to make their legal documents reflect their actual policies. I'd like some advice from people who have dealt with airlines and their luggage policies to help me strategize.

When I arrived in Puerto Rico from Burlington Vermont, three things were missing from my luggage. They were all together in one pocket that had a few other things still in it. The missing items were

1. laptop dongle cable to connect my laptop to a LCD projector (annoyingly spendy on a mac)
2. longish USB cable for my camera
3. battery charger for my camera

Total cost for this stuff is about $75-100. No sentimental value. Annoyance value not having this stuff on my work vacation. I filed a claim. Jet Blue denied it saying they don't cover "electronics" according to their Contract of Carriage. My assertion is that the cables and charger aren't electronics as specified in their contract or as that word is commonly understood. Everything else in the section (page 16, section F) they don't cover is something valuable or expensive [rare books, laptops, cameras, jewelry] and there is no "and other stuff like this sort of stuff" language like "computer equipment" for example. When I spoke to them on the phone they said basically "there are a lot of things that aren't in the contract that we don't cover." I said that if that was true, they had to do a better job of writing their legal documents.

In any case, I sent them a written letter saying that they had until July 1 to either reimburse me for my stuff or we could talk about the contract of carriage in small claims court. I got an email from them a few days ago basically saying that while they weren't responsible for reimbursing me for the lost items, they would send me a $150 travel voucher because I had a bad customer experience. While I appreciate that, I still think lots of people are going to be screwed out of their phone chargers and the like because of Jet Blue's poorly written document and loose policies. Also using the voucher means I'd have to fly JetBlue again, which I probably would anyhow, but it still bugs me as a gesture from them.

I have a lawyer -- a friend who is a lawyer -- and she says this one is really up to me. So I was wondering if anyone has taken an airline to small claims court and won, or had any experience arguing with airlines over lost luggage items in any way that they found particularly effective or successful? Is spending $50 on a small claims filing to get back $100 over a principle a really dumb way to spend a few hours this summer? Despite my somewhat aggrieved tone, I could pretty much drop this if it seemed like the right thing to do, I'm just not sure yet what the right thing to do is. Since Jet Blue has been rewriting a lot of their documents after the tarmac incident it seems like a well-timed set of letters might actually do some long term good, but I may just be being ridiculous. Advice welcome, thanks.
posted by jessamyn to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total)
Is spending $50 on a small claims filing to get back $100 over a principle a really dumb way to spend a few hours this summer?

Giving you a voucher is a write-off for them. If enough people stand up and fight back in court, corporations eventually make changes.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:24 PM on June 27, 2007

Your cords might've been taken by the TSA, in one of their cranky moods. In that case, you would certainly not be entitled to reimbursement--I haven't heard of anything like that. IANAL.
posted by nasreddin at 8:31 PM on June 27, 2007

My friend had the opposite problem when she flew to
Austin for SXSW. TSA had inspected her luggage, and when they repacked her suitcase, they threw in a bunch of random stuff - she got a huge "Don't Mess With Texas" beltbuckle, a pair of dirty sweatpants and several belts.

Her bonus gifts were obviously the work of airport security, not the airline itself. Your lost items were also probably the fault of airport security rather than JetBlue. Have you considered complaining to the airport and/or taking them to small claims court?
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 8:32 PM on June 27, 2007

Yeah, I'd say if you HAVE the few hours and the few bucks to fight this, do. These fuckheads get away with murder because not enough people stand up to them. I personally thank you if you do.
posted by tristeza at 8:32 PM on June 27, 2007

TSA people are employed directly by the federal government, so suing the airport won't do much good.
posted by nasreddin at 8:38 PM on June 27, 2007

I agree with Blazecock -- if you have the resources and energy to take them to court, I think you probably should. Their employees should not be stealing from their customers.

I'm just curious, but how will you prove that you actually had those items in your luggage? Admittedly, my only knowledge of small claims court comes from watching The People's Court, but I can't help but wonder if you'll have to prove you were carrying the items in question in order to be successful.
posted by kitty teeth at 8:38 PM on June 27, 2007

Is spending $50 on a small claims filing to get back $100 over a principle a really dumb way to spend a few hours this summer?

What's the principle you're fighting for?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:38 PM on June 27, 2007

I'm all for going after obnoxious, faceless corporations at every opportunity, but in this case I question whether the airline is really the correct target. Despite their obvious douchebaggery in refusing to take responsibility for anything, and in assuming that you'd just be scared off by a vaguely-worded contract, they might actually not be responsible for taking your stuff.

I'd contact the airport(s) involved where you think the stuff might have gone missing, and see if you can figure out what firm they use for security, since I think they're much more likely to have rifled through your stuff than the airline's staff.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:44 PM on June 27, 2007

Response by poster: What's the principle you're fighting for?

The idea that you have to uphold your end of the bargain that you make everyone else agree to, if you're Jet Blue. I'd like them to have a legal document that represents their actual policy. Not a document that says one thing and an impenetrable set of practices that says another. If your employees are saying "Well it's not spelled out in the legal document but we don't cover it anyhow" then your legal document is no good, in my opinion.

My one concern with all of this is whether TSA is actually responsible for my missing cables. I've heard that they're really lenient about reimbursing for lost stuff, but I don't really want to contact them weeks after the fact to test that out. The airport was who I contacted first and they sent me directly to Jet Blue.
posted by jessamyn at 8:47 PM on June 27, 2007

The idea that you have to uphold your end of the bargain that you make everyone else agree to

Yeah, that's worth fighting for.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:52 PM on June 27, 2007

I think it would be a waste of time to go to court. If you plan to take JB again some time, take the voucher. It is worth more to you than the cables. What it is worth to the airline is not relevant. I believe there is a high probability that the TSA had something to do with this; certainly there is enough doubt that a judge may not side with you. One of the first things that struck me was that I thought to myself, "Self, if she has time to go to small claims court over this, she has way too much time on her hands." I assume the opposite is true.

As you aptly put to a complainer in the Grey, "Use your words." Well, my Mom used to tell me as a kid to "pick your battles." This is a battle that will only lead to a Pyrrhic victory. You will have spent a lot of time and emotional energy for what? To get them to spell out more exclusions in their legal docs?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:53 PM on June 27, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks all for the advice so far. I actually got two TSA slips in my bag which was also soaking wet upon my arrival in PR. Not really relevant, but I have questions about how it was treated generally. My clothes were wet and messed up but nothing unfixable.
posted by jessamyn at 8:57 PM on June 27, 2007

Their contract of carriage only covers the damages or loss caused while they had custody of the luggage (see 18(C)).

If your other items were not damaged, it seems unlikely that the luggage spilled out on the tarmac or inside the plane. It seems more likely that the items went missing during the security screening, which is the TSA's fault.

In any event, if you want to sue in small claims, can you prove in court by (at least) a preponderance of the evidence that it was JetBlue that lost your stuff, and not the TSA?
posted by falconred at 9:01 PM on June 27, 2007

Oh, well now reading your most recently reply, the clothes being all wet does sound more likely that the bagge handlers may be at fault!

So yeah, sue away :)
posted by falconred at 9:03 PM on June 27, 2007

Eeee, Jessamyn! I had the remote for the parking gate stolen when I had work done on my car. That said, I think ANYTHING electronic or valuable goes in the carry-on. Under $1K, I'm not sure there's much one can do.
posted by brujita at 9:37 PM on June 27, 2007

This is why we need a real Traveler's Bill of Rights. I doubt you will do better than a voucher, because the airlines are notoriously bad about this kind of thing AND because it may be TSA's fault. But if fighting for it helps brings about change, I'm all for it.

Go for court, if you can spare the time/expenses. Otherwise, take the voucher.
posted by misha at 9:58 PM on June 27, 2007

Personally, I'd accept the voucher and move on; picking your battles AND the TSA likely being the guilty party being nthd by me here. I'll also say a contributing factor to the lost cables is that they were in a pocket; since the TSA (presumably) had to dig 'em out to check 'em, they had to lay them out on a table or whatnot, increasing the odds that some of it would not make it back in.

So going forward, I recommend:

#1: if you have an electronic device that you don't want to see stolen or damaged, put it in your carry-on;

#2: for cords, cables and other necessities that aren't really theft/damage targets, keep them all by themselves in one prominent compartment of your checked luggage (if you don't carry 'em on) -- this way if the TSA does elect to investigate further, they can do so by cracking the comparment and viewing what's in there, unencumbered by clothes and other clutter.

These two things sum up my electronic-when-traveling strategy, and it hasn't failed me to date.
posted by davejay at 10:07 PM on June 27, 2007

You gave your bag to Jetblue, they're responsible for it. Let them go after the TSA if they want to.
posted by zippy at 12:40 AM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

You're after 2 things and I'm not sure they can both be obtained from a court claim.
I think any law suit for reimbursement is more likely than not going to fail both because of lack of evidence and the fact that your objecting to 'electronic equipment' definition is probably going to be found to be a specious argument, in which case the suit would be thrown out because they have not transgressed the contract.

As for the definition, I suppose I would suggest you do some research on 'electronic equipment' when mentioned in airline contracts (and maybe even in a wider context) to see if there are any other cases where for instance, 'cables and connectors' are listed separately. If you can show that commonly used contractual definitions of 'electronic equipment' (as opposed to what you yourself think it does or should mean) donot include cables and connectors, then you will have something to put in a stern letter to JB asking that they change their contract or at the very least, add a definition that better clarifies whether or not 'electronic equipment' implies 'cables and connectors'.

In other words, I read the contract and it's not too legalese and although not precise for your situation, it doesn't seem so out of hand such that any court or airline governing body would likely give directions to change the wording. I understand being pissed off but I think I would take the voucher, write them another letter asking that they add a definition and leave it at that.
posted by peacay at 12:45 AM on June 28, 2007

If the voucher is transferable you could probably e-bay it for more cash than you lost in goods. Then you wouldn't have any incentive to fly Jet-Blue again other than their really cheap prices.

Having been screwed over a lot by airlines, and having been bumped to first class, I think it all evens out eventually. Also, I'm not sure a judge wouldn't be pissed at you for bringing a case to court when Jet-Blue gave you a coupon (I admit it isn't cash, and you do deserve cash). Not that I'm a judge or anything, and who knows, the judge has probably been screwed over by the airlines in the past too.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:55 AM on June 28, 2007

The contract says "Carrier will not accept for carriagge and assumes no responsibility or liability for... video, audio and other electronic equipment (including computers, software or music devices), CDs, DVDs... and similar valuables contained in checked or unchecked baggage."

First, the question of whether the items you mentioned are "electronic equipment." If you look up "electronic" in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Ed., it says "of, relating to, or utilizing devices constructed or working by the methods or principles of electronics." A cable or charger for something that you acknowledge to be an electronic device is certainly of or relating to it. Seems it would be even harder to argue that it is not "equipment."

Even if you convince the judge that, say, your dongle is not electronic equipment, I think it would still count as a "valuable" for which they have no liability. Consider that things as inexpensive as CDs are listed as "valuables" in the contract. I think that if three tiny items are worth $100, they have to be valuables. If they weren't valuables, how could it be worth you suing over?

Anyway, I think this case is a loser, unless you want to rely on the nuisance factor being such that they won't bother to reply to your suit. Take the vouchers.

As far as changing JetBlue's documentation, I don't think that's such a big deal either. You could always have asked them whether a battery charger would be accepted for carriage. They would have said no. You would then have been free to contract with any other airline, but they all would have said the same thing. In the end, your only choice is to carry them on board, or be resigned to their possible loss.
posted by grouse at 5:58 AM on June 28, 2007

Call TSA's lost and found @ Burlington (802-863-8178) and see what their process is. Since you had TSA slips in there I think that'd be the place to start since you have no indication JetBlue went in your bag while you know TSA did.

Then, depending on how it all rolls, be sure to update this, educate JetBlue on how this should have gone, and make sure they know it's all posted to a very popular website and will continue to be but wouldn't it'd be nice if you could post a further update about steps they are taking to deal with this more appropriately in the future and could they please work with you on that.

David Neeleman is the president and I'll bet he'd be interested in hearing from you. You could address a letter to him at the HQ address or have a look at how they format their email addresses and send him an email.
posted by jwells at 6:09 AM on June 28, 2007

I'd also recommend sending a letter to the president of jetblue, and maybe cc: consumerist; frankly, the last thing jetblue needs is bad publicity, after their flight-delay debacle a few months ago.
posted by inigo2 at 6:42 AM on June 28, 2007

Response by poster: David Neeleman is actually the guy I sent my letter to. That was what netted me a phone call back saying my concern had been transferred to the guy in charge of baggage and the voucher [non-transferable] in my email. As I said before, I'm not at all pissed about this, I just feel like the way they handled it was lame and since they are in damage control mode, I've been considering if there is a way to get this sort of thing on their "to do" list as they are considering, according to their website, some sort of baggage bill of rights. I've really appreciated everyone's advice and impressions of what the right way to go about this is and it looks like a call to TSA is in order as part of this whole process.
posted by jessamyn at 6:47 AM on June 28, 2007

I vote TSA as well. I had a friend who worked for TSA, and she affirmed that they would often steal smallish things out of luggage because people wouldn't bother doing anything about it.

I say, yes, it totally and completely sucks, but it's probably not worth your time and effort.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:52 AM on June 28, 2007

You could write your story up for the Consumerist, they post this kind of stuff a lot and it brings the issue to a wider, angrier audience.
posted by look busy at 6:53 AM on June 28, 2007

Jeez, the president thing is usually my ace in the hole. The only other thing I can think of is trumping it up to the media (blogs included), but I've never gone that route. So... how many of the people reading this have a blog or website?

JetBlue might jump at the chance to become the internet's defacto airline choice if we gave it to them. They've an enormous opportunity here if they play it right.

Jessamyn, care to take a stab at the text we can put on our sites? I'm in.
posted by jwells at 8:11 AM on June 28, 2007

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