By Travel columnist

His fragile artwork is damaged on a US Airways flight, and now Kevin Boyle wants to be compensated. But what is he entitled to? And how can he prevent this from happening again?

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Q: I am writing in regards to damage incurred to my checked luggage on a US Airways flight.

I explained to the agent at the ticket counter in Frankfurt that I had a glass painting from Poland in my checked bag. I told the agent I was concerned about the handling of the item, and she put four red “Fragile” stickers on the outside of the bag.

When I inspected my bag in Pittsburgh, not only was a screw missing from the handle of the bag, but the glass painting was also cracked in several places. After clearing customs, I immediately went to the baggage claim office, where I described the situation to a supervisor.

I was told that the airline’s policy limits liability for fragile items, as defined in the ticket jacket. When I spoke to the ticket agent in Frankfurt (before I had been given my ticket jacket) this exclusion was never mentioned to me. If the agent had explained that US Airways was not liable for the item, I would gladly have taken the painting on the plane as carry-on luggage.

I believe the agent’s actions gave me false confidence in the airline’s ability - even its intention - to protect the contents of my luggage. Not only was the painting damaged, but so was the luggage itself. So much for “Handle with Care.”

I am requesting reimbursement for the purchase amount of the painting and for the shipping charges I need to pay for a replacement. I have tried unsuccessfully to resolve this dispute with US Airways. Can you help?

— Kevin Boyle,Pittsburgh

A: There’s nothing as upsetting as entrusting your valuable belongings to an airline, only to have them arrive in several pieces. I can’t bear to watch baggage handlers loading an aircraft. They seem to delight in shot-putting the luggage into the cargo hold while passengers watch helplessly from their window seats.

The US Airways baggage office is correct, of course. The airline’s liability is limited under international law and under its own contract of carriage, and it is well within its rights to deny you any compensation, even though you weren’t aware of the rules.

This is by no means exclusively a US Airways problem. Every airline has issues with damaged, delayed and pilfered luggage — just check out the Department of Transportation’s “Air Travel Consumer Report” to see your favorite airline’s luggage-handling record.

I asked US Airways to take another look at your grievance. I heard back from a supervisor who agreed that things had gone wrong.

The airline, he said, should have clearly explained the liability limitations for damage to fragile items packed in passengers’ luggage. It should also have taken the extra step of asking questions about the fragility of the painting, and should have suggested that you carry the item onboard if it seemed likely that damage would occur in the course of normal handling.

Although the carrier typically doesn’t pay for damage to fragile items packed in customer luggage, US Airways did agree to send you a $400 travel voucher that can be used toward a future ticket purchase.

I think the US Airways response is admirable, but I do wonder how the carrier defines “normal handling.” The supervisor didn’t address the missing screw on the handle of your luggage, a circumstance that suggests to me that your bag was roughed up a little. He also didn’t say whether US Airways ticket agents are trained — or will be trained — to clearly state their liability policy to customers like you.

You did almost everything you could to resolve this grievance. I like the fact that you copied the Aviation Consumer Protection division of the Department of Transportation on the letter you sent me; that definitely gets an airline’s attention, because the government reports the number of complaints it receives each month. Having a lot of gripes on your record is embarrassing, and at a time when airlines are doing everything they can keep customer confidence, this is exactly the kind of thing they’re trying to avoid.

I probably would have stood my ground at the baggage claim office, rather than waiting until I got home to file a complaint. Once you leave an airport and begin dealing with an airline’s customer service department, your chances of resolving a problem plummet. Supervisors are authorized to offer compensation, and I suspect that you might have gotten as good a deal from the baggage claim office as you did from getting me involved.

Next time you want to transport anything fragile, don’t check it in your luggage. It doesn’t matter what a ticket agent tells you. If it’s breakable, trust no one.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.


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