By Travel columnist
updated 3/21/2006 2:13:04 PM ET 2006-03-21T19:13:04

His flight back from Hawaii hits a snag when his luggage is delayed, and now Al Palmer and his wife are forced to spend the night in a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. Who's to blame for their inconvenience, and who should compensate them?

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Q: We recently bought two sets of airline tickets through our travel agent: one from Minneapolis to Phoenix on Sun Country Airlines, and the other from Phoenix to Maui on ATA Airlines. Our return trip took us through Los Angeles.

No one told us that Sun Country and ATA are in different terminals in Los Angeles, or that the airlines do not have a luggage transfer agreement with one another. As a result, on our way back home, we waited 45 minutes for our luggage at the carousel and raced to catch a shuttle to Sun Country’s terminal. We were five minutes late for our flight and were not allowed to board.

My wife and I had to sleep in the airport that night. The next morning, we had to buy two one-way tickets back to Minneapolis on another airline, which cost us an additional $600.

We contacted ATA and asked them for some sort of compensation for the luggage delay, which caused us to miss our flight. Although they apologized for the delay, and offered us vouchers for two one-way tickets, I think they should reimburse us the $600.

What do you think?

— Al Palmer,Robbinsdale, Minn.

A: I think you might be blaming the wrong company for what happened. Certainly, no one should have to wait 45 minutes for his luggage, so ATA is partly at fault. But you may want to have a little chat with your travel agent about this one.

Here’s the thing: Your agent probably charged you a booking fee for buying your tickets. That means he is not only processing a transaction, but also acting as your professional travel advisor. That’s what you’re paying him for.

Whether this was a big online agency or a mom-and-pop operation, I think it should have apprised you of the terminal situation in Los Angeles and made you aware that there was no luggage transfer agreement between the airlines.

Your connection times in Los Angeles also seem to be way too close. Again, that’s something to bring up with your agent.

But wait. You also bear some responsibility for making sure your trip runs smoothly. Did you review your itinerary after you received it? If you had, you would have noticed the tight connection in Los Angeles, and you could have asked your agent about it. (A 45-minute transfer time is cutting it short, even on a domestic flight — and particularly at a sprawling airport like LAX.)

But back to ATA. Beyond a flight voucher and an apology, does it owe you anything for delivering your luggage late? I reviewed its contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline — and it says nothing about timely delivery of checked luggage (in fact, it only addresses your rights when the luggage isn’t returned at all).

ATA spokesman Rick Hightower said the airline might have been able to help had it known you were making a transfer, but “no record was provided by the travel agency to make our staff aware that the Palmers had a connecting flight with Sun Country, which would have enabled us to potentially draw this matter to the agency’s attention prior to the flight.” He added that the airline makes “every effort” to notify agencies of its so-called “interline” agreements — the deals that govern how luggage is handled between carriers.

ATA is sending you another letter of apology along with two $50 vouchers good toward a future flight.

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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