When airlines won't pay for your damaged luggage
If your check-in luggage is damaged in transit, the airline you flew with is responsible for repairing or replacing it, right?
You'd be right in assuming so, given that it's the fair and just thing to do.
Plus the Consumer Protection Act states that "when a supplier has possession of any ... property belonging to a consumer, the supplier must ... in the handling, safeguarding and utilisation of that property, exercise the degree of care, diligence and skill that can reasonably be expected of a person responsible for managing any property belonging to another person; and is liable to the owner of the property for any loss resulting from a failure to (do so)."
But when it comes to airlines, and low-cost airlines in South Africa in particular, it seems, that's generally not the case. Not unless you pay extra for baggage insurance.
I was recently tipped off by an owner of a luggage business - who asked not to be named - about "a new trend" of airlines refusing to pay for the repair of luggage damaged while in their possession unless the passenger had bought the airline's extra travel insurance option.
"I get a lot of queries from my customers wanting to know where they stand. As a company responsible for your goods in transit surely it is automatically liable for any damage?"
Shortly afterwards, about a month ago, Brendan Dawson of Durban told me about his experience: When he flew on Mango airlines from Cape Town to Durban on October 25, his suitcase arrived at King Shaka International airport looking a lot the worse for wear.
"The multi-directional wheel component had broken off and was lying next to the bag on the carousel, and a section of the plastic hard shell of the bag had also broken off, exposing the inside lining of the bag."
He was directed to the Mango baggage service desk, where a consultant inspected the damage and then asked if he'd taken insurance for the luggage.
"When I said I hadn't, he told me there was nothing he could do, as it was Mango's policy not to accept liability for certain damage - one being when the wheel 'comes off'."
And that's what he wrote on the "customer reference slip" - "Wheel came off".
Dawson was incensed.
"The wheel had not 'come off' - the bag had been negligently handled. It has a crack around the damaged area showing there was trauma at the point of damage."
Many calls and e-mails to Mango later, Dawson had no recourse. The bag is beyond repair and will have to be replaced - at his cost.
So I took up the issue with Mango spokesman Hein Kaiser, pointing out that, regardless of whether passengers chose to pay the airline an extra R25 for insurance for their baggage, they are protected by the consumer act, should their luggage be damaged.
Responding, Kaiser said Mango's terms and conditions of carriage "does limit airline liability to a certain extent".
"This is in line with airline policy and practice across the industry and, as a low cost airline, we offer the additional option to guests to insure their travel and items of a personal nature at a small additional cost."
The complex nature of airport baggage handling - part mechanical and part manual - and factors such as weather conditions could cause wear and tear and "some unintended damage", Kaiser said.
"And bags with protrusions such as wheels may incur greater wear and tear."
Kaiser pointed out that "baggage matters" are dealt with three times in Mango's terms and conditions.
Given that Mango is not alone in its policy on damaged baggage, I turned to the Airlines Association of SA - the organisation which represents the industry - for comment.
But its chief executive Chris Zweigenthal chose not to.
"I am not in a position to make a general statement on such issues," he said.
It's not the only low-cost air ticket policy which falls foul of the consumer act.
The act says a consumer can cancel an advanced booking for a refund, minus a "reasonable" cancellation fee. The airlines will allow you to cancel and re-book another low-cost flight, for an extra fee, but they do not refund air fares, and the legislators turn a blind eye.
SO WHAT TO DO?
• Pay the extra R25 (in Mango's case) for the airline's insurance, so that it will take responsibility for repairing or replacing your bag or suitcase should it get damaged in transit; or
• Make sure your luggage is specified on your short-term insurance policy;
• Do what many frequent flyers do - never check your luggage in: with good planning and discipline you can even travel overseas with only a carry-on bag. I speak from experience. It means no waiting for luggage at carousels, and possibly missing a connecting flight as a result; and no lost or damaged bags in transit.
• If the airport carousel delivers you a damaged suitcase, and the airline refuses to take responsibility for it because you didn't pay for its insurance, lay a complaint with the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud. www.cgso.org.za