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Can airlines break your suitcase handle mechanism yet deny responsibility?

Our consumer reporter helps two readers

08 March 2019 - 08:08 By wendy knowler
A local airline has agreed to replace a woman's suitcase that was damaged between Johannesburg and Cape Town on Sunday.
A local airline has agreed to replace a woman's suitcase that was damaged between Johannesburg and Cape Town on Sunday.

It was close to midnight when Liezl Africa finally pulled her suitcase off the carousel at Cape Town International Airport on Sunday, her flight out of Johannesburg's OR Tambo airport having been delayed by two hours. Almost two hours.

For delays of between two and three hours, Mango gives its passengers R250 compensation vouchers, but in this case, the airline posted its delay as 01h59min, meaning no-one got vouchers.

“There has to be a cut-off period, a line in the sand, so to speak,” said airline spokesman Cecil Hutchings later.

What Africa did get was a suitcase with a broken retractable handle. It wouldn’t pull out from the body of the case.

I witnessed her struggle, having been on the same flight, and urged her to report the damage to staff at the Mango counter in the arrivals hall.

But there was no-one there. So I gave her my card, urged her to email the airline and copy me.

I know how this goes.

Airlines tell passengers that they don’t take any responsibility for things that protrude from checked-in baggage, including handles.

Mango’s terms and conditions of carriage read: “We will not accept responsibility or pay compensation for damage caused to protruding items or parts of baggage, including but not limited to wheels, locks, padlocks, zippers and extractable handles protruding from or attached to bags…”

The fact that the handles were not protruding when the suitcase was checked in is often overlooked.

Last October Lauren Gardner had the same experience on arriving at OR Tambo airport on a British Airways flight from Cape Town.

When she told BA ground staff that her suitcase handle was jammed inside her suitcase, but had worked perfectly up until check-in, a woman pointed at a sign on the wall and said they did not cover damage to handles.

She took up the issue with the airline via email later, sending photographic evidence of the suitcase having been buckled, but fared no better.

The response she got was: “While the utmost care is applied in the handling process by our staff and third party suppliers, owing to the large volumes of baggage and at the speed at which they must be processed, protruding, non-retractable parts such as wheels and handles are more susceptible to damage.

“It is owing to this that we therefore stipulate in our General Conditions of Carriage that we don’t accept liability should these protruding, non-retractable parts get damaged in the process.”

This despite the fact that the handle was not protruding at the time of check-in and that it had been damaged INSIDE the suitcase due to manhandling.

After my intervention, Gardner’s suitcase was replaced by the airline.

Happily, Africa’s suitcase is also going to be replaced.

Hutchings said: “In this instance the damage to the suitcase appears to have broken the handle and Mango will replace this for the guest.”

Regarding the unmanned desk, he said there was an agent on duty at the time, but they were helping at the baggage carousel.

“Mango will always have an agent until the very last piece of luggage has been removed from the carousel or from the over-sized collection point.”