Lost luggage: Domestic vs. international

What you need to know to protect yourself before-- and after-- your luggage gets lost

(WPLG) Losing your luggage-- it's always top of mind whenever you check a bag before a flight.

For Michael Johnsen, traveling to Japan and Vietnam was a trip of a lifetime.

[WEB EXTRA: U.S. Website | U.S. Baggage Advice | Montreal Convention]

"I had spent over a year saving for this trip. It was a great trip, a wonderful trip," he said.

While in Vietnam, Johnsen purchased hand-made tailored jackets and shoes. He also acquired specially made keepsakes that he planned to bring back to the United States to honor his late brother.

On his way home, Johnsen had a connecting flight in Dallas.

"The second you leave customs in Dallas there is a bag recheck," he said.

Johnsen said the last time he saw his bag was at the American Airlines recheck.

"Fly to Miami, no bag. It was a lot of loss because it was a big trip; it was a month of traveling," he said.

Gone were his treasured mementos from a distant land.

"It was a blessing to learn that one of the most healing aspects of my exposure to Eastern culture was the ritual of gift giving," Johnsen said. "Selecting unique handmade gifts for family and friends to be part of my brother's memorial service brought me peace. These lost gifts made in Japan and Vietnam cannot be replaced, and I had no memorial gifts to honor my brother as I had planned."


If an airline loses your bag on a domestic trip, you are entitled to a claim limit of $3,400. If lost on an international trip, the settlement limit is about $1,500.

"I thought it was domestic," Johnsen said.

Johnsen did have the bag in Dallas and it was lost stateside. It turns out since that domestic flight was linked to an international itinerary, so he got just over $1,500.

These are limits governed by an international agreement known as The Montreal Convention of 1999.


"It means all of those gifts (and) keepsakes -- they are not in my house and they are not given to my family," Johnsen said. "I don't have the things I have bought and the credit card bills are coming and I am paying for things I don't have."

"He became one of the quote 'unlucky ones,'" former Washington State Assistant Attorney General and current Nova Southeastern University Consumer Protection Law Professor Michael Flynn said.

An airline losing a bag continues to be a rare occurrence.

While the Department of Transportation tracked an uptick in the number of mishandled bags late last year -- those are bags that are lost, delayed, damaged, or pilfered -- the rate of lost and damaged luggage is down more than 60 percent since 2007.

Those are the findings of a 2015 SITA Baggage Report.

"This improvement in baggage handling over the past seven years is largely a result of strong technology investment and innovation in baggage systems automation and processes," SITA CEO Francesco Violante said.

Of course when it happens to you, all the statistics in the world wouldn't make you feel any better.

"I want to unpack and say, 'Look at what I found in that faraway place,'" Johnsen said.

In a statement American Airlines said, "Our team continues to actively search for the bag, and apologize that we have yet to locate it. Lost baggage is very uncommon for American Airlines; on average, we transport more than 40,000 bags -via Miami International Airport each and every day, and 50 percent of those are connecting bags."

Initially, American Airlines had offered Johnsen a $300 voucher.

"Ticket prices these days are extremely expensive, so where do I go for $300?" Johnsen said. "I can probably go to Orlando, that's it. By me having the bag domestically, technically it was an international flight. I understand they need to follow the rules, but every situation is different, every situation is unique. Give me a ticket back to Asia."

Flynn agreed saying, "In this particular instance, because of the very, very, limited interpretation of the application of the international claim limit, I think the airline is being cheap with this. I think the airline should turn around and give him a round trip ticket from where he was to where he wanted to be."

Since those interviews, Johnsen confirms American Airlines has offered him 50,000 miles and a $500 voucher.

"We reimbursed the passenger the limit for international travel (amounting to $1,572 USD); his itinerary is based on the ticket from first leg to final leg. We also offered the passenger a voucher for a future flight on American Airlines," American Airlines said.

Based on American Airlines' award chart, 50,000 miles would get Johnsen a round-trip ticket to Asia.


Flynn's advice if you are planning a trip, especially if you are going overseas is, "if you can't afford to lose what's in your bags, carry it on. The other option is to ship it, to just take the stuff and ship it separately. So then you are not dealing with airlines and the baggage limits and the inventories, you ship it and you insure it and it ends up where it is supposed to go."


Johnsen checked again with Miami International Airport's Lost and Found Facility who confirmed they do not have Johnsen's bag. He also made a last in-person check with both MIA's Lost and Found and American Airline's baggage area. Workers did not locate his bag at either location. He also asked American Airlines to again check their baggage holding facility in Dallas. Again, the carrier stated they were unable to locate Johnsen's bag.

Johnsen still holds out hope.

"Because those things in there are my things, they are not anybody else's," he said. "Many souvenirs were unique, created for me as I watched. These small treasures that I bought were meant to bring me joy and serenity as I returned to my difficult family situation. I just want my stuff back and that is not an unreasonable thing to ask for."


There are some things you can do to help make sure your bag ends up where it is supposed to:

-While packing-- make sure to leave contact information inside your bags, so airline staff can still get in touch with you even if your luggage tag gets ripped off.

-You can also take pictures of your bags and the contents, so if they do get lost, your stuff isn't undervalued and you get the full reimbursement.

-There are also electronic GPS devices on the market you can purchase and stash in your bags. They won't prevent the bag from getting lost or delayed, but may assist you and airline staff in locating the bags if it does happen.

-When you're checking in, make sure to check in early. Even if you make your flight last minute, it doesn't mean your bag will.

-Make sure you have a claim check and the correct destination tag for each bag. 

-If your bag does go missing, check the fine print on your credit cards and homeowner's insurance policies. You may have additional coverage through those.