Untied Airlines: a personal perspective

One man's experiences
with United, Lufthansa,
and the rest of the Star Alliance

26 February 2012
17 June 2012
31 December 2012

26 February 2012: UA 908, ORD to AMS

Summary: United damaged two pieces of luggage so heavily as to make them unusable. United was required by law to pay for this damage. United refused to pay, although it did eventually cough up an "Electronic Travel Certificate" of highly questionable value. United's agents attempted to evade liability by making various false statements regarding (1) United's general responsibility to pay for damage, (2) the facts of what had happened to the luggage, and (3) the nature of the Electronic Travel Certificate.

Day 0: Sunday 26 February 2012. I flew UA 908 from Chicago to Amsterdam.

Day 1: Monday 27 February 2012. I collected my luggage in Amsterdam and was astonished to see that United had ripped the foot off of my rolling bag and ripped one of the largest straps off of my backpack. I immediately approached the United counter to file a report.

United was required by law, specifically by the Montreal convention, to pay for all the damage it had done to the checked bags, up to a limit of 1131 SDR. But the United agents (actually employees of a company called "Servisair" hired by United) said that United was liable only for damage to the contents, not to the bags. They also said that the point of the bags was to protect the contents, as if this had any relevance to United's liability.

I insisted on filing a report. The agents continued trying to deter me, saying that United was not liable for this damage, but eventually they did take a damage report. One report said "COLOUR/TYPE BK22XXX" and "DAMAGE DETAILS 01- BOTT/FOOT/WHEELS" and "BAGGAGE DETAILS 01- AGE/2008 VALUE/150EURO". The other report said "COLOUR/TYPE BK29XXX" and "DAMAGE DETAILS 01- SIDE/STRAP" and "BAGGAGE DETAILS 01- AGE/2006 VALUE/EUR50".

Day 18: Thursday 15 March 2012. Having heard nothing at all in response to my report, I wrote to 1kvoice@united.com, quoting a United web page that stated the following policy:

For domestic travel, United is not liable for conditions that result from normal wear and tear such as:
  • Minor cuts, scratches, scuffs, dents and soil
  • Damage to wheels, feet and extending handles
  • Damage as a result of over-packed bags
  • Loss of external locks, pull straps or security straps
I asked three questions about the policy:
  • "Does this policy exclude liability for loss of wheels, feet, and extending handles? I understand that United won't pay for damage to wheels, or for loss of locks, but what if United manages to lose a wheel?"
  • "Is detachment of wheels, feet, and extending handles—making them as unusable as if they had been lost—treated as 'loss' or is it treated as 'damage'? Is United saying that it won't pay for anything that it does to wheels, feet, and extending handles, no matter how severe?"
  • "What about international travel?"

Day 46: Thursday 12 April 2012. United finally wrote back: "I have confirmed with our Baggage Resolution Office that United would not be liable for damage or lose of any of the following items:

  • Wheels, feet, and extending handles
  • Loss of external locks, pull straps or security straps
In regards to international baggage United would be held liable for damages to your baggage during international travel."

Day 51: Tuesday 17 April 2012. I wrote back to 1kvoice@united.com: "Can you please explain to me why United's baggage agents in Amsterdam claim that United will not pay for damage to wheels, feet, etc.?"

United wrote back at remarkable speed: "Unfortunately at this time I am unable to answer that question Mr. Bernstein. If our agents in Amsterdam are not following the policy and procedures set forth by United Airlines I truly apologize. I have provided the following contact information should you need to contact our Baggage Division directly: United Airlines Baggage Resolution Center at its 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, toll-free number: 1-800-335-BAGS ... We work hard to correct problems brought to our attention. Although we cannot explain the inappropriate behavior, we can work to correct it. This matter will be addressed internally, and I am confident necessary corrective action will be taken."

Day 55: Saturday 21 April 2012. I called 1-800-335-BAGS. The first agent insisted that I talk to the United luggage agents in AMS. I asked to speak to a supervisor. The supervisor

  • insisted that I talk to the United luggage agents in AMS;
  • said that he could not see damage to the bags over the phone; and
  • refused to acknowledge liability under the Montreal convention.
Eventually the supervisor identified himself as "Faisal" in New Delhi.

I wrote back to 1kvoice@united.com reporting this incident and asking for compensation: "I would like United to promptly reimburse me 200 EUR and assure me that Servisair agents have been trained to stop providing false information to United customers regarding United's liability for damaged bags. Thank you for your cooperation."

Day 57: Monday 23 April 2012. United wrote back (1) saying that my concerns regarding Servisair had been "reported"; (2) claiming that my damage reports "reflect minor damage to the strap on one of the bags in question. The report indicates that one bag had been taped and did show signs of minor damage in the taped area"; (3) refusing to provide "the compensation requested"; and (4) saying that I would receive an "Electronic Travel Certificate as a gesture of goodwill."

This Electronic Travel Certificate said it had "Total Value: $200.00". There are at least two important reasons that certificates are worth quite a bit less than their claimed "value":

  • A certificate reduces the cost of a flight—for my employer. How does this compensate me for the damage done to my luggage? I'm travelling for work, and my employer pays the cost of my tickets, but my employer didn't buy my luggage; I bought my luggage.
  • The certificate is only valid for "eligible" tickets. Almost all of my United ticket purchases are already discounted, and in my experience United usually doesn't treat discounted fares as being "eligible" for certificates. The exact rules don't seem to be documented anywhere.
I do occasionally fly for reasons other than work, and maybe one of those flights will turn out to be "eligible" for this $200, but will this happen within the 12-month validity period of the certificate? I would much rather have cash. The law requires United to pay for the damage it has done—and payment means real money, not United-issued Monopoly money.

I also noticed that the Electronic Travel Certificate included the following condition: "By acceptance of this travel certificate you release United; the operating carrier, and their respective employees, agents and representatives from any and all liability, claims or damages resulting or arising from the matters relating to your flight, compensation therefore or any related complaint." In other words, accepting the travel certificate would bar me from suing United for the rest of the 200 EUR it owed me, or for other damage completely unrelated to the luggage. That's something I'm giving to United, quite possibly much more valuable to United than the $200 certificate itself; labelling this as a "gesture of goodwill" from United is fraudulent.

Day 60: Thursday 26 April 2012. I wrote back to 1kvoice@united.com:

Your information is, unfortunately, not even close to correct. Both bags suffered crippling damage, and we filed damage reports immediately at the airport (despite the United/Servisair agents at the airport telling us, fraudulently, that United was not liable). Can you please tell me the procedures for obtaining cash compensation from United for this damage?

I am, furthermore, quite puzzled by the difference between Servisair's "DAMAGE REPORT" printouts (see attached copies) and what you're writing. You say that you received this "minor damage" fabrication from United's baggage department. Can you please ask United's baggage department whether they made this up themselves, or whether they received it from Servisair? In the latter case, can you please ask them to explain to me where this information appears in the damage reports?

Day 64: Monday 30 April 2012. United wrote back, saying it was "unable to assists [sic] you in regards to your claim."

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