DOT: International carriers breaking baggage-liability rules

By Michael Fabey

The Department of Transportation says some airlines providing international service to and from the U.S. have been trying to shirk their liability for high-value items in checked bags.

Also, international airlines have been shirking their responsibility for the treatment of passengers flying under their code, even if a codeshare partner is operating the flight, the DOT said.

The DOT said the airlines’ actions violate U.S. and international rules; it gave them until July to bring their tariffs and their consumer notices back in line.

"We have become aware of tariff provisions filed by several carriers that attempt, with respect to checked baggage, to exclude certain items, generally high-cost or fragile items such as electronics, cameras, jewelry or antiques, from liability for damage, delay, loss or theft," Samuel Podberesky, head of the agency’s Aviation Enforcement office, said in a notice of "guidance" to airlines published in the Federal Register.

"A typical provision found in carrier tariffs and disclosed on carrier websites states that the carrier does not assume liability for loss, damage, or delay of ‘certain specific items, including: antiques, documents, electronic equipment, film, jewelry, keys, manuscripts, medication, money, paintings, photographs,’" Podberesky said.

Such exclusions are permitted in contracts of carriage for domestic travel, but they are prohibited for international travel by treaty, he said.

The guidance note cited the 1999 revisions to the Montreal Convention (officially called the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage), a treaty negotiated under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

That treaty says carriers are liable for damaged or lost baggage if the "destruction, loss or damage" occurred while the checked baggage was within the custody of the carrier, unless the damage ‘‘resulted from the inherent defect, quality or vice of the baggage."

The treaty also provides that a carrier is liable for damages caused by delay in the carriage of baggage, unless the airline proves that it took all reasonable measures to prevent the damage or that it was impossible to take such measures.

"Although carriers may wish to have tariff terms that prohibit passengers from including certain items in checked baggage, once a carrier accepts checked baggage, whatever is contained in the checked baggage is protected, subject to the terms of the convention," Podberesky said.

"We met with the carriers about this issue," said Dayton Lehman, Podberesky's deputy. "They felt what they were doing was appropriate. But it’s our opinion that the Montreal Convention does not provide for this type of exclusion."

The guidance note said that in the view of the enforcement offices, these exclusions have "no effect" and carriers should review and modify their rules tariffs, baggage claim policies and consumer notices to conform to the terms of the treaty.

Codeshare violations

As for codeshares, it has long been the DOT’s view that the carrier whose code is shown on the ticket is ultimately responsible for the trip.

But according to the guidance note, some carriers have filed provisions in tariff rules that attempt to "allocate responsibility and contract of carriage provisions" among the codeshare partners.

The note said some of these tariffs apply the terms and conditions of the operating carrier’s contract, either generally or in specific areas such "check-in time limits, unaccompanied minors, carriage of animals, refusal to transport, oxygen service, irregular operations, denied-boarding compensation and baggage."

The guidance note said such tariff rules are in violation of the terms and conditions under which carriers are permitted to codeshare and may also constitute unfair or deceptive business practices and unfair methods of competition.

The DOT found the baggage liability and codeshare omission issues as a result of on-site carrier reviews or complaints addressed to the airlines or the agency, Lehman said.

He said, "We started this of our own initiative. It’s something we will be keeping an eye on."

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