By Jon Hood

April 7, 2009
A federal judge for the Eastern District of New York ruled that a class action against British Airways for lost passenger luggage could move forward, denying the airline's motion to dismiss.

The suit, filed in September 2007, seeks actual damages for passengers' lost luggage. BA's current policy only reimburses passengers up to $1,500, and the airline claims that it is not responsible for actual losses until the number of lost bags exceeds 50 percent of the total.

The $1,500 cap is set by the Montreal Convention, to which 125 countries, including the U.S., are signatories. The Convention caps liability, but contains an exception for circumstances in which the airline acted recklessly, knowing that damage would likely result from their conduct. The suit alleges that BAs conduct was indeed reckless.

There is plenty of evidence to support the plaintiffs' contention. According to the suit, in 2006 BA lost 23 bags per 1,000 passengers carried. That figure is 60 percent the industry average, and twice the rate of the worst U.S. airline. The suit also cited an internal BA study from April 2007, which found that the airline overloaded its baggage system by nearly 25%, but failed to warn passengers of the risk that their bags would go missing.

The plaintiffs' claims seem to hold water. A 2008 study reported by the Times Online found that BA loses more bags than any other major European airline. The study found that 26.5 bags per 1,000 passengers were lost in 2007 — an increase over the 2006 average cited in the suit. The study also reported that BA was 50 percent more likely than the average European airline to lose a bag.

A common thread running through complaints is that BA was less than candid about the whereabouts of passengers' luggage, and that it was less than diligent in locating it. As Dana Katzakian of San Francisco wrote us in May 2008, "[It was like] they did not even have a trace on any of our luggage...It was as if our bags were never checked. The lost bag agents told us they had no idea where our bags were and all I could do was continue to check the status of our case file number [o]nline or by phone."

Customers are also understandably upset at the time and expense involved in replacing lost or stolen items, especially when the task eats into a long-awaited vacation. John Cherachi, of Burr Ridge, IL, had to spend his time in Paris helping his wife shop for lost items ranging from clothing to toiletries. Writes Cherachi: "We had to waste our priceless vacation time to go around and buy her necessities for a couple of days."

The lead plaintiffs in the case, Donald and Joan Smith of Tacoma, WA, are being represented by class action firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP. In June 2007, while flying to Italy, BA lost the Smiths bags for weeks on end. Once the airline found the luggage, it had sustained enough water damage that it was written off.

The lawsuit defines a class of American passengers who flew with BA between Sept. 5, 2005 and Sept. 5, 2007, whose bags were lost, damaged, or delayed.