Why Airlines Aren’t Liable For Baggage Theft & Damage

On a daily basis someone is complaining that an airline has damaged an item in their checked baggage or that something from their checked baggage was pilfered.  These incidents, while barely a statistical blip on the radar compared to all checked baggage, frequently take center stage in public conversation of the airline industry.


A regular argument from the traveling public is that if an airline accepts a checked bag is should be responsible for the contents of the baggage, for both damage and theft, despite every airline’s Contract of Carriage detailing an extensive list of items that are not to be checked in baggage, even if excess valuation baggage insurance is purchased, and that the airline will not accept the liability for damage and theft of baggage contents.   While people want the airlines to take responsibility the reality is that they cannot.


Why can’t an airline assure passengers that the contents of their bags will arrive undamaged and unpilfered?  Let’s find out … first off, an airline cannot inspect each checked bag to ensure it’s packed properly & securely.  Typically checked baggage goes on a conveyor belt, down a chute to a baggage sort conveyor belt system at speeds of more than 20mph, the bags are then placed on baggage tractors, placed on a baggage belt loader and stacked into a plane (or into an LD container), then the bags go flying … often encountering turbulence where they get bounced around … before being unloaded in the reverse order in which they are loaded.


An airline cannot be responsible for damage that is incurred since many damaged items are improperly packed. I know people always think they pack properly, but very often they do not, especially in with fragile items and soft-sided baggage.


Secondly, when it comes to checked baggage theft, the airline a passenger checks their bag in with loses custody of the bag moments after the bag is checked in.  In some airports the bag is immediately handed off to the third party company to deliver the bags to an aviation security agency responsible for baggage screening (such as the Transportation Security Agency, aka: TSA, in the United States), in other airports the checked baggage is directly handed off to the security agency responsible for baggage screening. Once checked baggage has been screened it may end up back in the custody of the airline or in the hands of a third-party ground handling company responsible for an airline’s ground services.


If checked baggage needs to make a connection, it possibly passes through the hands of another third-party ground handling company, if a connection involves a change of airline the custody of the checked bag is no longer in the control of the airline that accepted the bag, nor is the originating airline responsible for transporting or delivering the bag to its destination.


If a bag is flying internationally, the custody of the bag includes passing through areas controlled by customs agents, and possibly the third-party companies responsible for handling the baggage,  before arriving at its final destination … bag in the hands of the airline passenger who originally checked it.


Given the number of parties responsible for the custody of a checked bag, how can any airline accept liability for theft when checked baggage cannot solely be secured by them while in transit?


So … before you complain that an airline you have handed your bag limits its liability for damage and theft, keep all of this in mind. If you ran a business with this many moving parts you’d limit your liability as well.


Happy Flying!





  1. Yeah, there are a lot of moving parts and a lot of different people involved. But saying that excuses the responsibility is just making excuses for the airlines. Would it be harder or them if they took responsibility? Sure. Does that mean they shuld be off the hook? Hardly.

    UPS, DHL and FedEx deal with many of the same requirement, moving boxes on planes in LD containers with turbulence. They even have lots of employees who handle the goods at various points in time and some of them pass through custons. Somehow they manage not to disavow responsibility.

    So, yeah, the CoC limits the liability but that’s just the airlines deciding they don’t want to do better. Hardly a good excuse.

  2. The problem is that the big U.S. airlines are generating many hundreds of millions of Dollars from charging baggage fees. Probably most people reading this have elite status in a frequent flyer program and don’t pay these fees. But the majority of customers do pay them. And, charging a separate fee creates an expectation of increased service. So, whether the airline is responsible for the bag legally or not, the customer feels more entitled to fight about lost and pilfered bags when he or she paid a baggage fee. Bag fees have driven the U.S. airline industry to profitability, but long-term there are customer service issues that might spark government regulation. To add to this, some airlines don’t refund the baggage fees when they lose luggage.

  3. Aramean,

    When UPS, DHL and FedEx take a package it is in their custody , end to end. The third party handlers for these companies operate very differently than an airport GSE, as well these companies do not have their packages leaving their custody to go to TSA or third party handlers. Packages in transit with these companies do not have the opportunity to go out of sight, except on the truck, and are all scanned at all points in movement.

    Additionally, these companies nullify damage liability for improperly packages items and have inspectors who check packages that damage claims are filed for.

    You cannot compare checked baggage to a FedEx package at all.

    Happy Flying!


  4. Good post! And really, it’s pretty simple — people check bags because it’s dramatically cheaper than sending them via FedEx or UPS or similar, and so it is absolutely appropriate that they receive a lesser service, with greater personal liability, as a result. The problem is that this probably isn’t apparent to people who aren’t familiar with the industry, and they have unreasonable expectations as a result.

  5. And to Seth’s comment, the freight industry is just as bad. That industry was also de-regulated and freight claims are referred to as the “law of the jungle.” I am in a dispute with Fedex currently. I shipped an item of sentimental value to Spain for $126 in November. The value of the item was $60 and Fedex broke it (which was nearly impossible as it was a very solid piece.) Fedex’s policy is to pay the value of the item, but not the shipping costs for broken items- and I have photo’s of the broken piece, etc.. I reasonably asked for the shipping costs back and was willing to eat the cost of the item. Fedex refused and I had to charge it back on my credit card and it’s still in dispute. And last year after an event that I organized, Fedex shipped individually shipping-labeled packages to wrong addresses. A package for Connecticut went to Dubai. A package for Dubai went to London. And the package for London went to Dubai. Each had a correct Airwaybill. But each receiver signed for the wrong package, as they went to big warehouses. Fedex tried to tell me that as they were signed for free and clear, that even though they had sent them to the wrong places, that I had to pay to fix their mistake. And this was a huge bill of thousands of Dollars! I gave up fighting them as one of the affected parties was owned by Emirates Airline and Emirates cargo helped me to fix it for free. Fedex dug in its heals and fought. So, cargo is no better than passenger airlines with baggage…

  6. D’oh — submitted that by accident. Cont’d…

    Also, most or all airlines operate freight services as well, where they (I imagine) maintain responsibility similarly to consumer freight forwarders. But, again, at a much higher cost.

    In the interests of making things simple for consumers who don’t read fine print, I wonder if airlines could offer a two-tiered checked baggage model — the standard version, and a UPS/FedEx-comparable version (or even a simple forward to the consumer freight forwarder of choice…) where they maintain liability.

    Interesting subject, for sure.

  7. Just as they do with luggage services, airlines often outsource catering or maintnance work (not to mention wetleasing a whole bird) – should they give excuses on those front becouse of 3rd party involvement?

  8. So, the crux of your argument is that they forfeit responsibility because they subcontract handling to another company? If it were that simple, every company would be subcontracting everything.

    The fact is, Aramean is right. It isn’t any more difficult for airlines to take responsibility than it is for FedEx. They relinquish custody as well: every international shipment can be intercepted and inspected by customs.

    Better yet, just look at the USPS express mail international (overseas) service. USPS only carries the package a small part of the way. It will then (typically) be transferred to a commercial airline, FedEx, UPS, …, who will fly it accross the ocean. Then, it is transferred to the custody of another national post service. In some cases, there may be multiple transfers. Customs take a look at it. Handling companies at different aiports/train stations/distribution centers move it. And yet, the shipping cost includes (limited) insurance for damage, loss and missing contents.

    The fact is, postal service is regulated differently, and our expectations are also different. If airlines were held accountable for everything that happens to luggage, they would start worrying about it some more, and start finding ways to prevent damage or theft at every step. Of course, that carries significant costs, and that is the only reason why they don’t.

  9. I completely disagree with the blog post about whether the airlines should be held accountable or not. Yes, there are a lot of third party handlers involved, but those handlers are contracted for and by the airlines to act as handler. The airline chose to do business with a 3PL handler to save money rather than staffing those positions with their own employees. The airline acknowledges the issues of involving those handlers in the process. Therefore, the airlines should be responsible for any damage/theft by those handlers.

    As for damages, there is a reason why there is a long list of excluded items, particularly valuables and items that are easily damaged. But if my t-shirt ends up damaged, my bag zipper/handle/foot gets damaged, my golf clubs broken in half, or something that is not fragile ends up damaged you bet I will be holding the airline accountable for negligence.

    For scanning, airlines scan bags like the cargo carriers. When bags are checked-in, the system will establish a tracking record for the bag as the agent prints the tags. When the bag reaches ground level and is being loaded into the cart, all bags are scanned before being taken to the plane. Upon arrival, the bags are scanned after being offloaded before they are shipped over to their connecting flight or being delivered to the customer. Bottom line, bags are scanned at every step in the process except for security. Just like FedEx/UPS/DHL/etc and also keep in mind, packages have to go through security just like luggage and more so with international freight.

    Many companies with tangible products deal with this kind of issue on a daily basis and quite often 3PLs screw up an order, damages an order, etc. But, the companies still take full responsibility for failing to fulfill the order. Same thing with trucking companies that is in the relocation business. Many truckers are contracted truckers, the packagers are contracted, the storage is contracted, etc. Quite often, items get damaged in the process, and the moving company assumes full responsibilty for all damages.

    Airlines are no different, just a different industry with its own complexities, but they should be accountable for what happens to our luggage.

  10. For those who say airlines choose to use 3rd party ground agents, or choose to outsource and should be responsible … are you honestly saying airlines choose to turn over custody of bags to Federal Security Agencies such as the TSA (or whoever outside the US) and Customs ?

    Thefts and damage occur while bags are in the control of these entities.

    Airlines don’t choose to transfer bags between flights and airlines, passengers do when they book a flight. You want “Airline A” to be fully responsible when it flew you BUF-PHL then transferred to “Airline B” flying PHL-CDG where you transfered to “Airline C” flying CDG-CAI ?

    That is never going to happen.

    What about photographers who pack gear with a camera and lens mounted and both are damaged? I’ve seen complains about this when simple physics tells you the gear is likely to be damaged when packed this way.

    Happy Flying!


  11. The point about 3rd parties is that customers don’t interface with them. A customer can’t trace exactly where along SFO-ORD-FRA-MXP did his golf clubs get damaged/stolen, and point fingers to the actual person responsible for the damage/theft. Maybe it’s someone at SFO. Maybe another agent at FRA. Who knows.

    The airline is the only thing that interfaces with the customer. So therefore, they’re solely liable for items within contractual limits. Just because it’s handed off to a 3rd party along the way doesn’t excuse the airline since those are contractual agreements as well.

    If we all think like that (it’s the anonymous thief’s fault, not the airline/airport that hired them), that would provide MORE ammunition for their illegal behavior since they’ll know that repercussions is near zero.

  12. Does Fed-Ex and UPS chose to turn the responsibilities to customs agent for cargo inspections? Do companies have control when their products goes into a bonded warehouse? Do truckers have control when they are pulled into the scales and wound up being the subject of a random security check? Do they point fingers at customs agents when a customer receives a product that is damaged or missing?

    Nope, it is the cost of doing business. I would have been more lenient with the airlines if checked luggage were free, but now that they are charging customers for those bags. Now, customers are paying for bags just like paying for a shipment with Fed-Ex. Sure, it is cheaper to check bags than mail them, but keep in mind cargo carriers do not collect airfares.

    I think the item exclusion list is reasonable, but airlines absolutely should be responsible for damages to items not on the excluded list and definitely be responsible for damaging the luggage itself.

  13. “Airlines don’t choose to transfer bags between flights and airlines, passengers do when they book a flight. You want “Airline A” to be fully responsible when it flew you BUF-PHL then transferred to “Airline B” flying PHL-CDG where you transfered to “Airline C” flying CDG-CAI ?”

    If BUF-PHL-CDG-CAI is all on a single PNR on Airline A ticketing stock, then Airline A is responsible for it since they’re the party selling the ticket (whether it’s code-shared or not) and accepting payment from the customer.

    If those are on 3 different PNRs, then each airline is responsible between my bag drop-off to the point I pick it up at the carousel. I would never give an airline my business if they refuse any responsibility for my checked baggage within contractual limits, even if I don’t put valuables inside.

    If I buy an Apple iPhone that uses Samsung LCD panels and find out it has dead pixels, I go to Apple not Samsung for replacement. Similar analogy should apply to airlines.

  14. “people check bags because it’s dramatically cheaper than sending them via FedEx or UPS or similar, and so it is absolutely appropriate that they receive a lesser service, with greater personal liability, as a result.”

    So the argument is that I have to pay UPS/FedEx/DHL a huge premium in order to avoid airport agents stealing my stuff ?

    No one is having unrealistic expectations of white glove handling, but it’s a sad state of affair if we have to *expect* illegal behavior from those handling our bags, and zero recourse from the customer’s point of view.

  15. Interesting comment about which carrier is responsible, except that you ignore the part where the airlines already deal with that every day and they have set up arrangements under the auspices of IATA to handle things like liability when multiple carriers are involved. In the end they have all agreed how to handle such situations. Sometimes a particular carrier may end up on the hook for something which isn’t their fault. Other times they get away with someone else paying for their mistake. Over time it averages out.

    As to your Customs/TSA claim, are you suggesting that it is OK for those groups to steal or damage personal property? If they’re in the chain of custody then they have to be responsible, too. It may be difficult to come up with a system which works better but that doesn’t mean we should all give up and go home, resigning ourselves to the fact that anyone can steal from us once a bag is checked and we should be willing to accept that.

    I said it before and I’ll say it again: This is a puff piece. You got annoyed that someone doesn’t like the CoC and you’re now trying to defend that as smart business or somehow good for the consumer. It is neither. The CoC is a horribly one-sided document which gives the airlines near impunity in just about every situation. The DoT has started to act in certain limited scenarios to protect consumer rights even in cases where the CoC has explicitly claimed otherwise. It wouldn’t surprise me too much to see this as the next area in which that happens, mostly because the airlines are borderline abusive in the way they approach this topic.

  16. Seth,

    Once again you choose to attempt to put words in my mouth and overlook important aspects of something simply to argue for the sake or arguing.

    I in no way approve of thefts by the TSA (or other security agencies) or Customs. I never said that nor did I imply that. However, airline have no control whatsoever regarding baggage exiting their control and entering the Security/Customs systems. By law these bags must exit airline control for inspection and the airlines have no oversight in these areas … none, nada, zilch … zippo.

    Given that it is extremely difficult to determine when a theft occurred, how is it an airline can be held responsible for the potential of a theft while the bag was out of their control … and not by their own choice to do so?

    As for damage, FedEx and UPS often ask people to open packages with excess insurance or marked as fragile, then either make them repack it or deny the shipment. If an item arrives damaged they have inspectors who determine how the damage occurred. I personally have won a few of these battles and lost a few of these battles with both UPS and FedEx over the years.

    Should airlines require every passenger to declare a bag as fragile if there is an item which could be damaged in transit? If the bag is tagged as Fragile should the airline require the bag be fully inspected by a trained inspector then either allow it or deny it based on how the bag is packed?

    Happy Flying!


  17. I have no sympathy for the airlines. They should carry insurance that covers loss/theft/damage of items in checked bags (or be prepared to cover the loss themselves without insurance). This cost could easily be passed on to the customers.

    That said, customers need to be aware of what is and is not covered so they can take matters into their own hands (such as using a credit card or purchasing their own insurance that covers this type of activity).

  18. “So the argument is that I have to pay UPS/FedEx/DHL a huge premium in order to avoid airport agents stealing my stuff ?”

    No, the argument is that if you want to reduce or eliminate the very very small chance of “airport agents stealing [your] stuff”, or other bad things that might happen and leave you with no recourse, you need to use another shipping method.

    Similarly, there are things that one shouldn’t ship via FedEx/UPS/et al — take a Storage array as an example. Fragile, and worth perhaps $80k. None of the consumer carriers will let you buy enough insurance to ship something like that. So you move up to a commercial and possibly specialist freight forwarder, who will provide the level of service required — again, at a significant premium.

  19. “No, the argument is that if you want to reduce or eliminate the very very small chance of “airport agents stealing [your] stuff”, or other bad things that might happen and leave you with no recourse, you need to use another shipping method. ”

    This is not even realistic. Many foreign carriers have extremely strict carry-on restrictions of 5kg or less. Suppose I want to bring a laptop, a DSLR, and a couple lenses for my safari trip. You expect me to use FedEx to ship it to my hotel in Tanzania ?

    What we need is harsher punishments for the agents committing the crime and the airline for their negligence. When the fine/penalty is high enough, airlines would have a financial interest to ensure the weakest link along the chain is still safe and secure.

  20. What you really mean is that without the incentive of responsibility airlines have no interest in protecting the customers baggage. It’s one thing to say something might have been improperly packaged, but when your suitcase arrives ripped in pieces that’s not packing. The system has no incentive because they aren’t liable. If they were things would be properly fixed in a hurry.

  21. I have no problem at all with airlines requiring fragile items to be declared as such and requiring inspection in circumstances where the goods might be poorly packed. A responsible passenger wins in that situation versus the current mess.

    The airlines absolutely have the ability to secure the chain of custody to level far greater than the current operations. But they have no motivation to do so, in large part because stories like this from industry pundits make it sound like doing a half-assed job should be fine because that’s all the CoC requires of them. While that may be what’s written in the CoC that doesn’t mean it is all that should be expected.

  22. Seth,

    No, airlines cannot have any control of oversight into baggage screening and customs.

    They also cannot have greater control with interlining, nor can declaring a fragile item make the airline responsible for damaged fragile items.

    Happy Flying!


  23. Some say the airlines should be required by the government to accept liability for luggage, but then they’d probably just raise bag fees to account for the expense.

  24. I had a hard plastic case protected inside a soft bag with padding. Instead of arriving with me it apparently got lost for a while flying back and forth across the country. The airport drove it to me on arrival, but would not accept responsibility for severe damage to the case itself. if it arrived with me it probably would not have been damaged, but if you bounce a bag around often enough any protection can eventually fail.

    If an airline fails to keep proper track of my luggage and exposes it to unnecessary risk as a result it should be responsible for damage.

  25. Law might be harsh, it is still the law. So, please stop making silly excuses for airlines.
    DELAYED, DAMGED AND PILFERED BAGGAGE pursuant to DOT 14 CFR Parts 234 and 241 [Docket No. DOT–RITA–2011–0001] RIN 2105–AE41 (formerly 2139–AA13).
    If they refuse, you might file complain with the DOT. Check their website. If they still making fishy excuses you can take them to the small claim court.

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