By Bob Mionske
From time to time I get requests from cyclists who have reached the point of exasperation with an airline. The problem? An airline has accepted a passenger’s bike for transport, and through careless handling, has destroyed the bike, and now the airline is refusing to accept liability for the damage.
From the passenger’s perspective, they handed their bike over to the airline in good faith, paid the fee to transport the bike, and after their bike has been destroyed, the airline’s response is, “We are not liable.” The passenger doesn’t even get so much as a “We’re sorry.” As you might imagine, arriving at your destination with a top tube snapped in two doesn’t just ruin your bike, it can ruin your entire trip.
However, the airline’s perspective can be quite different from the passenger’s; Before handing the bike over to the airline, the passenger agreed to hold the airline harmless for damage to the bike, and now, after the bike has been damaged, the passenger wants to change the terms of the contract.
The problem with the airline’s perspective is that while the airline may be correct that the passenger has signed a waiver of liability, the airline has not adequately explained to the passenger exactly what the passenger is agreeing to before accepting the bike for transport, nor has the airline explained to the passenger how to ensure that damage to the bicycle will be covered by the airline’s insurance carrier.
Now, although damage to a shipped bike is a legal problem, when the airline starts talking about the fine print after the bike has been damaged, it’s also a customer relations problem for the airline. After all, the airline could have prevented the customer’s dissatisfaction simply by informing the customer of the airline’s bike shipping policies when the customer booked a flight. Any business that relies on referring its customers to the “fine print” as a response to customer complaints is a business that is waiting for a more customer-oriented competitor to eat its lunch—and in today’s airline business climate, it won’t be long before a more customer-oriented competitor takes a bite of that lunch.
Of course, if the customer simply showed up at the baggage check-in counter with bike in tow, without having first inquired about the bike shipping policy, then the airline will have had no opportunity to inform the customer beforehand. So besides being a legal problem, and a public relations problem, it really is the customer’s problem, too. As a passenger, you should take responsibility for understanding what your rights and responsibilities are before you leave for the airport.
So if you want to fly with your bike, what are your options? What can you do to protect your right to be compensated for your bike if it’s damaged while it’s in the airline’s possession?
The answers are in the same place the airline turns to when you first tell them that they’ve damaged your bike—you’ll have to read the fine print. But what’s important here is when you read the fine print. You don’t want to be reading the fine print at the baggage check-in counter, because it may already be too late at that point for you to protect yourself. And you sure don’t want to be reading the fine print for the first time after your bike has been damaged. It’s simple: Read the fine print before you book your flight.
Now, I’m going to explain the basics here, but remember, each airline will have its own procedure, which will be explained on most airlines’ websites, often buried deep within the section that covers baggage/fees or in the FAQ section. You must follow each airline’s specific instructions to the letter if you want to protect yourself. In other words, you can take what you read here as a general guide, but to protect your rights with the airline on which you fly, you must read that airline’s fine print before you pack your bike, and you must precisely follow the airline’s procedures for shipping (and if necessary, for making damage claims).
With all those caveats said, I’ll run you through a typical scenario.
You buy your ticket, you carefully pack your bike in a cardboard bike box that you can get free from any bike shop, and on the day of your flight, you head to the airport with your bike in tow. At the baggage check-in counter, you check in your bike, pay the fee for shipping the bike, and sign the airline’s waiver.
Congratulations! You’ve just finished checking your bike in, and there’s nothing left to do but pick it up at the other end of your flight.
You’ve also just signed away your right to be compensated if the airline accidentally damages your bike.
Your problems began the moment you didn’t read—or didn’t follow—the airline’s instructions on packing your bike. You can pack your bike as carefully as you want in a cardboard box, but if the airline doesn’t accept liability for bikes packed in cardboard boxes, the airline will only accept your bike conditionally. This means that they will accept it for shipping, but only if you sign a waiver holding the airline harmless for liability. If you don’t sign the waiver, the airline will not ship your bike. Period. This holds true whether you used a cardboard box, a soft-sided travel case, or any method other than what the airline specifies you must do before it will accept liability for damage. It’s simple: Pack your bike exactly as the airline specifies and it will accept liability; vary even slightly from their instructions and any damage done by their baggage handlers isn’t covered. Period.
What confuses many travelers is the fee they pay when checking the bike in at the baggage counter. They check the bike in, pay a fee, sign a paper, and legitimately believe that they paid and signed for insurance for their bike.
What they did was pay a shipping fee, and signed a form that says they agree to hold the airline harmless for any negligence on the airline’s part. And as I said above, if they don’t sign that waiver of liability, the airline will not accept the bike for shipping.
Now, contract disputes often involve complex issues of law and fact, and whether a particular contract is ironclad or unenforceable would be an issue to be decided in the proper forum of law. In other words, whether a waiver of liability would be upheld is not determined solely by the fact of your signature on the dotted line; instead, the specific facts of your case, and the applicable law, determine whether the airline can escape liability for damaging your bike. That said, your signature on the waiver of liability is a powerful defense for the airline; worse, at the risk of belaboring the point, if the airline deems the way you packed your bike out of step with their own guidelines it will not ship your bike without your signature on the waiver, which can put you at legal disadvantage.
So, going back to the beginning, what you (the cyclist traveling with a bike) should have done was follow the airline’s packing instructions. Note that each airline will have its own requirements. For some airlines, packing according to instructions in a cardboard box or soft-sided travel case will be sufficient; for other airlines, nothing less than a hard-shell bicycle travel case will do. When you get to the airline baggage check-in counter, you will check your bike in, pay the fee for shipping, and because you properly packed your bike, will NOT be required to sign a liability waiver; the airline will accept liability for negligence when it accepts your bike, and will pay up to the limit stated in the contract if your bike is damaged.
So let’s talk about that limit now. The liability limits of airlines are determined by law. For domestic flights, the liability limit is set by the U.S. Department of Transportation; for international flights, the limit is set by one of two international treaties. Each airline will specify in its contract what the limit of their liability will be in the event of damage. If you want the airline to accept a higher limit of liability, you will need to inform the airline of the liability limit you want the airline to assume, and you must pay an extra fee to get this higher liability limit. This higher fee is typically a very small amount, so if your bike is worth more than the airline’s liability limit, it may be worth the extra expense to purchase an increased liability limit. However, even if you purchase a higher liability limit, you can only purchase increased liability up to a new, higher limit. The airline will not accept liability above the highest limit, no matter how much you are willing to pay.
Now, even though the airline accepts liability up to a specified amount, you still have the problem of how much the airline will pay for your bike. Typically, although the airline will pay on a damage claim up to the liability limit, the amount the airline will actually pay will be the depreciated value of your bike—and that can be quite a bit less than the amount of coverage you think you are buying. In fact, in the eyes of an insurance claims adjuster, your bike’s value depreciates every year, until it reaches a point of “no value.” In your eyes, it will cost a small fortune to replace your bike; in the adjuster’s eyes, your bike may be worth zero. And this may be so even though you followed the airline’s procedures to the letter. In the end, you agreed to accept depreciated value for your bike. If this is the case, and your bike is damaged by the airline, you may want to file a claim with your homeowner’s (or renter’s) insurance instead, because with your homeowner’s policy, you have the ability to specify that your bike will be insured for its “Replacement Value.” In fact, you might want to look into filing a claim for damage with the airline, and filing a claim for any remaining uncompensated value with your homeowner’s insurance.
Now, there’s one more thing you have to do to protect your right to be compensated by the airline. After you retrieve the bike at baggage claims, you should inspect the bike for damage as soon as you can—preferably while still at the baggage claim counter. The reason you must do this is because the airlines have very specific procedures for making a damage claim, and typically, the first step will involve notifying the airline of the damage within a specified number of hours after you pick it up. So the moment you retrieve your bike , inspect the travel box or case for damage, and then open up the case and inspect the bike for damage. If you’re traveling with somebody else, have that person witness your inspection. Also, inspect the bike in the presence of the baggage claims staff, if possible. If there is no damage to the bike, you have finished all of the steps necessary to protect your rights.
If the bike is damaged, notify baggage claims immediately. You have now completed all of the steps necessary to protect your rights, and have begun the set of procedures you will need to follow to make an official claim to the airline. This initial notice of damage will need to be followed by whatever procedure the airline specifies for making a claim—usually a second, written notice of damage to be sent within a specified number of days.
As you can see, protecting yourself legally demands that you become acquainted with the airline’s required procedures regarding shipping your bike and/or making a claim for damage—and the way you become acquainted with those required procedures is by reading the airline’s fine print specifying what you must do. Be proactive. And if you have a choice of airlines, look at the baggage policies and prices of several airlines—there’s a lot of variation out there, so find the airline that best suits your needs.
Finally, if any readers have their own airline shipping experiences—good or bad—please share your stories, I’d be interested in hearing them.
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(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)