What to do When the Airlines Lose Your Bag

When United lost his bag last March, Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan didn't panic. After all, something like 98 percent of all missing bags eventually turn up.

So he waited. And waited. "Basically, there was no progress finding it whatsoever for nearly six weeks," said Dr. Wheelan. "Then, it suddenly turned up."

Suddenly? Well, right after the professor filed suit in small claims court.

Video: Passenger sues American Airlines over lost bag.
Washington state woman sues American Airlines for $5 million dollars

Wheelan wasn't looking for instant-millionaire status; all he wanted was his $25 bag fee back, plus court costs (total: $97). And it worked. Said the professor, "I suspect that the bag would never have turned up were it not for the lawsuit," not to mention the subsequent news coverage.

If that sounds a bit extreme, then maybe you haven't heard about the Washington state woman who's filed a $5 million class action suit against American Airlines over a "lost bag." But the airline says there's more to this story.

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American Airlines says the woman behind the $5 million dollar lawsuit did get her bag back, the day after it went missing.

By the way, American Airlines allows you to put in a claim for the bag fee if your luggage is lost. And the Department of Transportation is proposing that bag fees be refunded in the event of delays, flight cancellations and lost or delayed bags.

So here are some ideas on what to do -- or rather, what not to do -- if your bag is lost.

#1: Do Not Leave the Airport

This is a mistake many people make. It was a long flight, they're tired and frustrated when the bag does not appear on the carousel and they decide to go home, get some sleep and deal with it in the morning.

Sorry, but as tired as you are, do not leave. Stay at the airport, hunt down an airline rep if you don't spot one immediately, and make a report. Some carriers allow you to make the report within 24 hours, but do you really want to waste all that time going through the automated call system?

Stay at the airport and make the report. This is especially true if you have a complaint about a damaged bag. If you leave, the airline will just make you come back with the broken suitcase, and there might even be questions about whether the bag was somehow damaged after it left the airport.

By the way, if you have reason to believe your bag was damaged by a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer, there's a whole different claims process involved.

#2: Do Not Scream and Yell at Airline Employees

Keep your cool. The people you report your missing bag to are not the ones who lost it, so don't take it out on them. Besides, these are the people who can help reunite you with your Samsonite, so it pays to be nice.

Plus, if you're upset, you may not be doing yourself any favors, since you might not provide the clear and accurate description of your missing bag that'll make finding it easier.

Besides, it's human nature for folks to try harder to help the "good guys" so be sure you're one of them. Why do anything to jeopardize your chances of getting your bag back?

#3: Do Not Say, 'I Had a Lot of Valuables in My Lost Bag'

It may be true you had a lot of valuables in your now-missing suitcase, and maybe you even have them neatly itemized, but it doesn't matter. Most airlines take no responsibility for valuables.

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