Friday, January 2, 2009

Airlines and gate-checked bags

I recently went on vacation for the holidays, and on the flight there the airline (Hawaiian) forced us to check our carry-ons, because they were full. Now normally, this would be no big deal; we had a checked bag already so we were already going to baggage claim, no extra fee, etc. However, when we got there, our bags as well as many others had been rifled through somewhere along the way, and several people had cell phones and other electronics stolen. In addition, bags were very damaged in the process (ripped zippers, torn bags, damaged items, etc.). This, in my opinion, is ridiculous, and should be illegal.

Here's what I would do, if I were making laws. Force the airlines to provide, at no extra individual charge (general uniform fee increases to cover the cost are expected, and even preferred), a minimum of $10,000 insurance for any item which is checked. This will be payable, by an independent 3rd party insurance company, for any non-trivial damage, theft, lost item, or obvious internal disruption of baggage (eg: items inside your luggage opened, rifled through, etc.). The insurance company can handle claims (investigating as appropriate), and adjust the rates payed by the airlines based on the number of claims, and correlative success of the airlines at handling checked baggage. I'd suggest a 3rd party to just handle claims and verification (before photos/docs, talking with customers, etc.), and just bill the airlines directly for valid claims. In fact, it would be preferable if the law specified that the 3rd party was not directly employed or controlled by the airlines, but by a federal agency instead, with a fixed-rate cost to the airlines for their uniform services across all carriers (a bid-contract model would work nicely).

Airline travel is painful enough as it is without gross negligence compounding bad experiences. Granted I'm never going to fly Hawaiian again (and neither should you, unless you like people stealing your stuff), but that's really not enough. There should be a law protecting consumers from abuse, and there should be real meaningful financial pressure to improve the customer experience or perish as a viable business.

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