We’ll always have Warsaw


Q: My husband flew from London to Newark on British Airways last summer. On his way back, the guitar he had checked in was damaged. It was a $4,000 Langejans guitar, and it had a crack running down the neck.

My husband is a musician and his guitar is his work. He had to send it back to the man who built it and it cost $1,500 to repair. After numerous phone calls to British Airways – which was a headache – he was given a New York address (but no phone number).

He wrote to British Airways. No response. Then he sent another letter, this time certified, to an address he had been given in Georgia. The airline responded with a letter saying that since seven days has gone by, British Airways is not responsible and will not pay anything.

Can you help us?

— Amy Farley

A: The response you got from British Airways isn’t unusual. Airlines only reluctantly accept your baggage, and they regard handling it as a cost of doing business. If the airline industry had its way, I’m sure that it would stop accepting checked-in luggage entirely – unless, of course, it could charge extra for it.

There’s no excuse for the way in which British Airways treated your husband’s guitar. I have personally witnessed baggage handlers on other carriers recklessly tossing luggage marked “fragile” into the cargo hold. And there’s nothing we can do about it except complain. (To be fair to British Airways, my luggage has never been damaged on any of its flights. Misplaced? Yes. But it always came back to me intact.)

Typically, when you check in something valuable, the ticket agent will offer insurance to cover any loss or damage. But unfortunately, that wasn’t the case when your husband surrendered his guitar. Instead, the airline employee slapped a sticker on his guitar and rolled it on to the conveyor belt.

I contacted British Airways on your behalf, and it responded by offering to reimburse you by about $640 for the damages. Why not the full $1,500? Because the Warsaw Convention, an agreement that limits airline liability in case of an accident on international flights, caps a carrier’s liability to $9.07 per pound based on the weight of your bag or $634.90, if it is unweighed. Since your husband’s guitar wasn’t weighted, that’s all British Airways had to pay.

I’m not pleased with British Airways for giving you the runaround, but in the end the carrier did the right thing by paying you the most it had to under the law. (Personally, I think the Warsaw Convention lets airlines get away with murder, but that’s a subject for another column.)

Next time your husband travels with his guitar, I hope he doesn’t repeat this mistake. He should either carry the guitar on to the plane, or ship the instrument using an overnight delivery service.

As I’ve always said, when it comes to your luggage, trust no one.