Earlier this month, Martha Everett returned to the Punta Gorda airport around midnight on an Allegiant Airlines flight from Toledo after visiting family. Due to the lateness of the hour, a friend picked her up and just grabbed her one checked bag, not bothering to examine it.

But, as soon as the 78-year-old Englewood resident got home, she noticed the front of her brand new bag was ripped across the front.

The following morning, after having some trouble navigating the airline’s website, she filed a damage claim. Two days later, she received an email reply from Allegiant System Baggage Services.

Denied.

“We truly regret to inform you that Allegiant cannot repair or replace your luggage since the damage was not reported within four hours of your flight arrival, as stated in our Luggage Liability Limitations and associated Terms and Conditions agreed to at the time of booking.”

Four hours? Martha had no idea she had to file a damaged baggage claim by 4 a.m. that morning. She asked for my help.

I contacted Allegiant, explaining Martha would have reported the damaged bag if she’d seen it at the airport. I also emphasized Martha was a frequent Allegiant traveler and included a picture of the bag which Martha had sent me, saying the luggage was a gift worth about $100.

The following day, Martha told me an Allegiant representative called offering her a travel voucher or a check for $100. She took the voucher and is already planning her next trip to Toledo.

So, how do you avoid being left literally “holding the bag” if it’s damaged? For starters, there are federal regulations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation mandates all domestic airlines are “responsible for repairing or reimbursing a passenger for damaged baggage and/or its contents when the damage occurs while the bag is under the airline’s control during transportation. Airlines cannot exclude liability for damage to wheels, handles, straps, and other components of checked baggage.” There are no provisions for damaged carry-on bags.

The maximum liability for checked bags and contents is $3,500. But not everything is covered.

Airlines aren’t responsible for what’s defined as normal “wear and tear” — like scratches and dents, even if the checked piece is a brand new designer bag.

In addition, airlines won’t pay if they claim the damage — like broken zippers, was the result of over packing. And they can exclude liability for certain categories of packed items, like electronics or those that are fragile or perishable, so long as they’re listed in the airlines’ contracts of carriage.

And then there’s that ticking clock.

Allegiant isn’t alone in requiring baggage claims be filed within four hours of arrival. It’s joined by Southwest, Jet Blue, and Spirit. Frontier gives you 12 hours. “Legacy” airlines American, Delta and United allow 24 hours. However, some, require the claim be made in-person at the airline’s baggage service office.

And that’s the point of today’s column: Travel on the assumption that something WILL go wrong with your baggage.

Start with familiarizing yourself with your airline’s damaged, lost or delayed baggage policies BEFORE your trip. Remember to hold onto your boarding pass and don’t remove baggage tags.

Regardless of airline policy, always take a few moments to inspect your checked baggage before you leave the airport. If you see any damage, the best time to file a claim is right there, where some airlines even stock replacement bags. Airlines also have the option to repair or reimburse based on depreciated value. So make sure you know the approximate cost of your checked bags and their contents.

Want to be a more informed airline passenger? Read the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Consumer Guide to Air Travel at www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/fly-rights.

David Morris is the Sun’s consumer advocate. Contact him c/o the Sun, 23170 Harborview Road, Charlotte Harbor, FL 33980; email david.morris@yoursun.com; or leave a message at 941-206-1114.

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