Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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The law

Special laws apply to luggage claims under the Montreal Convention.

The terms of the Montreal Convention have been incorporated into UK law by the Carriage by Air Acts (Implementation of the Montreal Convention 1999) Order 2002.

The Order provides compensation for passengers (on any scheduled or charter flights) whose checked-in luggage have been lost, delayed or damaged, so long as it happened on board the aircraft or while the checked luggage was under the airline's control.

The maximum that can be claimed for lost, delayed or damaged luggage is around £1,000 per passenger (depending on the daily exchange rate for the currency used by the country where a claim is being paid).

Since this amount might not cover the whole cost of the luggage or its contents, you should claim the difference from your travel insurance policy. For more information, see Travel insurance.

Prohibited items

Before you travel, ensure you don't pack items that are classified as 'dangerous goods' or are considered a security risk. Check the airline's website and the Civil Aviation Authority website for more information.

Delayed luggage

An airline has 21 days to find missing luggage. During this period, luggage is treated as delayed. After 21 days have passed, the airline must treat the luggage as lost.

There are no set rules in the Montreal Convention for how airlines must assess delayed luggage claims. The general principle is to cover essential expenditure resulting from the delay. Some airlines might offer immediate one-off payments at a set amount to cover emergency purchases, or a fixed amount per day up to a maximum number of days. Some airlines want you to show them any receipts before they pay.

Lost luggage

As mentioned above, an airline company has 21 days to find missing luggage before it's regarded as lost.

When assessing a claim for lost luggage, the airline might ask for a list of the items that were in the bag and possibly for the original receipts. Their offer of compensation is unlikely to match the full value of your claim because the majority of your items aren't likely to be new.

As the airline's maximum liability is approximately £1,000 per passenger, you might find you can get a better settlement from your travel insurance company.

Damaged luggage

You must tell the airline straight away if you find any damage. Most airlines have a dedicated luggage desk within the luggage claims area.

When you report a luggage problem at the airport, the person at the desk should complete a 'Property Irregularity Report' and give you a copy. Your airline will want to see the report when you make a claim. However, it's not a legal requirement to have a report and an airline shouldn't simply dismiss your claim if you don't have one.

You have to complain to the airline in writing within 7 days of the date you received your checked-in luggage. The report is not itself a formal claim. You'll still need to write to the airline, enclosing a copy of the report.

When assessing claims for damaged luggage, most airlines make a payment based on the value of the damaged bag and any of the contents that were also damaged. They may ask for receipts, and will probably make reductions for items that aren't new.

Lost or stolen items

Where individual items are missing from luggage, it may be very difficult to get any compensation from an airline because it's difficult to prove that the items were there in the first place.

Some airlines have a clause in their terms and conditions stating that they don't accept responsibility for perishable or valuable items (such as camcorders, mobile phones or jewellery).

If you've packed items in your luggage that are listed as unacceptable luggage in the airline's conditions of carriage, you might not be successful in a claim against the airline if they go missing.

Limited release tags

Some airlines attach a Limited Release Tag (LRT) to non-standard items of luggage that are checked in, such as musical instruments, sporting equipment, children's strollers and fragile items. The LRT is intended to remove the airline's liability if the item is damaged.

However, an LRT can be challenged. If an airline accepts an item as checked luggage, it must accept liability for it under the Montreal Convention. This states that passengers must be compensated if checked-in luggage is lost, delayed or damaged, as long as it happened on the aircraft or while the checked luggage was under the airline's control.

The convention also prevents airlines from using contractual terms that try to release them from any of the terms of the convention.

Connecting flights

If your journey involves connections between more than one airline, you may be able to check in your bag for the entire journey at the first point of check-in. If you do, and something happens to your luggage, you can claim against any of the airlines that carried it. Some airlines try to blame the other airline and refuse to handle the claim. If they do this, they'll breaching the Montreal Convention.

Cabin luggage

Cabin luggage is generally not the responsibility of the airline because it's in your possession. However, this isn't an absolute rule. If something happens to your luggage and it's the airline's fault, they might be responsible for your claim.

Time limits for making a claim

The Montreal Convention states that if you need to make a claim to an airline, you need to do so in writing within the following time limits:

  • Damaged baggage – 7 days after receiving the bags
  • Delayed baggage – 21 days from delivery
  • Lost baggage – no time limit is specified in the Convention, but you should make the claim as soon as possible after the bag has been declared lost (usually 21 days, but the airline might declare the bag lost sooner)

If you've already written to an airline or airport, and you aren't happy, you can refer your complaint to the Civil Aviation Authority.

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