In October 2011 I travelled with UA/CO from San Francisco, via Houston to Panama City. The plane from Houston to Panama was a 737 so I decided to check my bag in at SFO. The ticket, I might add, was a revenue First Class ticket (but only cost around $700 round-trip).
Departure from Houston
The connection time was 1hr 40mins, and we were delayed by about 30 minutes.
Arrival at Panama
Once in the baggage hall, I waited about 30 minutes and no bag arrived. A barely audible tannoy asked me to go to the baggage service desk. Most experienced travellers will know what this means – no luggage!
Baggage Services at Panama
A helpful lady said that she had received a message that because of ‘weight and balance’ issues my bag had not been loaded. My bag, weighing 17kgs, had been left behind in Houston and would come the next day. It was, she confirmed, the only bag left behind that day.
My problem was that I was leaving on the first flight in the morning back to Houston, and so the agent said she would message Houston, have them hold the bag and I could collect it the next day.Just to be sure I called Continental from Panama City and they confirmed that there was a request in the luggage record. I informed them that I would need to buy some new clothes and the agent on the phone confirmed this would be OK.
The number of shops at the airport in Panama are limited, so I purchased only what I needed, a clean shirt, socks and underwear. I am sure my neighbours on the flight were grateful.
Arriving at Houston
Having gone through Houston immigration I went to the baggage service center in the International Terminal to inquire about the bag. Of course, the bag was not there and the staff confirmed it had been sent on the first flight that morning to Panama City. They spent some time checking about what would happen to the bag, calling Panama City and eventually told me I had to deal with baggage services.
At Houston, I had to purchase a new shirt, socks and underwear for the next day when I was leaving San Francisco to go back to London. The agent on the phone confirmed that she had annotated the baggage record to accept this was OK.
Back in London
After a further 3 days and several calls to Continental my luggage turned up – that was the 6th day after I checked it in – at Heathrow, and CO delivered it late that night to my home.
Now the fun begins
Continental require you to download a form from the internet and then fax it to their US System Tracing Centre. I sent in a claim, accompanied by receipts for $279.44. (This covered the items mentioned, toiletries purchased in Houston, and $15 of phone calls to the airline).
On 14 October, I received a letter from a ‘Claim Analyst’ denying my claim and agreeing to pay only £53.11 (about $75). No explanation was offered for the reduced amount but they did send a certificate for $200 because as he said “because you are important to use you will be sent a $200 Certificate to covert the expense”. Not awfully interested in a $200 certificate I looked for a way to reply. None – no fax, no email, not even a postal address on the letter. Basically it was a take-it or leave-it letter.
A few days later a lady from Continental at Heathrow calls me to ask where I would like to have the £53.11 sent. I explained I was unhappy with the amount and she explained that she just made payments as instructed.
I followed up with a further communication via the web site but Continental just ignored me.
Small Claims Court
In the UK we have a County Court system very similar to the Small Claims Court in the USA. In late November I was no longer going to wait for CO, frankly I thought they were ignoring me, and completed an online claim for the amount owed. It only cost me £25 and if CO lost they would meet this cost.
On 15 December CO indicated to the Court that it proposed to fight the claim, but failed to submit the basis of its defense. A month later I was able to apply for a summary judgement which was granted.
Continental continued to ignore me.
So a few weeks later I asked that the Court send in the Bailiffs to seize goods to the value outstanding. This cost me a further £100, but I felt at this point it was worth it.
And surprise – the very day that the Bailiffs arrived at Terminal 4 to collect goods belonging to the airline for £253.84 (incl all fees), I received a call promising to pay that amount within 14 days. Continental wanted me to call off the bailiffs without having paid the money, and after a second visit by the bailiffs I agreed – the guys at Heathrow seemed sincere and slightly uncomprehending how it had all got to this stage. Personally I was hoping that the bailiffs would have secured me a 777 or 757 in payment, but in truth I don’t have anywhere to park one!
So as I close, I really would advocate using the Money Claim Online system allowing you to issue court proceedings where you are the right.