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Dear Airline – The Only Bags I Have Are Under My Eyes

All airlines lose baggage or have baggage delays. This is a fact, unfortunate as it is, and this post addresses what you should do when it happens to you. Why this happens is another question, and it is one being asked more frequently now that the airlines are charging big fees for checked bags. Checked baggage is now a multi-billion dollar revenue generator each year for the airlines.

Technically, your rights are governed by the carrier’s contract of carriage. Passengers never read the contract of carriage, but it is posted on all the carriers’ websites. Passengers “agree” to it when tickets are purchased, and it is not negotiable. If you find yourself without your checked baggage, pull it up on line and follow the carrier’s specific requirements to the letter.

So what else should you do? First and foremost, if your luggage doesn’t arrive on the plane with you (so-called delayed luggage), DO NOT leave the airport without filing a claim. If you do collect your luggage, but later determine that something is missing or damaged, file the claim immediately. DO NOT delay. There are time limits.

Second, be assertive and follow up regularly. Bags are tracked electronically, so the airline knows exactly when and where any particular bag was last scanned. Since there is no one who cares more than you about whether your bag is located, you need to pursue it as much as possible. By all means, be polite. No one wants to help someone who is behaving poorly/rudely. That said, this is an area where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And, although you may be inconvenienced, most bags do turn up eventually, so make sure the airline is actively pursuing it.

Third (and you obviously have to do this BEFORE your bag is lost or delayed), but know what is in your bag, Be prepared to itemize it and to prove the value of what’s in it. The corollary point to this is don’t pack something you absolutely have to have immediately (think, for example, medication) or something valuable and/or irreplaceable (think, for example, a first edition and rare book). Many items, such as jewelry, are simply excluded from coverage altogether. It is surprising how many people ignore these rules, and live to regret it. You will care less about delayed or lost baggage if there is nothing of import gone.

So what happens if your luggage never shows up? As for total dollar amounts, for domestic flights, most carriers’ websites provide that the liability for lost or damaged luggage is the lesser of the actual value of the baggage or $3400. We can’t pick on any particular airline – their provisions are all pretty typical, and this is not coincidental.

Why, you ask? It’s because federal law prohibits airlines from limiting the carrier’s liability below this point. (See, CFR 254.4, as amended). Thus, the federal limit that sets the minimum airlines can pay, in practice, sets the maximum they agree to pay. If they could pay less per bag, it seems pretty obvious that they all would.
If you are packing something expensive, you do have options. You just have to address it in advance, not after your bag is delayed or lost. And, there are, as always, exceptions. If you are carrying something unusual, check the website for the specific carrier to see whether it is even allowed and, if so, whether it’s covered if they lose it. If you need additional coverage, buy it.

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The Wright Amendment, passed in 1979, is about to expire, and this will mean a big change for air traffic in Dallas. The Wright Amendment currently restricts flights in and out of Dallas Love Field. When passed, it was designed to protect the relatively new and struggling DFW Airport from competition. Yes, something about that just doesn’t sound right, but that was the goal.

Both cities (Dallas and Fort Worth) had agreed to build and operate the airport together, and the commercial airlines (at Dallas Love Field and Meacham Field, respectively) agreed to move over to the new facility when it opened. DFW Airport is now one of the busiest airports in the country. It reportedly ranks 4th in the country. The problem is that Southwest Airlines didn’t exist at the time of all of this and never agreed to move.

The Amendment, passed basically in response to Southwest’s push to expand and stay at Love Field, originally limited nonstop service by planes with more than 56 seats to contiguous states (i.e., Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana). To go beyond that, a traveler needed to purchase two separate tickets in each direction and had to stop over in one of the contiguous states to change planes. It doesn’t take much to see how inconvenient this is for travelers. These limits were expanded, very slightly, in 1997 and 2005 and, through a compromise in 2006, the Amendment will terminate as of October 13, 2014.

Everyone at Southwest is undoubtedly counting the minutes until October 13, 2014. They are celebrating it, for obvious reasons. After all, Southwest reportedly controls sixteen of the twenty gates at Dallas Love Field. Although Southwest will be competing directly with carriers like American at DFW Airport, they will also have an advantage of proximity for those of us in Dallas.

So who else will be at Dallas Love Field? Good question. Delta doesn’t have any gates at Dallas Love Field, although it has indicated an interest in acquiring some, and American agreed to give up its two gates to settle its litigation with the Department of Justice and to gain approval of its merger with US Airways.

In the meantime, Southwest announced on Monday that, as of October 13, it is adding nonstop flights to fifteen new cities. Service to five of them will begin on October 13, including Denver, Baltimore, Chicago, Orlando and Las Vegas. The remaining new ten routes will begin as of November 2, including New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Tampa, Phoenix, Santa Ana, Fort Lauderdale and Nashville. Meanwhile, Delta is selling tickets out of Love Field for travel dates at the end of the year. (Even though, yes, as the prior paragraph set out, they don’t actually have any gates right now.)

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Emergency Slide Deploys In Flight on Jet Blue Aircraft

Passengers on board a Jet Blue flight from Fort Myers, Florida, to Boston’s Logan airport on Wednesday heard a loud bang while in flight. What caused the frightening noise? Much to everyone’s surprise, it was the in-flight deployment of one of the plane’s emergency slides in the cabin. Yes, that’s right. The emergency evacuation slide inflated DURING flight, INSIDE the cabin.

There were approximately 75 passengers and crew on board at the time. No passengers were injured. But, according to news reports, the deployed slide pinned one flight attendant to the cockpit and took up the entire front area where the flight attendants sit forward of the first row of seats. A passenger apparently punctured the slide, freeing the trapped flight attendant.

As is evident on entering most any commercial aircraft, these slides are built into the plane’s doors. The affected door did not open in this instance, but the pilots declared an emergency, and the plane was diverted and landed without incident in Orlando, Florida. Luckily, the slide was not needed to exit the plane, and passengers were directed through the back of the plane. The flight attendant who was pinned was treated at a local hospital and released, and the plane is out of service for inspection. The cause is unknown at this point.

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Korean Air Jet Dumps Fuel Over DFW

About a week ago, a Korean Air flight, operating a Boeing 777, experienced a problem with the left engine shortly after take-off from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in route to Seoul, Korea. Passengers reported hearing a large boom, and some reported a flash or fire from the affected engine. The pilot was forced to make an emergency landing.

Because the problem occurred at the start of a long flight, the plane circled over Tarrant County for approximately forty minutes in order to jettison the fuel. A fuel dump was necessary because the plane was too heavy to land. All aircraft have a maximum landing weight limitation, and landing over that weight would risk compromising the structural integrity of the aircraft.

Although jet fuel is lighter than water, it still weighs roughly 6.8 pounds per gallon. Add the weight of the fuel to the weight of the plane and its passengers and cargo, and you can’t land with a full tank, especially when you fully fueled for a fourteen-hour flight.

So what happens to the toxic fuel that is dumped? Is there an adverse impact to humans and the environment? According to DFW airport, the fuel from the airliner should dissipate before it hits the ground. This is obviously affected by the altitude of the aircraft at the time of the dump and atmospheric conditions.

For that reason, the Federal Aviation Administration enacted a fuel dumping policy that proscribes a minimum aircraft altitude and requires a minimum separation between aircraft of five miles prior to dumping. They also attempt to direct such aircraft away from populated areas and toward large bodies of water where possible.

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How The Government Shutdown May Affect Aviation Safety

Washington politicians, demonstrating behavior fitting of a group of kindergarteners, has resulted in a government shut down. What does this mean to aviation? Well, how do you feel about commercial aircraft not being inspected?

Yes, the government shut down means more than you may think. According to news reports, the Federal Aviation Administration has furloughed approximately 15,000 employees, including 3,000 air safety inspectors who inspect commercial aircraft.

As is obvious, many of those who were furloughed perform critical jobs key to aviation safety. For example, many of these furloughed employees ensure the aircraft are maintained properly, perform cockpit and pilot inspections, inspect the ramp and related equipment, and conduct other mechanical inspections key to the integrity of the aircraft. There will obviously be a backlog of work when the furloughs end. The shut down also impacts on-going infrastructure projects as well as manufacturers who require certification of parts.

Air traffic controllers continue to work, although they are not being paid unlike Congress, but that should be the subject of another, much longer blog. And let’s hope no one needs emergency response crews, because those are also affected, or a post-crash inspection of wreckage to determine a cause. Need a recent example of the impact? The NTSB announced that the fatal crash of a private plane in Santa Monica, Ca., has been suspended as a result of the shut down.

Employees deemed key to public safety are exempt from furloughs, and many of the FAA’s approximately 46,000 employees are exempt. Why the 3,000 safety inspectors were not included remains a mystery. So much for safety being the first priority.

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Update On The American Airlines Bankruptcy and Merger

On September 12, a federal judge approved American Airlines’ plan to exit bankruptcy proceedings. That decision, however, is contingent on approval by the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ) of American’s proposed merger with US Airways. The merger is a key component of American’s reorganization plan.

American’s creditors and major labor groups support the merger, but the DOJ filed suit on August 13 challenging the merger. The DOJ contends that such a merger would inhibit competition and, in the end, hurt passengers by, among other things, increasing fares and fees and decreasing services. The DOJ approved a litany of other mergers in recent years, and American recently filed a request with the Court to obtain the DOJ’s papers showing its review of approval of those mergers.

Both American and US Airway’s labor groups rallied in Washington D.C. on September 18, urging the DOJ to drop its opposition. Representatives of key labor groups also reportedly met on Wednesday with the head of the DOJ’s antitrust division, William Baer to discuss the lawsuit. These actions are a clear show of support for American and the merger, but may not affect the DOJ’s lawsuit. A trial of the DOJ’s lawsuit is set for November 25.

American is also facing a private antitrust lawsuit filed in New York City. While American pushed for a speedy resolution and quick trial of the DOJ’s lawsuit, it is seeking to slow track the private lawsuit until after the DOJ’s lawsuit has been resolved. In contrast, the plaintiffs in that case – using the same arguments American used to obtain a fast trial of the DOJ matter – are seeking a quick setting.

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Another Southwest Airlines’ 737 was taken out of service Monday night following a bird strike. The flight was taking off from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and heading to Chicago’s Midway Airport, at the time of the incident. News reports indicate that the 124 passengers heard a large noise, smelled a foul odor, and then saw flames coming from the affected engine.

The damaged engine was shut down, and the plane turned back to the airport to make an emergency landing. The pilot managed to land the plane with one engine and no one was injured. This is the 14th bird strike so far this year at Raleigh-Durham International. The aircraft involved was grounded for further investigation.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 11,590 bird strikes in 2012. As discussed in an earlier entry (Airplanes Should Not Play Chicken With Birds), the number of such strikes has been rising consistently in recent years, leading to significant monetary damage and risking injury or death to the crew and passengers. Unfortunately, bird strikes cannot always be avoided, so airports and manufacturers – really everyone in the aviation industry — must find ways to manage the risk and minimize the damage.

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Update on the American Airlines Merger with US Airways

As discussed in an earlier entry, AMR Corporation’s proposed $11 billion mega-merger with US Airways was called into question recently when the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”), six state attorneys general and the District of Columbia filed a civil antitrust lawsuit to stop it. The merger, after all, would create the world’s largest airline, which leads to serious concerns about decreased competition, decreased services and increased fares.

Since American’s Chapter 11 reorganization plan hinges on this merger, time is clearly critical. The merger agreement reportedly contains a termination clause, which allows either carrier to terminate as of December 13. As such, American and US Airways have requested a 10-day trail setting, starting on November 12. This setting, however, would provide the DOJ with only 90 days for trial preparation, in contrast to the 180 days it requested.

Meanwhile, the bankruptcy court judge must confirm American’s plan of reorganization. Briefs on that are pending. The DOJ’s lawsuit was filed on August 13, a mere two days prior to the court’s expected final approval of the plan. AMR and others would like to see the plan confirmed in spite of the pending DOJ matter.

The bottom line is that regardless of when the plan is approved, regulatory approval is also a condition of the merger. So, even if approved now, the plan would not be effective — if at all — until the antitrust issue is resolved.

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AMR Corporation’s proposed mega-merger with US Airways appears to be on the ropes. The likelihood that the $11 billion deal will close was called into question yesterday, when the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”), six state attorneys general and the District of Columbia filed a civil antitrust lawsuit to stop it. Texas is among those states suing. The merger, if finalized, would result in the world’s largest airline and would further consolidate an already consolidated industry.

In simplistic terms, the basis for the DOJ’s lawsuit is that such a combination would lead to significantly decreased competition by concentrating airline services in too few airlines. DOJ points to the increased fares, increased fees and decreased services that have occurred in recent years. According to the DOJ, things would only get worse for consumers if American and US Airways become one entity.

As it stands now, domestic airline travel is highly concentrated, thanks in part to a series of other mergers over the last decade. For example, United Airlines merged with Continental, Northwest Airlines merged into Delta Airlines, and Southwest Airlines purchased AirTran, all in the last three years alone. The DOJ says that an American/US Airways merger would leave over 80% of commercial, domestic air travel in the hands of only four companies. This lawsuit, which appears to have surprised many in the industry, will either delay the deal or kill it altogether. Since American’s Chapter 11 reorganization plan hinges on this merger, the lawsuit’s outcome has a lot hanging in the balance.

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There is a news story floating around today about the NTSB reporting a law firm to the Illinois State Bar for allegedly making inappropriate contact with Chinese victims of Asiana Flight 214. I do not know anything about the specific facts of that case or that firm – or if the NTSB’s allegations have any merit – but the victims of Asiana 214 should bear in mind that that U.S. federal law prohibits any attorney or representative of an attorney from making contact with them sooner than forty-five days following the accident.

Since this crash occurred on July 6, 2013, victims and their families cannot be legally contacted in any fashion before August 20, 2013. Moreover, virtually all state bar rules prohibit direct in-person or telephonic solicitation by attorneys or their agents at any time.

Unfortunately, there are some shysters out there who will ignore the rules and disrespect your rights and your privacy. And sometimes they are sneaky. They may send someone to you or another family member or friend who is pretending to be someone else and by pure coincidence (wink wink) this person happens to know of a law firm that is already handling several of these cases. What luck!

The victims of Asiana 214 should be on guard. There were reports a few years ago following a crash in the Bahamas of a law firm who sent case runners down to pose as Red Cross representatives in order to sign up the victims’ family members.

None of us should tolerate that. If you were aboard Asiana 214 and anyone contacts you about legal representation before August 20, 2013 – report them. Get the firm’s name and call the state bar association for the state in which they practice. The California Bar, Texas Bar or the bar for wherever will pop right up in Google. Do the same if anyone contacts you personally or telephonically – ever. After 45 days, mail contact is legal, but no firm I know of that is qualified to handle these cases ever mails out solicitation letters. So you can throw those in the trash.

If you were aboard Asiana 214 and you are looking for an attorney, take your time and do your homework. Google is a great resource. Find a few firms and check out their credentials. Make sure the attorneys have actual aviation experience and also experience handling these sorts of cases. There are not too many that fit the bill, so you can narrow it down pretty quickly.

Then talk to or preferably meet with the attorneys. Make sure that they are the type of person or people that you can form a good personal relationship with. You will be dealing with them frequently over the coming months and on an issue that is vitally important to you. If you are not going to be comfortable calling them or if you get the sense that you are not going to be one of their highest priorities, move on to the next qualified attorney. You will find the right fit.

And, until you find the attorney of your choice, do not sign anything or enter into any sort of agreements with the airline or any other potential defendant. All of that can wait and you do not want to end up waiving any of your right or claims.

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