Ern and their two children were looking forward to a relaxing beach holiday at Christmas. But when their luggage went astray on a Nordair flight to Miami, they had to go shopping instead.

“It was incredibly inconvenient,” says Mr. Ern, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph, who had to replace the whole family’s wardrobe at the height of the holiday season. “When we should have been out on the beach with the kids, we were waiting in line at Macy’s to buy underwear.” Since their missing bags weren’t found during the entire two-week holiday, the Erns not only had to buy new bathing suits, shoes and summer clothes, they also had to buy new suitcases to carry home their new possessions.

Two days after they returned to Guelph, they found out their baggage had turned up after all. Because of a handling error, it had been sitting in the Miami airport the whole time. “We’re terribly embarrassed about this,” said Marie Bernier, vice- president of public affairs for the Montreal-based airline.

Nine bags were misplaced on the same charter flight, which left Dec. 18, and six families including the Erns were left without their clothes and personal effects. “Their claims will receive special attention, I can tell you,” Miss Bernier added.

Now the experience is behind him, Mr. Ern wonders what rights airline passengers have when they’re left stranded without their bags for an extended period. “Is there any compensation for the inconvenience of having our holiday ruined?” he asks. “And what about waiting for reimbursement of my out-of-pocket expenses? I probably won’t see that money for a month or so.” To add to the hassles, Nordair did not have any ground staff at the Miami airport. Mr. Ern, desperate to know how much he could spend, made several long-distance calls (at his own expense) to airline staff in Toronto and Montreal.

For the first two days, he was told he could spend $25 per person per day to replace personal effects. Then by the fifth day, he was told he could spend $200 per person in total. “We wanted to get on with our holiday, but the airline was forcing us to shop every day,” Mr. Ern complains. “We were afraid to buy more because we didn’t know if we could get our money back.” During the holiday, Mr. Ern had to attend a special event for which he needed a sports jacket. He says he could not find out whether this expense – which exceeded his $200 personal luggage allowance – would be covered.

Miss Bernier said Nordair automatically pays $50 for the first 48 hours that luggage disappears. Expenses above this amount have to be claimed and substantiated with receipts after the passenger returns. “To allow $200 per passenger is quite unusual,” she said, “but this was a very unusual case.” Will there be any compensation for inconvenience? Mr. Ern says he spent three to four hours a day in crowded Miami stores at the height of the holiday rush, outfitting himself, his wife, 6-year-old Seth and 3-year-old Joshua. “This will be taken into consideration when we receive a claim,” she said. “But,” she added, “I must say it’s very hard to put a monetary value on frustration and inconvenience.” When bags are lost on an international flight, the airline’s maximum liability is about $400. (This is based on weight. You’re allowed to claim $9.07 per pound, up to 44 pounds per bag.) Miss Bernier said this $400 maximum also applied to mishandled luggage, as in the Erns’ case. Even if you spent more than $400 to re- place your belongings, you would not receive any more. That’s because whatever you bought on holiday, you could use afterward.

The Erns figure they spent about $1,000 for new clothes, as well as $140 for new luggage and $50 for long-distance calls. That doesn’t include the cost of gas and parking for all the shopping trips.

Mr. Ern now realizes he probably will get everything back, but he wishes Nordair officials had told him about the $400 liability limit when he was down south. “I guess the reason is they don’t want you to spend that much,” he says. “But while they’re trying to protect themselves, they’re ruining the holiday for the traveller.”

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