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Airline liability

Introduction

There are international laws in existence that provide a world-wide system of standards and rules for air travel and in particular, common rules regarding minimum liability limits for the carriage of passengers, cargo and luggage in the event of death, injury, damage, delay or loss. These laws were first agreed and introduced worldwide in 1929.

The first international law introduced is known as the Warsaw Convention (1929). Over the years, there have been a number of changes to and reviews of the original Warsaw Convention, including increases in the monetary liability limits. These subsequent amendments together with the original Warsaw Convention are known collectively as the Warsaw System. Over time the liability limits became too low by present-day standards. In addition, the laws governing airline liability become fragmented and very confusing as some countries had not introduced all the various amendments to the original laws.

The Montreal Convention (1999), titled the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air (pdf) amended the Warsaw System. It re-established uniformity and predictability of the rules relating to the international carriage of passengers, luggage and cargo. It provides, among other things, for:

  • Unlimited liability in the event of death or injury of passengers
  • Advanced payments to meet immediate needs
  • The possibility of bringing a law suit before the courts in the passenger's principal place of residence
  • Increased liability limits in the event of delay
  • The modernisation of transport documents (electronic airway bills and tickets)
  • The clarification of the rules on the respective liability of the contractual carrier and the actual carrier
  • The obligation for air carriers to maintain adequate insurance

Under the Montreal Convention the liability limits are set in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) which are a mix of currency values established by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The current value of an SDR in Euro is available on the IMF's website. The liability limits are reviewed every 5 years.

Air travel on EU airlines

In order to improve the liability regime in the event of death of or injury to passengers of EU airlines, member states of the EU introduced legislation in 1997 that ensured that the same limits were in place in all EU member states. EU Regulation 2027/1997 (pdf), however, did not provide for damage, delay or loss of luggage. Liability limits for damage, delay or loss of luggage or cargo still relied on the 1929 Warsaw Convention.

EU Regulation 889/2002 (pdf) amended the 1997 Regulation and brought the EU states into line with the Montreal Convention. It harmonised liability limits and legal defences in respect of European carriers, irrespective of whether the accident happens on an internal, intra-Community or international flight.

Under the Regulation, an EU airline must be insured up to a level that is adequate to ensure that all persons entitled to compensation receive the full amount to which they are entitled. They must provide each passenger with a written indication of the applicable liability limit for the flight in respect of:

  • Death or injury
  • Luggage which is destroyed, lost or damaged
  • Damage occasioned by delay

Death or injury to passengers

There is no financial limit on the liability of an EU airline for damages sustained by you in the event of death, wounding or any other bodily injury. For damages up to 113,100 SDRs, the airline cannot contest claims for compensation. Above that amount, the airline can defend itself against a claim by proving that it was not negligent or otherwise at fault.

If you are injured or killed, the airline must make an advance payment to cover immediate economic needs within 15 days. In the event of death, this advanced payment must be at least 16,000 SDRs. An advance payment does not constitute recognition of liability and may be offset against any subsequent sums that are paid.

Any court action to claim damages must be taken within 2 years from the date the aircraft arrived or should have arrived.

Lost or damaged luggage

The airline is liable if your luggage is lost, destroyed or damaged. In the case of checked luggage, the airline is liable even if it is not at fault, unless the luggage is defective. In the case of unchecked luggage, it is only liable if it is at fault.

The airline is liable for damages up to 1,131 SDRs. You can benefit from a higher liability limit by making a special declaration before checking in your luggage, and by paying a supplementary fee.

You must make a written complaint to the airline within 7 days if your luggage has been damaged or destroyed.

Your luggage is considered lost if it has not arrived within 21 days from the date it was supposed to have arrived. You should make a written complaint about your lost luggage as soon as possible after the 21 days.

Delayed passengers and luggage

An airline is liable to pay for damages up to 4,694 SDRs if you are delayed. If your luggage is delayed, the airline is liable to pay for damages up to 1,131 SDRs. The airline is not liable for damages where the airline took all reasonable measures or it was impossible to take such measures.

You must make a written complaint about your delayed luggage within 21 days of you receiving the luggage.

More information on delayed flights is available in our document on compensation for overbooked, cancelled and delayed flights in the EU.

Air travel on non-EU airlines

Due to the complex nature of the laws governing airline liability, liability limits in place in various countries around the world can vary. In countries that are party to the Montreal Convention, the liability limits are the same as for EU airlines. Whether you would be entitled to an advance payment in the event of an injury or death, and how much, depends on the law of the country.

You are advised before you travel to get adequate travel insurance in advance of your journey. You can also check in advance of travel the liability limits governing the airline you are travelling with.

How to apply

Reporting missing or damaged luggage

Where your luggage does not arrive at the airport, or is damaged or destroyed, report the problem to the customer service desk of your airline at the airport baggage claims hall. You should complete a Property Irregularity Report (PIR). The PIR will include information regarding the details of your flight (for example, the airline, date, flight number and time), your luggage, your name and address. You will be given a copy of the PIR which you should keep and the airline will retain the other copy.

You should also keep the luggage labels you were given when you checked in your luggage and your boarding card. The luggage labels contain a bar-code and a number. This reference number relates to your luggage and will help the airline identify your luggage and help trace it for you.

If your luggage is not returned during your holiday or journey, keep receipts for items you had to purchase because of your missing luggage.

If your luggage is damaged or destroyed take photographs.

Claiming compensation

You should put your complaint to the airline in writing. You should include with your letter copies of the PIR, luggage labels, boarding card and other relevant documentation such as receipts and photographs. You may require a written estimate for the cost of repairing or replacing luggage.

You must make your complaint within certain time limits:

  • If your luggage has been damaged or destroyed, make your complaint within 7 days
  • If your luggage has been delayed, make your complaint within 21 days of receiving it
  • If your luggage has been lost, make your complaint as soon as possible after it has been missing for 21 days

Any court action to claim damages must be taken within 2 years from the date the aircraft arrived or should have arrived.

If you have holiday insurance, you should advise your insurance company of the loss of or damage to your luggage as soon as you can.

Page updated: 25 November 2014

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If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) or you can visit your local Citizens Information Centre.