Airline liability

International laws for air travel

Airlines have many responsibilities to their passengers, cargo, and luggage. International laws provide a worldwide system of standards and rules for air travel. These laws provide 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 upon and introduced worldwide in 1929.

Warsaw Convention 1929

The first international law introduced, is known as the Warsaw Convention (1929). There have since been several changes and reviews to the original Warsaw Convention. This includes increases to the monetary liability limits. These amendments together with the original Warsaw Convention are known collectively as the Warsaw System.

Over time the liability limits became outdated and were considered too low by present-day standards. In addition, the laws governing airline liability became fragmented and confusing, as some countries did not introduce all the various amendments to the original laws.

The Montreal Convention 1999

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 a common set of rules relating to the international carriage of passengers, luggage and cargo. The provisions of the convention include:

  • Unlimited liability in the event of death or injury of passengers
  • Advanced payments to meet immediate needs
  • The possibility of bringing a lawsuit 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 tickets)
  • The clarification of rules on the respective liability of the contractual carrier and the actual carrier
  • The obligation for air carriers to maintain adequate insurance

Special Drawing Rights (SDR)

Under the Montreal Convention, the liability limits are set in Special Drawing Rights (SDR). These are a mix of currency values set up 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.

Travelling with EU airlines

In 1997, the EU introduced legislation to ensure that the same limits were in place for all EU member states. This standardised the liability of EU airlines (in case of death or injury to passengers).

EU Regulation 889/2002 (pdf) was introduced to amend the 1997 Regulation. This brought the EU states into line with the Montreal Convention. It standardised liability limits and legal defences in respect of European carriers, regardless of whether the accident happened on an international flight or a flight within the EU.

Under this Regulation, an EU airline must be insured to a level that allows for all persons entitled to compensation to receive the full amount to which they are entitled. The airline must also provide each passenger with a written indication of the liability limit for the flight in respect of:

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

Death or injury to passengers

In case of death, wounding or any other bodily injury, there is no financial limit on the liability of an EU airline for damages sustained. For damages up to 128,821 SDRs, the airline cannot contest compensation claims. Above that amount, the airline can defend itself against a claim by proving that it was not negligent or otherwise at fault.

If for example, you are injured or killed, the airline must make an advance payment to cover immediate economic needs within 15 days. In case of death, this advanced payment must be at least 16,000 SDRs. However an advance payment is not a recognition of liability, and may be offset against any further payments.

Any court action to claim damages must be taken within 2 years from the date the plane 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

If your luggage has been damaged or destroyed, you must make a written complaint to the airline within 7 days. 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.

The airline is liable for destruction, loss or damages of up to 1,288 SDRs.

You can make a special declaration before checking in your luggage. You pay a supplementary fee.

Delayed passengers and luggage

An airline is liable to pay for damages of up to 5, 346 SDRs if you are delayed. If your luggage is delayed, the airline is liable to pay for damages of up to 1,288 SDRs. The airline is not liable for damages where the airline took all reasonable measures or it was impossible to take such measure

Complain in writing within 21 days of you receiving the luggage.

See our page on compensation for overbooked, cancelled and delayed flights in the EU.

Travelling with non-EU airlines

The liability limits in various countries around the world can vary, this is due to the complex nature of laws governing airline liability. In countries that are covered by the Montreal Convention, the liability limits are the same as for EU airlines. Whether you would be entitled to an advance payment in case of an injury or death (and how much), depends on the law of the country.

You should get adequate travel insurance before your journey. Check the liability limits for the airline you are travelling with beforehand.

Missing or damaged luggage

If your luggage is missing or damaged, you should:

1. Report the problem to the customer service desk of your airline

If your luggage does not arrive at the airport (or it is damaged or destroyed). Report the problem to the customer service desk of your airline. Check if the airline uses an online tracking system for luggage. Do this at the airport baggage claims hall.

2. Complete a Property Irregularity Report (PIR)

You should complete a Property Irregularity Report (PIR). The PIR will include details of your flight (for example, the airline, date, flight number and time), your luggage, your name, and your address. You will be given a copy of the PIR which you should keep, and the airline will keep the other copy.

3. Keep the luggage labels and your boarding card

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

4. Keep your receipts

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

If your luggage is damaged or destroyed it can be useful to take photographs.

Claiming compensation

1. Put your complaint in writing

You should put your complaint to the airline in writing. You should include:

  • Copies of the PIR
  • Luggage labels
  • Boarding card, and
  • Any other relevant documentation such as receipts and photographs.

You may need a written estimate for the cost of repairing or replacing luggage.

2. Complain within the time limits

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

If you are bringing a case to court, you must claim for damages within 2 years. This is from the date the plane arrived or should have arrived.

3. Contact your travel insurance

If you have holiday insurance, you should contact your insurance company and report the loss or damage to your luggage as soon as possible.

Page edited: 25 May 2023