Airline liability

Introduction

Airlines have a number of responsibilities in relation to their passengers, cargo and luggage. International laws provide a world-wide system of standards and rules for air travel. In particular 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 and introduced worldwide in 1929.

The first international law introduced, is known as the Warsaw Convention (1929). There have since been a number of changes and reviews to the original Warsaw Convention, including 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 Over time the liability limits became outdated and were considered too low by present-day standards.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), 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 the 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 airway bills and 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

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.

Travelling with EU airlines

In order to standardise the liability of EU airlines (in the event of death or injury to passengers), member states of the EU introduced legislation in 1997 that ensured that the same limits were in place for 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) was introduced to amend the 1997 Regulation, and 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 happens 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 the event 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 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 for example, 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. However an advance payment does not constitute 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 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

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 damages of up to 1,131 SDRs. You can choose to increase the liability limit by making a special declaration before checking in your luggage, and by paying a supplementary fee.

Delayed passengers and luggage

An airline is liable to pay for damages of up to 4,694 SDRs if you are delayed. If your luggage is delayed, the airline is liable to pay for damages of 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.

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 the event of an injury or death (and how much), depends on the law of the country.

You should get adequate travel insurance in advance of your journey. Before you travel you can also check the liability limits for the airline you are travelling with.

How to apply

Missing or damaged luggage

If your luggage does not arrive at the airport (or it is damaged or destroyed), you should 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 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 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, you should keep receipts for items you had to purchase because of your missing luggage.

If your luggage is damaged or destroyed it can be useful to 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 contact your insurance company and report the loss or damage to your luggage as soon as possible.

Page edited: 19 June 2019