DOT Complaint from ARA Board Member Tift Merritt

Submitted Electronically at Transportation.Gov and via US Mail

Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings

Aviation Consumer Protection Division

1200 New Jersey Ave, SE

Washington, DC 20590

Re: Complaint against American Airlines

Dear US Department of Transportation:

I write to file a formal complaint against American Airlines and seek $1,500 in compensation for the cost of repairing a guitar they damaged during baggage handling on April 15, 2019. I have previously requested compensation directly from American, which denied my claim (both initially and then on appeal) on June 10, 2019.

American refused compensation for two reasons: it claims the damage to my guitar was not also reflected in equal damage to the outside of the case and it claims it has no liability for any damage to a musical instrument that is not packed in what it considers a “hard shell case.”

These policies violate American’s obligations under the Department’s domestic baggage liability rule, 14 CFR Part 254, and the Montreal Convention, which do not allow a US airline to impose these kinds of pretextual and artificial limitations on their liability under the Convention amount of $3,500.

There is nothing I can find in the Department’s rules or the Warsaw/Montreal conventions that requires damage to a musical instrument be reflected in equal harm to the outside of its case. As best I can tell, the regulations simply require that damage be “provable” and I believe the photos I submitted and my statement that the damage occurred after I checked the instrument with American (which I am happy to repeat under oath) prove my claim. (If this issue is genuinely going to be contested, I can also provide evidence showing me playing the guitar in perfect working condition in the days before this flight.)

If American wants to make a factual finding that it did not cause the damage I have documented and accuse me of trying to defraud them, it should go ahead and do so directly and not hide behind word games and over the top disclaimers no traveler would agree to if they were clearly explained. And it should prepare to defend that outrageous claim on the facts, not on the basis of innuendo and fundamentally illogical blanket exclusions — obviously it is possible for sloppy or violent handling to damage the contents of a container without harming the outside. A middle school science student building an egg drop project could perhaps educate American about principles of conservation of energy.

American’s bogus claim that it will only pay for damage caused to instruments in what it considers to be a “hard shell case” is also deeply unfair and contrary to the terms and spirit of the rules. This policy is not clearly posted at baggage check in locations or explained to travelers. And it takes multiple clicks through menus and sub-menus to find at American’s website. The agent who checked me in certainly did not warn that my case was unacceptable or explain that using it would hand a get out of jail free card to the airline regardless of how violently it handled my guitar.

This legal chicanery is especially galling since, in fact, my guitar was packed in a highly protective hard-shell style case — a Gator GL-Jumbo which is a “hybrid” including a waterproof nylon outer shell (more protective than a traditional hard shell which can be permeable to moisture) and a hard foam core (“the portability of a gig bag meets the sturdy protection of a hard-shell case”). Certainly, there was no way I could have known that this high-quality professional and protective case was somehow not good enough for American Airlines or that using it would secretly waive my rights. And having accepted it as checked baggage without clearly warning me of the consequences, American should not be allowed to claim otherwise based on some vague notice six clicks deep on their website.

There is nothing I can find in the Department’s 2015 FAQ on travel with musical instruments or the regulations on checking large musical instruments that permit airlines to wave away the Warsaw/Convention liability limits in this fashion. Just as the Department issued a warning to airlines in 2015 rejecting their impermissible efforts to disclaim liability for wheels, straps, and handles, it should now rule that airlines cannot use these kinds of vague and poorly disclosed unilateral limitations to categorically deny compensation for damage to musical instruments in this way.

I request the Department order American Airlines to reimburse me the $1,500 cost of repairing my guitar.


Tift Merritt

Artist-run, non-profit advocating for musicians, performers, & songwriters in the digital landscape. (Formerly the Content Creators Coalition or “c3”)

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