Mishandled: Suitcase skips Sorrento

Sarah Kirchner is a world-class optimist: Even though her luggage got lost the last time she went abroad, she refused to let that stop her from entrusting her precious cargo, once again, to the vagaries of fate. But a second time through the wringer has cured even her, and she swears there won't be a third.

Kirchner took a Delta flight out of Charlottesville on April 30, changed planes in Cincinnati, and, at JFK in New York, boarded an Alitalia flight to Rome. From there, she continued south to Sorrento– but without her suitcase, which she didn't see again until May 4.

"Naturally," Kirchner stated in a May 16 letter to Alitalia Customer Relations, "this led to considerable inconvenience for me." Since she had only what she was wearing, she had to buy several outfits and some toiletries; she also "ruined a pair of shoes hiking around" and had to buy another. Also, although the suitcase had arrived in Rome on May 1 and Naples on May 2, it hadn't been delivered to her until late on the afternoon of the May 4.

Her bills, when converted from euros to dollars, came to $186. Along with her letter and the receipts, Kirchner enclosed copies of all the required documents– and says she not only sent everything by mail, but faxed copies as well.

On July 22, when she hadn't heard from Alitalia, she faxed a second set, with a note stating that an employee in customer service, Maria, "has informed me that my original letter was probably lost, but assures me that you will still honor my claim."

On August 21, with no refund in sight, Kirchner emailed Alitalia's "web support" group to ask, yet again, about her refund. She recapped her July conversation with Maria– which, she claimed, had been followed by more phone calls. Kirchner bailed out of the first, she said, after being on hold for 20 minutes; she then tried a different number and left a message, but no one called back.

A web support employee, Alessia, emailed back to say that Kirchner's request for assistance had been submitted to customer relations. On September 3– when she still hadn't heard anything– Kirchner sent a second email that ended, "Do I have to get a lawyer?" Alessia replied that she had sent the appropriate manager a second request.

"Here's an idea," Kirchner wrote back on September 6. "Since you can't help me, why don't you give me an email of someone who can?" "I apologize," Alessia replied, "but they do not have an email address. The manager is taking care of it. You will be contacted soon."

Kirchner's trust in Alessia, however, had run out, and on September 8 she contacted me. I called Marta-Marie Lotti, director of press and public relations at Alitalia, and she called back in no time to say that the letter had been written and the check would follow.

Alitalia's policy, she explained, is to cover 100 percent of reasonable toiletries and 50 percent of clothing, since travelers can continue to wear it; most airlines have similar guidelines. Accordingly, she said, Kirchner will receive $133 of the $186 she requested.

Lotti also had some advice: Always carry on board at least one change of clothing and any essential medicine or toiletries. As for the delay between when Kirchner's luggage arrived in Naples and when it was delivered, Lotti explained that a single courier company usually services an entire airport– or, in the case of airports like JFK, an entire terminal. The route is determined by geography, and Kirchner, apparently, was at the end of the line.

Finally, she noted that Kirchner had changed planes several times– and the more the connections, obviously, the greater the chance your luggage will miss one. Bear that in mind when planning your itinerary, and you'll be less likely to arrive empty-handed.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.