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The Checked Baggage Muddle

Traveler C flew from New York to Venice via a Paris connection. He bought his ticket on Delta’s website. The flight from New York to Paris was on an Air France plane, but the code-shared flight carried a Delta flight number. The flight from Paris to Venice was on Alitalia. When he checked in, at the Air France counter, the agent checked his bag through to Venice. But when he checked in with Alitalia for his return flight, the agent at the Venice airport said he couldn’t check the bag through to Air France, which was in a different alliance; instead, he would have to claim his bag and re-check at De Gaulle airport. And Alitalia charged him a bag fee.

Traveler D flew from Charlotte, N.C., to Bergen, Norway, via a connection at JFK. He bought separate tickets: New York to Charlotte on American, New York to Bergen on Norwegian (the only nonstop on that route). He could not check his baggage through to Bergen at Charlotte. Instead, at JFK, he had to claim the bag and schlep it around for four hours until the Norwegian counter opened.

Traveler E flew from Portland, Oregon, to Sydney, Australia, via Los Angeles. He used a paid ticket from Portland to Los Angeles and a frequent flyer award from Los Angeles to Sydney. In Portland, the agent checked his bag through to Sydney, with no fee, but on his return, the agent at Sydney checked the bag only to Los Angeles, where he had to claim it, re-check it, and pay the $25 domestic checked bag fee.

Related: 8 Carry-on Packing Tips That Will Change How You Travel

These three stories illustrate the fact that the current checked baggage situation is a complete muddle for anyone who has to connect between flights on two different airlines. And even the “experts” and airline officials seem too unsure of exactly what rules to follow. The problem arises because today’s airlines no longer have uniform policies. Some charge for a first checked bag, others don’t; rules vary between domestic and international flights; some lines exempt elite frequent flyers or travelers with airline co-branded credit cards from the checked bag fee; others don’t; maximum weight and dimension policies for both checked and carry-on bags vary from airline to airline, and some charge for carry-on bags.

Which Rules Apply? One of the primary checked baggage problems is to determine which airline’s rules apply to a ticket involving multiple lines. According to the International Air Transport Association(IATA), the longstanding multinational airline group, the rules of the “most significant carrier” or MSC should apply. IATA divides the world into three “zones,” with the Americas as Zone 1, Europe and all of Africa as Zone 2, and Asia and the South Pacific as Zone 3. IATA rules say:

—If your ticket covers a flight from one zone to a different zone, the MSC is the airline that crosses the zonal boundary.

—Otherwise, the carrier that markets the ticket is the MSC.

—Some industry and government officials say the airline with the longest flight on the ticket is the MSC.

Moreover, it’s clear that airport agents are often completely in the dark about which rules to apply.

Related: 10 Cures for the Chronic Overpacker

Interlining Muddle
For many years, all IATA member airlines routinely “interlined” baggage: they checked it through among different lines. Now, apparently, some IATA airlines say they will interline only with other lines that belong to the same “alliance.”

Two-Ticket Muddle
Some important airlines, including Southwest, EasyJet, Norwegian, and Ryanair, do not participate in multi-airline through tickets and don’t “interline” at all. You have no alternative to claiming and re-checking at a connecting airport.

Is There an Answer? Consumer advocates are urging that airlines adopt uniform policies, including specifically a universal requirement to interline checked baggage. For now, however, nobody is doing anything. So whether you can check a bag through, whether your bag is accepted at all, or whether you have to pay a fee, all depend on the way the counter agent sees the rules. If you run into a problem your best bet is to cite the IATA rule and hope the agent agrees.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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