Delta Airlines Did $8,000 in Damage to My Camera Gear
The Wells Fargo banker cocked his head, bit his lip, and spoke slowly. “You want a personal loan for a camera lens?”
I grinned. “Yep,” I said.
He was right about that. After a decade in semi-corporate America, after countless hours of researching, after much drooling over photos taken with arguably the best dedicated telephoto lens in the world, I was in a position to put my name on one.
“Well,” the banker said, “you’ve got great credit. I can give you a cashier’s check or it can go straight into your account.”
I had him put it in my account, where I knew it would remain for all of about twenty minutes, the time it would take me to go online and order my Nikon 500mm f/4 VR.
It arrived at my Billings, Montana, home from Seattle a couple of days later, a nine-pound piece of flawless optical engineering which, when mounted to my Nikon D810, revealed parts of the world in detail I’d never seen.
“An entirely different ballgame,” I thought to myself when it locked focus on a flying short eared owl a few nights later.
Even before I realized I could see the tongue of a yellow-headed blackbird, count the individual down feathers on a great horned owl chick, see the claws of a rough legged hawk in crazy sharpness or freeze a Montana sunset like never before, I was in love – more than convinced that the monthly payments were entirely worth it.
I bought a Tamrac pro-model lens case to hold both camera and lens and have been nothing short of thrilled with its performance. It fits snug, has plenty of padding, comfortable backpack-style straps, and a great waist belt. If there’s a better way to carry this camera/lens combo I’d be surprised.
On June 7th, I showed up at the Burlington, Vermont, airport with it after a week in Northern Vermont where I grew up. I was flying Delta back to Montana by way of Detroit and, after seven days of nearly continual rain, was happy to have clear skies for the trip over the Adirondacks and Great Lakes.
I was seated in 01D — a long way ahead of the wing seats I seem always relegated to — on a regional jet, flight 4058, and I was perhaps the fourth person to board the plane. My Tamrac, containing my D810 with my 500mm lens fits in all overheads, including the smaller ones like the jet I’d just stepped aboard. While there was no overhead compartment above my seat, there was one across the aisle, and I lifted its lid to find a pair of green, oxygen-style containers already in it.
With people backed up behind me, needing access to their seats, I stepped into my seat with my camera bag. Almost immediately, Delta’s flight attendant, Salvador, noticed me standing there with my bag and said that I would have to gate check it along with my much smaller Lowepro camera bag containing a Nikon D500, a MacBook Pro laptop, and three Nikkor lenses.
I have flown numerous times, almost exclusively on Delta, and have used overhead space for my telephoto while placing my Lowepro under the seat ahead of me. Both are within Delta’s size limits for carry-ons.
I explained, very carefully, to Salvador what my bags contained and my desire to use overhead space for at least one of them once the aircraft was fully boarded. I said that if I traveled to the rear of the plane now I would have to fight my way back through a steady stream of passengers to my seat or remain there until everyone was on board. I told Salvador, word for word, that my bags contained “very expensive, very fragile, professional camera gear, lithium batteries, Nikon lenses, and a laptop.”
Salvador nodded and placed my bags immediately behind the cockpit door. I said I have flown many times with them, have never checked them, and wasn’t comfortable with that. I said I was certain there would be ample room for them when people finished boarding and that I did not want them going with general cargo.
From less than four feet away, Salvador looked at me and said, “It will be fine.”
The flight was fine, and I want to say that I’ve always been impressed with Delta’s pilots. They do an amazing job, not always in the best of conditions, and I’ve never felt anything less than completely at ease aboard their jets. Hats off to these men and women.
When we landed in Detroit, I waited on the jet bridge for my camera bags. I noticed a man looking out a small window onto the tarmac, waving his hands, obviously agitated. I approached, looked out the window with him, and saw two men unloading our gate-checked luggage. One pulled pieces from the aircraft and, with gusto I find difficult to believe wasn’t intentional, slammed them to the ground, while the other worker stacked them onto a cart.
I watched both my camera bags come out this way, treated absolutely as poorly as they could be, short of simply heaving them out from cruising altitude. I took pictures and video with my cell phone (a lawyer has advised me not to share them for now in case this goes to litigation).
The instant I had my bags, I went to Delta’s customer service counter in the Detroit airport. I complained to a woman working there about the treatment of my luggage, and she was helpful. She gave me an 800 number which I called and relayed what had happened to a Delta employee on the other end of the line.
I then opened my Tamrac case to find that my 500mm Nikon, the crown jewel of my photography equipment, had been sheared off from my camera. The better part of $8,000 worth of damage had been done.
I was shocked. I went immediately back to the customer service counter and demanded to speak with someone there, in person. The woman who had given me the 800 number called her supervisor who showed up shortly. I showed her the damage to my camera and lens, and was repeatedly told Delta would “take care of it.” She got online, made some notes, presumably in some record of my flight, gave me a meal voucher and a $100 credit toward a future flight. She told me that the flight attendant in Burlington should never have insisted my bags be checked into luggage.
I told her that I wanted to speak with a supervisor for the company Delta uses to unload its luggage, Simplicity, and she was helpful arranging that. I voiced my extreme displeasure over what I’d witnessed and the damage incurred. Again, Delta’s supervisor told me that Delta would “take care of it,” and to be sure I filed a claim when I got to my final destination in Montana.
Shortly before midnight, after two more excellent flights, I landed in Billings. At the Delta ticket counter, I spoke with Jamie Robinson and carefully told her what had happened, showing her my camera and lens. Like the woman in Detroit, she said my equipment should not have been placed in luggage. She asked me to leave my camera and lens with her so that she could show Bryan Bochy, the person who handles claims from Billings. I left the equipment with her as she requested.
The following day, I spoke with Bryan, told him everything that had happened, provided him a detailed, written statement, and let him know my damaged camera and lens were there at the airport for his inspection. I told him, as I’d told everyone I’d spoken to up to that point, what replacement cost was.
On Saturday, June 10th, I received a “do-not-reply-to” email from Delta, addressed to “Mr. Moser,” outlining a claim, including a comments section written by someone other than myself. It was, as I told Bryan Bochy in the email I forwarded it to him in, devoid of so much critical information that no one could make a reasonable judgement of fault based on what it said. It appeared as though I had completely disregarded Delta’s policies against checking electronic equipment into luggage and had done just that of my own accord.
The comments section is attached here:
My gate checked bag number 9006861497 arrived in to Detroit and my Nikon D810 was damaged the connection between the lens and camera was broke it has a 500 mm lens…
Bryan told me he would begin another claim, sending it directly to “Delta Corporate.” I told him that there was some urgency here because without my equipment I can’t take the photographs which I am trying to supplement my income with.
Five days passed. On the morning of June 15th, I received this email from Delta, pasted here in its entirety.
Dear Mr. Moser,
Please accept our sincere apologies for the difficulties you must have encountered when your luggage did not arrive with you on your recent trip. We realize it was a trying experience, and we regret that it happened.
We are equally concerned by your report as we place a great deal of emphasis on the care and protection of baggage and other checked items. Please be assured that every precaution is made to have a passenger’s luggage arrive in the same condition as when it was checked into our care. We succeed with few exceptions, and regret the mishandling on your trip.
The tariff rules and the ticket contract covering your travel exclude responsibility for cash, medication, securities, negotiable papers, irreplaceable documents, jewelry, silverware, precious metals, works of art, camera, electronic, and computer equipment, as well as any other items that cannot easily be replaced, in checked baggage. Consequently, we must respectfully decline your request for payment.
If you have insurance coverage that will provide reimbursement for the excluded items, we will be glad to cooperate with your insurance company in their investigation.
This, we know, will be a huge disappointment to you but trust that you will try to understand our own position as well.
Consumer Affairs – Baggage
Evidently, luggage which I had checked, containing items Delta won’t cover if lost or damaged, “didn’t arrive,” but I should try to understand the airline’s position when it comes to claims denial.
Yes, I do understand that, and I find it quite reasonable. Which is precisely why I travel with my camera equipment in hand. What I don’t understand, and what I don’t find reasonable follows…
I’m a Silver Medallion flyer on Delta (which means basically I’ve spent a lot of money on their flights). I will readily acknowledge that their service as a whole has been exemplary. But when their flight attendant insisted I gate-check my camera bags, knowing full well what they contained, against my strongest argument, Delta then took responsibility for their safe transport.
The two men I saw working for Simplicity in Detroit, both acting as agents of Delta, have zero regard for the property they handle. They have difficult jobs, no doubt. It’s a noisy environment at the mercy of the elements, and I hope they’re paid appropriately, and I hope more that their supervisor has taken steps to ensure future flights’ baggage is treated with more care.
I didn’t choose to check my camera and lens. I was given a crew member’s instructions, and I think everyone knows how scenarios play out when those instructions aren’t followed. I have been professional with everyone I’ve dealt with, never so much as raising my voice, making certain to thank each Delta employee who I’ve talked to.
In light of these facts, my treatment has been outrageous. Many days have passed since my equipment, through absolutely no fault of mine, was ruined. The only early communications I had from Delta Corporate, where any compensation must come from, were form letters addressed to my misspelled name full of inaccuracies, sent off with no fact checking whatsoever. That’s not acceptable.
A Delta rep finally called me on Sunday, June 18th, and asked that I take my camera and lens to a certified repair center for a quote to repair. Things are moving… finally. It remains to be seen, however, what Delta will do and when.
Update on 6/30/17: Delta has agreed to reimburse me, penny for penny, cost to replace my D810 and repair my lens. A million thanks to everyone who helped. Photography is my dream, and this helps further it.
About the author: Jake Mosher is a wildlife photographer based in Montana. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can see and purchase his work on his website. This article was also published here.
Image credits: Header illustration based on photo by Eric Salard and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0