Other than that, Mrs. Cannon, how was the flight?
A lot of things went wrong on Leighton and Merry Cannon's recent trip to Europe on American Airlines. But, as Merry Cannon said in a phone call, the worst part was probably right at the very end: when she discovered a dead rat in her checked luggage.
Yes, a dead rat--"smashed," as she put it--yet hidden, so that she wasn't sure what was creating the "disgusting" smell that came from her bag when she picked it up at the airport. She brought it home unwittingly, despite the odor, hoping to clean and salvage at least some of her clothes.
"It smells like a dead body."
The story began early March 5, as Merry Cannon told it. Her husband had a business trip in Germany and France, plus a short visit to London to see family. Since his mother was free to come to their house in Arkansas to take care of their two small children for a few days, Merry decided to go along.
Travel troubles mounted quickly: delayed and canceled flights, missed connections, an unplanned overnight stay in Chicago after their flight to Germany left without them, while American tried to find room for them on any airplane to Europe. Ultimately they had to fly to Brussels, Belgium instead, forgo the German part of their trip, and arrange to drive a rental car to Lille, France.
When they arrived in Belgium, however, they found that their luggage had never left Chicago. It didn't catch up to them until their last night in France, just before their morning flight to London to see family for the day before heading back to the U.S.
Eventually, they made it home to Arkansas, and Merry collected their bags. The smell now emanating from her luggage nearly knocked her over, she said.
"Smell this," she said to her husband.
"It smells awful!" he replied.
"It smells like a dead body."
"It smells so gross."
Maybe it's "just" sewage waste from a lavatory
Leighton tried to sanitize the handle with Clorox wipes. They brought the bag to a customer service agent, who speculated that maybe it had been left on a runway in the rain at some point during the five days it took to catch up with her, and the smell was from mold.
Merry said she was skeptical, as they hadn't noticed a smell when the luggage caught up to them in France. Perhaps, the customer service agent suggested, it had been stored under a lavatory on the plane, and sewage waste had dripped onto it.
Disgusted by that idea, Merry Cannon asked for a garbage bag or something to avoid taking the bag. But the agent told her the airline would only compensate her for destroyed luggage if she first brought everything home, tried to wash it, and offered evidence that it didn't work.
The Cannons threw the bag in the back of their truck, and left it on the back porch of their house when they got home. The next morning, Merry Connor opened it, pulled out a few articles of clothing, and held her nose. She dropped them in the washing machine with vinegar, bleach, Tide, and OxiClean.
It barely had an effect. Disgusted, she walked back to the porch. And then she saw the dead rat.
Her reaction: "I'm surprised the people next door, building a house--the construction workers--didn't call the police. I screamed, ran inside, started washing my hands over and over. I was just crying."
"Your biggest concern would be bubonic plague"
She called American Airlines. They told her to photograph everything in the bag, and to put in a claim. The person she spoke with at the airline was apologetic, she said, and promised that the airline would pay for everything.
Then she called the county health department.
"This is awful," she said the health department official told her when she described the rat situation. "I've never heard of anything like this. Your biggest concern would be bubonic plague."
"The plague? What am I, in a sitcom?" She thought about her two young children. Had she unwittingly brought a bubonic plague-infested rat into their home?
"Rats carry the plague," the heath official told her. "Your other worry would be fleas. That's what carries disease." Later, he added, "Burning garbage is illegal, but that bag needs to be burned."
Merry and Leighton took photos, and disposed of the bag and its contents. She said she hoped American Airlines would make her whole--at least for the actual value of the things she lost.
"I realize this is not the outcome you requested"
An American Airlines representative emailed her, saying the airline would pay her $1,648, "maximum liability set by the Montreal Convention ... for a trip with an international flight."
"I realize this is not the outcome you requested," said the note, which was signed by a "specialist, central baggage," in the Central Baggage Resolution Office. "[H]owever, I appreciate this opportunity to address your concerns and explain our position. We hope you will give American Airlines another chance to earn your business."
I asked American Airlines for comment. Here's their statement:
We have apologized and are not aware of any similar issues of a rat making its way into a checked bag before. While we are unable to determine if the issue occurred in the United States or overseas, we did apologize to the customer, and they were compensated earlier this month.
NOTE: Based on the Montreal Convention and applicable international tariffs, liability limitations for international travel are 1,131 Special Drawing Rights (SDR) per ticketed passenger. This applies to all airlines for international travel. SDR (Special Drawing Rights) is an International Monetary Fund unit of currency. SDR's will be converted to U.S. Dollars using the rate in effect on the mishandled baggage settlement date. That is what was compensated. If you convert 1,131 to U.S. dollars, it is around $1,600.
It wasn't enough, Merry Cannon replied. The bag itself was a Samsonite that cost $300, she said, and she had three pairs of boots that cost $200 each, "plus I had dressy clothes, and workout clothes." Some of the things she'd brought were brand new, and stillahd the tags on them.
Cannon said she tried several more times to get someone from American to discuss her case, and see if she could get anything beyond the $1,600, but to no avail. Eventually, she posted the photo of the rat and her story on Facebook and Twitter.
"You could have just paid me for my bag, and none of this would have been out here," she said. "I'm never flying with them again."