Delta Destroys Priceless Cultural Artifacts After Forcing Woman to Gate Check Her Bag

We all know the usual tropes, like ‘there are only two kinds of luggage: carry on and lost’ and that someone who checks a bag for a trip every week is spending at least 2 days a year at baggage claim. Checking bags is something you want to avoid if you possibly can.

So when I first heard about a passenger having priceless family heirlooms destroyed by Delta I couldn’t understand why on earth she would check priceless family heirlooms.

Katelyn Peters’ story, though, becomes clear. She packed everything in a carry on bag but was told at the gate there was no more room, she’d have to check her rollaboard. It was returned to her at baggage claim looking as though it was put “through the shredder.”

Inside her bag was “a pair of custom beaded moccasins made in the early 1900s…given.. in trust to represent my family and where we are from.”

She filed a claim with Delta for $2600, which she estimates as the value of the destroyed items which also “included an “heirloom belt,” “heirloom top” and makeup” but Delta responded that they couldn’t do that for 100 year old relics because she couldn’t provide a receipt.

Delta for its part now apologizes and wants to “try to make this right.”

The real question, I think, is what should she have done? Most passengers, in the moment, would feel paralyzed. If you want to ensure you aren’t forced to gate check here’s your check-list.

  • Make sure the bag isn’t too large (that it meets the airline’s regulation specs, even fully packed and bulging).

  • Plan ahead. Earn elite status with the airline you fly or one of their partners, or sign up for the co-brand credit card of the airline you tend to fly the most. Those will get you earlier boarding. So will a premium cabin seat. Be at the boarding gate before boarding begins.

  • Consider buying priority boarding, often available for just a few dollars. Be at the boarding gate before boarding begins.

  • Just board early. Not every gate agent will enforce the boarding order.

  • If asked to gate check, remain polite, ask nicely and explain you have a short connection onto another airline and you could at least try to find some space? Agents concerned primarily with ‘D0’ departing exactly on time may not be sympathetic.

  • Once on the plane, take any space you can find don’t wait until you get all the way to your seat if you’re in the back of the cabin. You might get glares, but there may be room in the first class bins and that carries the added benefit of your not having to schlep the bag all the way to the back and also that it’s already near the front of the plane when you’re ready to disembark.

  • If you have priceless items in your carry on and you’re being asked to check it, and nothing else works, do not board the flight. Ask to be re-accommodated on a later flight, and to be given special needs boarding.

What would you have done?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’m not sure what happened to her bag, but Tigerlily seems like the definition of an “eggshell plaintiff.” She says she’ll never fly Delta again. If I were Delta, I’d be happy about that. I’m sure they don’t realize it, but there’s something about people-with-attitude that makes them unsympathetic.

  2. Why are you using quotes to discuss Native American Regalia, some of which is over 100 years old? It certainly appears you doubt her claim or worse, that you believe hand crafted garments, made by Native people, are simple and overvalued. Both takes are egregiously wrong.

    Yes, she was paralyzed with fear and is not a frequent flyer. I’ve had AA FAs literally yank my carry-on (containing jewelry) from my hands and I’m a 50ish attorney who’s been EP for years. Your write up has tinges of sexism and that dreaded R word. Stick to flight reviews. Middle aged white men should not be commenting on flying while brown. The skies are not so friendly for marginalized communities and the major carriers know that, yet you seem to have a problem recognizing it.

  3. You shouldn’t expect to place luggage in first class bins unless seated there, at least not without some kind of confrontation. Depending on the assholiness of the FA’s, they will warn you it must be removed if a FC passenger needs the space, even when the plane is 95% boarded and the FC bins are half-empty.

  4. Carry a smaller collapsible bag to put valuables in that will fit under the seat in front of you. Then have the presence of mind to repack before the gate check.

  5. What happened is awful, but some of your suggestions are terrible as well. So you suggest that if someone doesn’t feel like gate checking a bag, they should do things that are absolutely wrong? Cut in the boarding order, lie about connecting time, take overhead space reserved for someone else. For a truly priceless item, you’re completely correct about just not boarding the plane if gate checking really is required, but acting in a completely selfish manner because you don’t feel like observing the airline policies is unconscionable. That basically says “screw everybody else, I get what I want”.

  6. On my Delta flight from Detroit to Phoenix last Saturday I checked a bag for the first time in years because I am moving and needed stuff until the movers arrive in a few weeks.

    Getting to terminal 3 the tvs said carousel 4. But for some reason there was a ton of luggage already there from delta 880. I have no idea where those people were but they never showed up in the 30+ minutes I was there. Anyhow eventually our bags came out on carousel 3. Of course there was no announcements and the tvs were never updated

    Reminded me why I hadn’t checked bags in years.

  7. Most of the suggestions are good, and its a comprehensive list! Especially the part about not boarding! I think most people are averse to not boarding, but sometimes taking a later flight can be the best thing to do. And Gary rightfully points out that a carrier can re-accommodate a passenger theoretically without a charge in an extenuating circumstance.

  8. “Once on the plane, take any space you can find don’t wait until you get all the way to your seat if you’re in the back of the cabin. You might get glares, but there may be room in the first class bins and that carries the added benefit of your not having to schlep the bag all the way to the back and also that it’s already near the front of the plane when you’re ready to disembark.”

    No no no no no no. Please no. Terrible suggestion, and people who do this (without asking, early-mid way through boarding) are the absolute worst. You cause a cascade of issues that lead to longer de-planing, late departures, etc.

  9. According to her Twitter profile, Tigerlily is “Unapologetic. And I swear a fuckin’ lot.” Still, you have to look at her roll aboard pictures and wonder if it was shredded by a support bengal tiger, or what? I know Delta has clamped down on support animals. Do they force bengal tigers to be gate-checked now?

  10. I once reflexively started crying when told I had to check. (Last minute fare on an airline I don’t normally fly.). The FA got mad at me, and another passenger jumped up and asked if he could help. I explained I was going to my mom’s funeral, needed my suit and photos from my bag for the funeral, and was afraid to risk not having the bag arrive. He offered to gate check his own bag instead, and suddenly the FAs couldn’t have been more helpful.
    Sometimes people are forced to fly with important possessions. You’d think FAs would understand that and get someone else to check/rearrange/put things in their storage.

  11. While reading the title of your article I thought, oh my goodness, some ancient Mycenaean artifacts, they must belong to a museum and she was transporting them in a handcuffed Zero Halliburton attache case and the GA used a bolt-cutter to forcibly remove it, wow, she should definitely sue….then I saw the article and the photos and I thought, why didn’t she just take a later flight?

    (BTW when I was a kid I did see a courier with a handcuffed aluminum attache case at BOS Logan , first and last time in my life, I wonder how common a sight that is?)

  12. “Once on the plane, take any space you can find don’t wait until you get all the way to your seat if you’re in the back of the cabin. You might get glares, but there may be room in the first class bins and that carries the added benefit of your not having to schlep the bag all the way to the back and also that it’s already near the front of the plane when you’re ready to disembark.”

    If I was in first class, I would wait until you’d disappeared down the back, then remove the item from the overhead and say to the FA, “I’ve changed my mind and I don’t need this during the flight. Would you mind having it put in the hold for me, please?”

    First class lockers and first class bathrooms are for first class passengers. If you’re carrying an item so utterly precious that you can’t put it in the hold, remove it from your luggage and store it under the seat in front of you.

    Pretty much all the rest of the suggestions are boorish and entitled too. Don’t do them.

  13. “Just board early”
    In my opinion the advice you gave is the worst advice I expect from a blogger. I respect the law and also the regulations of airlines. There is a pecking order to decide whether I qualify or I walk the last boarder walk of shame.
    I did have a similar experience boarding LH at FRA. My bag was LH size and weight appropriate but the male gate agent decided it would not board. The discussion got heated and I mentioned that there were WW2 artifacts in my bag and a Nazi would remember. My choice then was board sans bag or be arrested. LH forced me to board via steps at the gate because the gate agent shut the escalator and onboard others had already occupied my preselected aisle seat.

  14. The gate attendants are under a lot of pressure by airline management to force people to gate check. If you explain the situation, I believe that they will try to accommodate you on the existing plane or help you on the next plane. Seriously, the gate attendants are not ogres, they are just the lowest person on the totem pole, trying to do their best (well, sometimes). I have been helped out by many nice gate attendants. Always remember the saying, you catch more flies with honey.

  15. Happened to me on KLM ORD-AMS flight. They wanted me to gate check my bag even though there was $10,000 worth of electronic and photo equipment in it. There was space on the plane but they refused to let me board with the bag and told me it was a “security risk” to bring the bag on the plane instead of check it. Gate agent went on a power trip and I had to either check the bag or forfeit the ticket. Thankfully I had miles so told gate agent to fuck off that I was going to fly United. They got mad and told me to surrender my boarding pass, which was on the phone. In the end, security had to escort me out. Was pretty comical.

  16. Based on the details in the story the passenger would seem to be of certifiable American Indian ancestry and enrolled in a federally recognized tribe (i.e. legally in possession of eagle feathers, else subject to up to a $250,000 fine). The exemption to the restriction on eagle feather possession is the only legal protection of American Indian spirituality . Her goods, especially the feathers, were more than mere bric-a-brac and their damage arguably ranks up there with United’s destruction of guitars, pulmonologists and folk musicians. Keep descending Delta!

  17. In the past, prior to qualifying for priority boarding, I, along with all other passengers boarding after me, have been forced by Delta gate agents to check a carry on bag due to the gate agent’s claim that overhead bin space was full.

    LIE!! There were empty overhead bins near my seat.

    In the name of their operational efficiency, my own operational efficiency was compromised while needlessly waiting for a gate checked bag.

    There are means of communication between gate agents and flight attendants on the aircraft. FA’s can call the gate agent when bin space is, indeed, severely limited or no longer available. They should use them. I’ve complained to Delta in the past and have received Skymiles for my trouble. Yet, this seems to be a persistent corporate policy of forcing passengers to gate check bags when not necessary. I would think this would increase their liability in this and other similar instances of lost or destroyed personal possessions.

  18. I’m not sure what is more disgusting. The destruction of these priceless heirlooms or your unethical “recommendations”.

    And clearly you are completely out of touch with those flying while brown.

  19. I’m surprised so many of you are so surprised or horrified by Gary’s advice such as storing your bags in first class bins. Its one tactic out of how many, 5, 10, that someone may use. He is just telling what people really do. I mean he could put a caveat that it is technically against the rules, but he is giving his reader a ton of choices both officially sanctioned and officially unsanctioned techniques by which they might solve this “problem.”

    If I wanted to read just the official rules or policies I would go to Delta’s web site or the in flight magazine, not Gary’s blog.

    Gary is equipping his readers to make that ethical decision about what technique if any they will use. Its perfectly fair to advise people if you put your bags in the first class bin you may upset someone, and I think Gary did point that out.

    It is then up to the reader to analyze all this information and the 5, 10, or 20 possibilities of how they might handle the checked bags, including the possibilities of the glares from first class, and then after analyzing and crunching all this information, for them to make an informed decision of what path to follow whether it be official or unoffvicial and to know the possible benefits, riskes, consequences, and threats for veering off to an unofficial path.

    I would much rather see all and every option on a blog like this than someone just quoting DL or LH’s policies. If Gary’s just going to quote official policies, he might as well just shut off the lights! 🙂

  20. No question that damage is extreme…I travel (with Delta) every week and have had pockets ripped and wheels smashed but not shredding like that. Every airline has similar issues at times. Always ship true valuables separately where they can be insured (or take them out of any gate checked luggage and keep them with you).

  21. How about keep your valuables in your personal item to be stored in the seat in front of you? Delta is not very strict with personal item dimensions. I take a large backpack as my personal item regularly that could easily have stored all of the belongings she mentioned. Another tip is to take a duffle bag instead of a roll-a-board. Gate agents tend to allow more of these to board for good reason… they squish! I’ve long said if they actually made people carry-on their carry-ons there would be no overhead bin issues.

  22. WHAT! A negative post about DL? The world must be ending. The shine is off the peach, DL has been resting on their past loreals, they maybe a better than AA and UA in ops, but the ground and inflight service is going down hill fast. Let’s face it boys and girls the big 3 all have strengths and weaknesses and DL has hidden theirs for some time, but they are now starting to show.

  23. I would like to know how that bag could get shredded like that? Not from putting it in the cargo hold. It’s small-ish but it’s hardly paper mache. It looks like it got ground down. It got stuck in a conveyor belt? Strapped to the landing gear?

    Claims are always tough. Airline is going to low ball you or stick to the absolute minimum it has to. You have to work the system and it can either be a pain or it can be easy. I once flew back from Hawaii and had some damage done to my duffel bag. The baggage attendant at the airline said, “Whose bag was this? Yours or your girlfriend’s? I can only offer you $100 because you aren’t (elite level status) but I can offer you $250 if it was hers because she is (an elite level classification).” I said, “I’ve never seen this bag in my life”. I got the $250 credit.

  24. If something is truly very valuable or “priceless” then do what musicians have been doing forever when travelling with very valuable or priceless instruments. Buy another seat for the item. If you don’t do that then that item is worth to you exactly what the extra seat costs.

  25. “Delta Destroys Priceless Cultural Artifacts”

    Sounds just like ‘Murica’s misadventures in Mesopotamia, stuff like running over ancient Babylon with your tank treads

    Col. John Coleman, former chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, told the BBC that if the head of the Iraqi antiquities board wanted an apology, and “if it makes him feel good, we can certainly give him one.”

    But he also asked: “If it wasn’t for our presence, what would the state of those archaeological ruins be?”

    By the same logic, if you never flew Delta then … oh never mind

  26. A few years ago I ignored orders to gate check a small rolling bag. I was starting a series of 3 long flights to get to Vietnam to lead a women’s travel group tour in Vietnam and Cambodia. I can’t remember what happened but I was late getting to the gate, whereas I am usually early. I had all of my instructions, from itineraries, directions for finding restaurants, booking confirmations etc. in the bag as well as information and printed daily itineraries for all 18 travelers. There was no way I could take a chance. I rolled the small bag down the jetway, and pulled off the ticket before I got to the door. I begged someone in business class to let me put my bag up there with him. I would do it again!!

  27. I travel with a hard-sided carry on bag, which provides a bit more protection that a soft-sided bag in the instance that I have to gate check.

  28. I’m sorry, but your advice isn’t necessaily helpful. How exactly was she supposed to get status as an infrequently flyer?
    Moreover, I have recently been on two flights where the gate agents told the area that all roller boards would have to be checked once group 2 started boarding. Group 2! I then got on board only to see that the overheads were not full and the flight attendants asking where our bags where.
    I think in a world in which airlines can deny us travel because of “security risks” even when the action has nothing to do with security, people, especially infrequent travelers can freeze and not want to question someone.
    I remember one of the first international trips I took by myself(I think I was 25ish-I know that’s late for most of you), the GA grabbed my bag at the door to the plane and sent it down the shoot to be checked in hold before I could say a word. It was a small duffel(I swear not one of the large ones you see), smaller than a roller. She said there wasn’t enough space and to pick it up in LA. I said I was connecting to a flight to Beijing and couldn’t they gate check it? She said I would have to leave and re-clear security. I did not have time to do this. I also said my medication was in there and she sighed and said I should have said so earlier(she grabbed it from me, how was I supposed to say). I got on the plane in a bit of a daze and saw tons of space. I told the flight attendant that had forced me to check my bag, but I had to connect. She told me to go tell that GA that there was room and to bring it on. I did that and GA sighed and got all huffy about having to send someone to grab it. I regained my backbone and mentioned my meds in there and they retrieved it. It wasn’t until later that I realized she had not tagged it, just sent it down to be put into the hold.
    Morale of the story is, sometimes you do your best but the airline thwarts you anyway.

  29. @Pete – Arguably the best – or at least the funniest – idea I’ve read this year. Amazing.

  30. What she could not fit it under her seat. Delta lost a customer and spirit found one. It is the customers faults why this hsppens. I check hard luggage only and have one carryon. So when there is not enough space blame the pax for bringing too much stuff on bosrd

  31. I don’t really have much sympathy. I have my carryon and I have a smaller bag. In the smaller bag I keep all important things and that is where I would have placed heirlooms. There is always a chance you won’t get cabin space for your carryon or someone is going to smash into your luggage while trying to make room for theirs. Having to gate check significantly increases the risk of damage to your luggage (or maybe even your luggage not getting on the plane) because they are rushing to load it last minute.

  32. Somehow I bet that the value of those “Priceless” heirloom moccasins and belts slid under the $800 CA valuation that you must declare and pay the appropriate taxes at customs. This is a complete non-issue that happens every day (damaged luggage) and is handled to the satisfaction of both parties. Only when someone tries to claim a ridiculous valuation on some item and then whines when they don’t get their windfall does it rise to being noteworthy.

  33. I’ve had my carry-one checked for this reason a few different times on Delta. Delta, please fly more 737s and less 717s.

    In all the chaos she most likely forgot to transfer those items to her personal bag, etc. It’s a shame.


  34. Just everybody should downsize personal cabin luggage, check big items in advance.
    Respect reserve space, and if really in need place carry on in your own footspace.

    The alternative will be a hardline for the carry on sizes, like Ryanair do in Europe: It fits in this box – or it will not fly…

    Positive effect for everyone: quick boarding, on – time flights…

  35. Please, delete the posts with obscenities. If I want to read them I can get the Washington Post.

  36. If passengers had some respect for others they would only put one bag in the overhead…..That does not happen most of the time~~Also if u have all these precious items pay to board early or have an xxtra smaller bag for these items .if they need to take ur rollerbag!!

  37. Please delete the obscenities. If I want to read/hear them I’ll listen to Fox News.

    For those who didn’t notice, she wasn’t given an option about putting item under seat.

    I always place my personal item under seat in front of me, but many don’t. I often notice people putting 2 items in overhead bins and FAs say nothing. But then make people check carry-on luggage. I’d have more empathy for them if they enforced the 1 bag above and 1 bag below rule for people bringing 2 bags on board.

    As for Hagen: after I load my laptop and charger, phone and charger, meds, necessary toiletries in a quart size bag, a clean pair of socks and my jewelry, there isn’t much space, so what should I downsize? Can’t check electronics or I risk theft, can’t check meds or I risk not having them on arrival, can’t check jewelry or I risk theft…What should we be downsizing?!?

  38. @ CA Girl: it seems we both have about the same cabin luggage. Laptop, charger, midicines, done.
    As minimalistic as possible.

    I speak about the people with a overloaded cabin trolly, a laptop trolley and additional a purse in the size of a bapack. And yes, I have seen a lot of them. Dont forget the neck pillow and the luchbox. I speak about the people with so much carry on – they even cannot carry it.

    Speaking about the actual case: getting back a suitcase in this condition is not the standard and should not happen in any case. Here should be the baggage agent ware of his staff…

  39. The average person flies less than once a year, and is utterly unaware that a legal-sized carryon bag may need to be gate-checked. I’d like the airlines to make it crystal clear at the time the ticket is purchased that there is no guarantee that an item exceeding the size of a personal item will be permitted on the plane, and that truly valuable or irreplaceable items should go inside the passenger’s personal item. That won’t completely solve the problem (as idiots don’t read), but it would help.

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