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TravelWhat should you do if your laptop is damaged in-flight?

What should you do if your laptop is damaged in-flight?

The flight started out like any other. I was returning from a work trip to Orlando and decided to use the time on my two-hour Delta flight to catch up on emails. There I was, happily typing away (and probably listening to a horror movie recap podcast on my headphones) when the unthinkable happened.

The person in front of me reclined their seat … and that’s when this flight became unlike any other I’ve taken.

Usually, a drink and a couple of Biscoff cookies help me ignore little annoyances like this. Until airlines stop allowing economy passengers to recline their seats, there isn’t much you can do when someone leans back and makes your already small space even smaller.

The beginning of the end of my laptop

I’m not one to dwell on minor inconveniences until they become major ones, but this incident was more than just inconvenient.

The passenger in front of me threw their seat back at breakneck speed, crushing my laptop and rendering it useless. My seatmates and I stared wide-eyed as we saw my laptop get caught in the seatback. It only took a second or two, but it felt like it broke in slow motion. The screen compressed until it cracked, and we looked at each other in disbelief, wondering if what we saw had actually happened.


Unfortunately for me, it had.

I was using a 15-inch Macbook Pro and, until that moment, I loved the larger screen size. However, the larger size may have contributed to its downfall in this situation.

When the passenger in front of me put their seat back, my laptop got caught in the small opening that holds the tray table in place when it is in its locked position.


With the corner of my laptop caught, there was no escape. Both my laptop and a little piece of my soul were crushed. I didn’t know it was physically possible for this to happen, so I had no idea what to do.

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As a travel writer, I decided my first course of action should be to document the incident in the hope of protecting others from the same fate. I no longer had a functioning laptop, but I was pretty sure I had a useful story.

I can’t say for sure if the passenger in front of me knew what happened. Surely, they must have felt some resistance while trying to recline and heard the exclamatory chatter between myself and my seatmates, but they never turned around or acted as if they knew anything was wrong.

I am confrontation-averse, so I chose not to talk with them myself. Part of me does hope they were aware of the situation and have since changed their aggressive seat-reclining ways. For better or worse, travelers have a right to recline, but doing so gently and offering a quick warning to the passenger seated directly behind you should be the standard.

Asking for help in flight

I didn’t see any flight attendants nearby, so I did something I’d never done before: I hit the flight attendant call button.

After about 10 or 15 minutes, a friendly flight attendant came to my seat, and I explained what happened. To my surprise, his first question was whether I had discussed it with the offending passenger. I told him I had not because I didn’t feel the passenger was solely at fault (not to mention you never know how people will react, and I had no interest in creating an inflight issue). In my mind, it was Delta’s seat-reclining equipment design that had caused the incident.

The flight attendant told me he had never seen anything like this happen before and spoke with the flight leader to determine the best way to handle the situation. When he returned, he offered to lavish me with 1,000 Delta SkyMiles.

Based on TPG’s current valuation for Delta SkyMiles, his generous offer amounted to a whopping $11.50. That’s probably about 1% of the cost of a replacement laptop.

Of course, it’s not his fault; as a flight attendant, he can only offer up to a certain amount of points for “customer inconvenience.” His advice was to take photos and contact Delta customer service after I landed. Even though he hadn’t seen this exact situation in the past, he told me he had heard of Delta offering assistance in similar instances.

Related: Travel etiquette: The final word on the right to recline on economy flights


That’s exactly what I did when I landed for my layover in Atlanta. I stopped by one of Delta’s customer service desks, and the agent told me to speak with someone at baggage claim when I reached my final destination. I thanked him and made my way to the gate for the last leg of my flight.

Getting assistance at my home airport

When I arrived home, I went to Delta’s baggage services desk and spoke to an agent there. She had also never seen a situation like mine and called over one of Delta’s Red Coats — the airline’s top problem-solving customer service agents — for assistance.


After describing what had happened, the Red Coat was sympathetic but told me he couldn’t do much for me. The most he was authorized to give as compensation was $100. He explained that most damaged property incidents happen when a flight attendant accidentally spills a drink on someone’s clothing or baggage. In those cases, Delta pays to clean and replace the item.

Knowing that repairing or replacing my Macbook would cost more than $100, he took down my information. He promised to check into my situation with Delta customer service and get back to me the following week.

His answer, unfortunately, amounted to Delta’s canned responses regarding baggage liability. Essentially, the airline does not assume responsibility for unchecked items damaged in flight unless given to Delta personnel for storage. At that point, I wished I had just accepted the $100.


Technically, I agree with Delta that they were not directly at fault for the incident as they didn’t physically mishandle my computer. However, I don’t think it was my fault or the expedient seat-reclining passenger’s fault either. We were both doing things the seats were designed to do — working on the tray table and reclining in the seat.

Maybe it was just a one-in-a-million freak accident, but I certainly had hoped Delta would attempt to make things right with more than $15 worth of SkyMiles. I suppose I could have redeemed those SkyMiles to drown my sorrows with a premium drink purchase in the Delta SkyClub, but for now, they are sitting with my other SkyMiles waiting to be used.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. CAMILO FREEDMAN/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET/GETTY IMAGES

Rectifying the situation

Delta is still one of my favorite airlines. However, since Delta didn’t give me much of a solution, the only recourse I could find to “even the scales” was to take my business to other airlines for a little while. Maybe that sounds petty, but it was the best I could come up with to help myself get over it.

I moved on pretty quickly. I got a new laptop, and I have taken several Delta flights since the incident. I even procured a coveted Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card made with metal from a retired Delta Air Lines Boeing 747 aircraft, which helped me reach Silver Medallion status this year.

Stopping laptop destruction before it starts

I now have a new laptop and a new plan to prevent incidents like this from happening again.

First, I sometimes leave my laptop in my carry-on baggage during flights. If I don’t get it out, there is no chance of damaging it. If I do need to use my laptop, I make sure it is never pushed all the way back on the tray table. I replaced my Macbook with another of the same size, but I have also spoken with several people (including some of my TPG coworkers) who use a smaller laptop or tablet to mitigate the chance of something like this happening.

I’ve also considered asking the person in front of me for a warning if they plan to recline their seat when I have my laptop out. However, I am a bit hesitant about that — you never know who is sitting in front of you or how they’ll react to any level of request.


How to protect items if they are damaged while traveling

Credit cards with purchase protection and extended warranties

Going forward, I plan to purchase pricey items like laptops with a card that offers built-in purchase protection benefits. If something you bought with the credit card is damaged, stolen or (in some cases) lost, you can be reimbursed for repairing or replacing the item for some time after the purchase.

Those protections don’t last forever, but they can help in the event of a disaster within the card’s coverage time frame — or, at least, until more airlines remove the option to recline seats in economy.

Home, renters or travel insurance

Every insurance policy is different, but your policy may cover damage to personal property even when those items are outside your home. Policies vary regarding which items and types of events are covered, but it would be worth calling your insurance company or looking into supplemental travel insurance policies to determine if you are eligible to file a claim.

Also, remember that you will be responsible for paying your policy’s deductible before coverage kicks in, so whether making a claim is worth it depends on your deductible and the value of your damaged item.

Electronic device insurance plans

Insurance policies like AppleCare+ and Microsoft Complete typically cover accidental damage to your laptop or mobile device.

You will likely be responsible for a service repair fee, which will be much less than replacing your damaged item. These are add-on products that you can opt into when buying your laptop or mobile device or within an allotted window after purchasing.

Related reading:

Delta Air Lines did not respond to a request for comment for this story.


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