SHAVER LAKE — Tomoki "Tommy" Hayashi, a 16-year-old student from Fujisawa, Japan, was eager to continue practicing kyudo, a form of archery, with his prized Kokushin longbow during the coming school year at Sierra High School.
And his 69-year-old host "parents," Chuck and Cheryl Reynolds, were looking forward to seeing Tomoki shoot, promising to set up targets behind their forest home near Shaver Lake.
The enthusiasm was dashed, however, as they unpacked Tomoki's baggage a couple of days after he arrived in Fresno. That's when they discovered that his $750, 7½-foot-long bow was irreparably broken below the handle, an apparent victim of rough airline baggage handling.
Cheryl Reynolds said she and her husband "felt so bad because we really encouraged him to bring it. He didn't want to go a whole year without it."
Now it looks like he won't have to. Chuck Reynolds said he received a call this week from United Airlines which brought Tomoki from Japan to San Francisco and was told by a claims representative that United will pay to replace the bow.
Tomoki said he enjoys the highly stylized kyudo form of archery because it requires focus and concentration, skills that he applies to his studies. Several weeks ago, he participated in an archery competition in Japan and finished 15th out of 300 contestants.
There were warning signs when the Reynoldses picked Tomoki up at Fresno Yosemite International Airport on Aug. 5 after his United Express flight from San Francisco. About 2 feet of the cardboard box in which the bow was shipped was ripped away, leaving the bubble-wrapped bow exposed. What was left of the box was still festooned with red United Airlines "fragile" labels.
But by that time, Tomoki had been traveling for 24 straight hours, and the Reynoldses said their first priority that evening was to get the boy home to eat and rest. They unpacked the bow later and discovered the break.
Tomoki told Chuck Reynolds that he walked the box through a U.S. Customs checkpoint in San Francisco; it was intact before he boarded the Fresno flight.
He didn't feel any better after calling SkyWest Airlines, which operates the United Express flights. It was an unhelpful conversation. The airline representative, he said, offered no suggestions or information about policies for filing a damaged-baggage claim. "Their attitude was basically, 'That's too bad,' " Chuck Reynolds said.
SkyWest's corporate communications office in St. George, Utah, did not return The Fresno Bee's calls inquiring about Reynolds complaint. A United Airlines spokeswoman, Karen May, said Tuesday that "any airport or reservations agent can explain to a customer how to file a claim." She added that a United representative would be contacting Reynolds for more detailed information about their complaint.
Chuck Reynolds did indeed receive two calls Wednesday morning from United. In the first call, he said, a claims representative asked about how the bow was packed for shipping and some other details about the damage. Later, the airline called back to confirm United's intention to reimburse Tomoki for the broken bow.
Airline policies typically provide limited recourse to passengers when luggage is lost or damaged. United Airlines, for instance, requires that a complaint about damaged baggage on international travel be made in writing within seven days of the flight's arrival, with "proof of claim acceptable to United." The policy does not specify what type of proof the airline finds acceptable.
In a statement Wednesday, United's May underscored the importance of passengers making sure belongings are packaged appropriately and securely. "United Airlines accepts archery equipment for transport if it is packed in a hard-sided case" as outlined in its luggage policy, May said.
"Mr. Hayashi's was not, and United agents erred in accepting the equipment as packed."
"While he had not filed a claim with United, we have reached out to him and his host father to begin the claims process," she added.
Lost and damaged luggage is common in airline travel. The U.S. Department of Transportation even publishes a monthly report of complaints to airlines about mishandled luggage bags that are lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered.
The most recent statistics available, for July 2012, indicate that SkyWest reported more than six baggage complaints for every 1,000 domestic passengers. Among the nation's busiest airlines, only American Eagle Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines had higher complaint rates.
United's baggage-complaint rate in July 2012 was 4.84 per 1,000 domestic passengers.
Airlines suggest that passengers carefully examine luggage and packages in the baggage claim area before leaving the airport and promptly report damage to the airline's service counter. Different airlines have different policies, though.