“This is the most bizarre action I have ever known an airline to take”

You don’t have to be a card-carrying frequent flier to know that when an airline loses your luggage, the odds of getting compensated are not good. That’s because its contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline — contains exceptions for everything from electronics to heirlooms. The best you can hope for is a check for a few hundred bucks to cover the clothing you lost, not the $3,000 maximum liability that’s advertised. But what if you didn’t check your bag?

That happened several years ago to Rosemary Daly, a US Airways passenger who eventually settled with the airline when it offered her flight vouchers. Now another passenger is going to court because of a similar loss.

“Continental Airlines recently lost a bag of mine filled with irreplaceable possessions, including heirloom jewelry that has been in my family for generations,” says Anjum Malik of Austin, Texas. “This bag was a carry-on, not a checked item. A carry-on bag and was moved without my knowledge or permission from the overhead bin. No one has seen the bag since.”

I asked Continental to comment on Malik’s case, but it declined because of the pending litigation.

Here’s what’s known. Malik was flying to Rhode Island to attend a graduation ceremony, and had packed some jewelry in a carry-on bag. A flight attendant helped her put the suitcase in an overhead bin a few rows away from her, since the bins above her were already taken.

After the plane was taxiing down the runway, I was informed that the Continental staff had moved my bag — supposedly to the lower storage area of the plane. In order to find whose bag it was, the Continental staff had gone into my suitcase and from my purse they got my airline ticket and my name. Yet they did not have enough sense to at least give me my purse or to see if I needed anything (such as medication) or wanted anything (such as my jewelry) from the bag.

Although they knew from my ticket that I had a connecting flight in New Jersey, they still did not gate check my bag, which would have allowed me to retrieve it upon exiting the plane at Newark to make my connecting flight to Providence.

Instead, they told me that they had checked it all the way through to Providence and handed me a handwritten number on top of the ticket jacket they had gotten out from my purse!

Unsurprisingly, the bag vanished, along with my jewelry.

This is the most bizarre action I have ever known an airline to take with respect to a passenger’s carry-on luggage, and may well be the most egregious case of airline carelessness you have heard.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Rather than negotiating a settlement with Malik — even after she presented the airline with receipts — Continental refused to compensate her and is moving to have her suit dismissed.

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This is an interesting case. If Malik had voluntarily surrendered her luggage to Continental, then its contract of carriage would apply, and the airline wouldn’t be liable for her jewelry and other valuables. However, Malik didn’t check her luggage. Someone removed her luggage from the overhead bin and then lost it.

“They took entirely unnecessary, unapproved and unilateral action over which I had no control and which directly resulted in the loss of my property,” Malik told me. “There was nothing I could have done to prevent this, and now they choose to pay exorbitant legal fees rather than compensate me for the loss they caused.”

I don’t have all the details of this case, since Continental won’t talk to me. But I know enough to know that the case deserves to go to court.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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