You may remember a little problem we had back in December of 2010 when, during a rare plane trip, a set of brand new Bilstein shock absorbers were taken from our luggage. After months of hassle and frustration we have finally been reimbursed for the value of our stolen property. This does not mean, however, that all is well.

After the shocks disappeared from our luggage we spent almost eight months making phone calls and sending emails trying to figure out who took our shocks and how we could get them back. We were universally ignored or caught in the middle of a he-said/she-said blame game with agents from the Transportation Safety Administration swearing that the TSA does not take items out of luggage and Continental Airlines swearing that the TSA is the agency which removes restricted items, like shock absorbers.

Ultimately, we had no choice but to send an email to the media relations department at Continental. As legitimate members of the media, this got immediate action in the form of phone call from Gary Meckel a very cordial Continental Airlines “Senior Staff Representative.” Mr. Meckel told us that while Continental had no record of taking our shock absorbers and insisted that the TSA must have taken them, the airline was willing to offer us 16,000 frequent flier miles (worth roughly the $600 value of the shock absorbers) as a gesture of “good will.”

We told him we’d have to think about it, which we did for about 45 seconds. Then we sent Mr. Meckel an email we’d received from a TSA agent who adamantly stated that the TSA doesn’t take items like shock absorbers, the airlines do. In the email the TSA agent even advised “You should persist with the airline to rectify your claim.”

Meanwhile, the TSA assigned an investigator to our case and that investigator told us that paperwork had been found showing that a Continental Airline employee had signed for our shock absorbers. More precisely, someone had put his or her (potentially fake and nearly illegible) initials on the form.

Despite our request to Continental’s Mr. Meckel for a clarification of his airline’s policy regarding the removal of restricted items and a rebuttal (if any) to the TSA’s claims we got neither. We did, however, get a check for the value of our shock absorbers.

This is a hollow victory, however, since the underlying problem we discuss in our original post (see below) remains: airline policies allow employees to remove restricted items without any requirement to account for or log the item taken or be held responsible for the removal in any way. We still believe there’s a Continental Airlines employee out there with some very, very good shock absorbers on his or her truck right now.

Our original post about the loss of our shock absorbers during a Continental flight

There are many reasons that the Trans-Americas Journey is a road trip. Now we can add: “In order to avoid being robbed blind by airline staff” to the list.

Skyway robbery

As some of you know, we recently got on an airplane for the first time in years, leaving our trusty truck behind in Guatemala City while we traveled back to the US briefly then on to Argentina to embark on our Antarctic Adventure. Most of our flights were on LAN Airlines but some legs (between Guatemala and the US) were on Continental Airlines.

Knowing that we were going to need to bring some personal supplies back from the US, we booked First/International Business class seats on Continental (using reward miles) because this class gets you a higher baggage allowance plus big bright orange baggage tags that read “Priority Handling”.

On our Continental flight out of the US we had a set of brand new top-of-the-line Bilstein shock absorbers in one of our duffel bags. After more than 75,000 hard miles over rough roads and countless speed bumps carrying a maxed out load, the shocks on our truck were feeling the pain.

To remedy the situation, our partners at Bilstein kindly upgraded us to a set of shocks best suited to the reality of the road conditions in Central and South America and we were excited to bring the shocks (which are not readily available in Latin America) back with us and have them installed so we could stop worrying over every bump in the road.

However, when we landed and collected our bags it was immediately clear that one of our duffels was half empty. We opened it up and found a notice from the TSA that the bag had been inspected–and the shock absorbers were gone.

Shock absorber shocker

The original cardboard shipping box containing the shocks (and clearly labeled with both our US address and Bilstein’s address) had simply been taken out of our bag. Other items in the duffel, some valuable, were left untouched.

Since the note we found where our shock absorbers used to be was from the TSA we immediately began emailing and calling them. It took more than a month to get a response from anyone and the TSA ultimately told us that they do not remove such items and insisted that it was our airline (Continental) that took them.  

Prior to flying we had reviewed the Continental Airlines web site to see if there were any restrictions on carrying auto parts. The sometimes-cryptic list did not specifically name anything that indicated to us that our shocks would be a problem since they were not oil lubricated (which was listed as a no-no).

The Continental Airlines dangerous goods page did list “compressed gasses” as a restricted item, which we took to mean a cylinder of oxygen or something like that. What didn’t occur to us is that our shock absorbers operate using a small amount of compressed gas.

Fair enough. Our bad. We figured we’d have to file a tedious claim with Continental  Airlines then we’d get the shocks back and have them shipped down to us. Inconvinient? Yes. More costly? Yes. But at least there was a solution. Wrong.

It took another series of phone calls and emails to reach Continental Airlines and get our hands on the right claim form which we filled out and returned to the airline as instructed along with a receipt for the shocks and many other supporting documents.

Flyer beware

Now, more than two months after filing our Continental paperwork, we have received a letter from Continental Airlines Claims Analyst Curtis Richmond informing us that his “analysis” has failed to locate the shocks and, anyway, CONTINENTAL AIRLINES IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR RETURNING RESTRICTED GOODS and because we were busy barking up the TSA tree and getting the run-around from Continental employees for so long we were not able file our documents within the prescribed time period which is 24 hours after landing so, according to Curtis Richmond, Continental Airlines is also not responsible for reimbursing us for the value of the goods that were taken from our luggage.

What’s eating us up (besides the loss of expensive and essential belongings) is the impunity the Continental Airlines policy seems to foster. By saying that the airline is not responsible for the fate of restricted items Continental Airlines is, essentially, issuing a license to steal to any employee who sees something that falls into this category.

As long as you know the item is restricted feel free to “forget” to log it and go ahead and take it home. Right now some smug Continental employee is probably driving around on our $600 shock absorbers.

We’re pissed and we’re powerless. We’re also without a set of very expensive and very essential truck parts.

And we’re sure that other airlines have similar loopholes in their baggage search and confiscation guidelines. Sadly, a simple Google search turns up many other people with similar stories.

As we await any semblance of a reasonable response from Continental Airlines regarding our stolen shock absorbers we thought we’d share this musical take on airline angst (this time with United Airlines which recently merged with Continental). Though there’s nothing funny about having major baggage issues with an airline and then getting no compensation or assistance whatsoever, this video had us smiling between the tears.

We are heartened to learn that a Tiger Air passenger recently won reimbursement from the airline for the value of his lost luggage and the excess baggage he paid–but only after he made his own musical stink. Apparently, it now requires a Hollywood production to get what we used to call Customer Service from an airline.

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