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Nakita Rees and Tom Wilson, at their home in Cambridge, Ont., have been tracking their lost luggage for months following a honeymoon in September. The case has shed light on the processes that airlines – or at least Air Canada – undertakes to deliver, then sell, unclaimed luggage.Nick Iwanyshyn/The Globe and Mail

The case of a couple from Cambridge, Ont., who had their bag donated to charity by Air Canada AC-T despite tracking it with an AirTag is drawing fresh scrutiny to airlines’ long-standing but controversial practice of disposing of luggage deemed lost.

Some legal experts and consumer advocates say that while airlines never had the authority to dispose of lost baggage, passengers’ use of tracking devices could become a new test of the legal soundness of that practice.

Nakita Rees-Wilson and Thomas Wilson made national headlines with the story of how they rescued their missing luggage from a storage facility in Etobicoke, Ont. The couple, who flew home from a trip to Europe with Air Canada in early September, say the airline left one of their bags in Montreal during a layover. They were able to track the location of the missing luggage for months through an Apple AirTag, a loonie-sized Bluetooth device that users can locate with their phones.

But the couple says Air Canada made no effort to trace the bag based on the AirTag’s location, even though they shared with the company several times. Instead, the airline paid them compensation and gave away their bag to charity. It wasn’t until Mr. Wilson drove to their bag’s location and got the police involved that they were finally reunited with their luggage.

Airlines’ inability to locate a misplaced bag never stripped passengers of their ownership rights, and the disposing of passengers’ possessions potentially raises issues of criminal liability for the industry, said Marcus Bornfreund, a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer.

Ms. Rees-Wilson and Mr. Wilson’s luggage fiasco shows how tracking devices are giving consumers a new way to “challenge the designation of their luggage as lost,” he said.

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Typically, airlines consider a bag lost if it has no external identification information, such as a name tag, and if enough time has passed that passengers would receive compensation, said John Gradek, co-ordinator of McGill University’s aviation management program.

Carriers often rely on third-party companies to destroy or salvage the bags and their contents after they have been sitting in storage, he said, adding that Ms. Rees-Wilson and Mr. Wilson’s account suggests that Air Canada’s current policy is to give the luggage to charity.

Air Canada did not respond to a request to share details about its lost-luggage handling process, including how long it waits before giving bags away. Instead, the airline said it provided the couple with compensation worth $2,300 in October.

Under current air travel rules, Canadians are entitled to compensation of up to approximately $2,350 from an airline if they don’t receive missing baggage within 21 days. Passengers can seek additional compensation for any damages suffered, said Gabor Lukacs, an advocate for air-passenger rights.

Ms. Rees-Wilson and Mr. Wilson’s luggage saga suggests that Air Canada – and likely other carriers – have not adequately updated their missing luggage protocols to systematically incorporate passengers’ own information about where their bags are, Mr. Gradek said.

“The technology that is available to the customer is far superior than the technology available to the airline,” he said.

In e-mails, WestJet and Air Transat said they incorporate any information that passengers share about the location of tracked bags in their efforts to return misplaced luggage. Both carriers said they donate or dispose of bags that go unclaimed for 90 days.

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