By Travel columnist

Her PC is taken from her on a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, with an assurance that it will be returned to her when she lands. But when Mita Patel's laptop goes missing, El Al also holds her master's thesis hostage. How to get her computer back in a hurry?

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Q: I recently had my laptop computer confiscated by security agents before my El Al Israel Airlines flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. I need your help recovering it.

I’m not sure why the computer was taken from me. On the flight over, I was questioned for over an hour. Agents sifted through all my belongings, every square inch of them. I was asked to pull down my pants and take off my underwear. I was told that I would not be allowed to take my laptop, my hair straightener, my hair dryer or my body exfoliant on board the plane.

The most memorable question was, “Why do you smile so much?”

On the return flight, my laptop was again taken away from me. I was told by one of the security agents that no one is allowed to take laptops on El Al. My master’s thesis was on the computer, and it needed to be turned in the next day. I had some major changes to make to it.

To my disgust, a few people flipped open laptops after our plane took off. When we landed, my laptop was nowhere to be found. I spent two hours at the baggage claim, and left with nothing except a case number.

Please help me. El Al is holding my master’s thesis hostage.

— Mita Patel,Elyria, Ohio

A: Your story brings back memories of my master’s thesis, which was also held up (I think there’s an unwritten rule in academia that every thesis or dissertation must be delayed for some reason or another). I couldn’t blame an airline for it, though.

What happened to you isn’t that unusual. El Al’s security is legendary. It subjects passengers to all kinds of questions, prodding and searches in the name of security. I love that question about smiling, though. I had no idea that a happy face was an indication of criminal intent. Guess you learn something new every day.

Although the invasive once-over you had to endure at the hands of El Al’s security was probably unavoidable, the problem you encountered with your laptop was completely preventable. Your mistake was traveling with the only working copy of your thesis. You could have — and should have — bought an inexpensive flash-memory keychain, and backed up your important documents.

Oddly, I heard from another El Al passenger who had a laptop confiscated the same week you did. I took both cases to El Al and asked what was happening. Are laptop computers now banned from El Al flights?

“They are not,” airline spokeswoman Sheryl Stein told me. “Sometimes, when security sees something suspicious, they will take the laptop and then return it after the flight. But laptop computers are permitted.”

Shortly after I brought both queries to El Al’s attention, the laptop computers were returned to their owners. I am confident that you would have received your laptop eventually, but it is certainly nice to have it back sooner rather than later. I think El Al needs to make an effort to keep the separation between passengers and their PCs as brief as possible.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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