Flying to Israel on El Al, I left my expensive headphones on the plane, and immediately reported it to the airline. A representative called two days later and said they had the headphones. We drove to the airport, and they were not mine, and we left. I called back, and they said they had a pair that fit the description completely, sent me a picture, and I told them that those are the right kind, but from the wrong day and flight. The representative said that, because it had been almost two months (the limit they keep things), that they would be given away in one week anyway, and maybe I should be more sure they are not mine. I said I left mine out of the case, and these had a case. The representative said, you don’t understand, we can deliver this pair to you, which is the same type. I said they are not mine. She asked, how about if I deliver them tomorrow, it seems as though someone stole yours. Is it forbidden to accept these "replacements" even though they are not mine? Thank you.
Shalom, Thank you for your question. The Mitzvah of returning lost objects is an important command from the Torah, and has many details, as your question indicates. El Al has a mitzvah to return the lost objects. However, because of the vast number of things lost and found on airplanes, the airlines have taken precautions to make sure that they can both fulfill this mitzvah, and also not be overrun with the task of taking care of lost objects, that would be beyond any reasonable demands. In order to do this, rather than be obligated to the letter of the religious law about returning lost objects, they make a condition with all who fly with them, that any lost objects will be dealt with in a certain fashion. When you bought your ticket with El Al you agreed to a clause that states (something of the nature that) any items left of the plane will be the property of El Al, and they can do with them as they see fit, after making reasonable efforts to allow you to claim them. Apparently they have two month time limit. By making this legal contract with you, you agreed that all lost objects will be dealt with in this fashion, and relinquished any ownership you might have had beyond what is stated in the contract. With all this in mind, we can now turn to El Al's offer to give you someone else's property in place of your original item. Firstly, I am certain that El Al has a clause in their contract with you (the ticket you bought) that they are in no way responsible for your items left on the plane. So, they do not owe you anything. Now the only question is – are the headphones they want to give you (out of the kindness of their hearts – and customer relations) legally El Al's to give away – or do they belong to their original owner. In order to determine this we would need to examine El Al's contract with the other passenger. As we don't know who that is, or exactly how and when El Al came into possession of these headphones, we will have to take their word for it. So, you need to ask El Al "Are you certain that by giving me these headphone's you aren't infringing on your obligation to the original owner of them? Perhaps you promised that they would have two months to try and collect them, and that's not over yet?" If they say that it is fine – then you may take accept the headphone's. If though they say something like "Don't worry about it – just don't tell anyone about it – it's a hush hush favor for you – but don't let my boss know" – then you should politely refuse. An extra idea would be in any case, to leave your contact details with El Al, and ask them to please call you if it seems like the owner of the headphone's you accept from them turns up. I hope this is of some help to you. Blessings.