When Sticky Fingers Handle Your Bags
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY
Wall St. Journal
As travelers get ready for holiday flights, they might want to skip tucking presents into their checked suitcases this year. That's because baggage theft is on the rise.
This year, Delta Air Lines Inc. baggage handlers were caught rifling through suitcases in the belly of airplanes in Hartford, Conn., pocketing laptops, cameras, iPods, GPS units, jewelry, watches and earrings, according to Lt. J. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police.
Authorities also broke up a ring of airline thieves in St. Louis who, according to Lambert Airport Police Chief Paul Mason, were targeting soldier's bags that were shipping off to war. Baggage handlers pulled soldiers' duffels off a conveyor belt in a tunnel, stashed loot and then picked it up later, taking it home under their coats or in backpacks. Among the stolen items recovered: laptops, electronic game systems, cameras, cigarettes, battery chargers, sunglasses and firearms.
Baggage-theft arrests have been made this year in cities around the world, from Dublin, Ireland, to Adelaide, Australia. In Phoenix, a couple was found with 1,000 pieces of stolen luggage and belongings piled floor-to-ceiling in their home. The pair had been lifting bags off carousels at the airport.
In Portland, Ore., Northwest Airlines baggage handlers were caught in April stealing items and posting them for sale on eBay right from a supervisor's airline-owned computer. Baggage theft reports are up nearly 50% this year, according to airport spokesman Steve Johnson. Portland airport police have received 195 reports of baggage theft this year through October, compared with 132 reports in the same period of 2008. At least 43 of the reports this year relate to the ring at Northwest, Mr. Johnson said.
In New York, police caught baggage handlers in July stealing items from bags and then switching destination tags so that the luggage would be lost. If the bag was reunited with owners, the circle of possible suspects who handled it had been expanded, covering the tracks of the thief.
Airlines say baggage theft is rare among the millions of passengers who fly each year, but law-enforcement officials say it has been growing significantly. "There's been a tremendous increase in the last five years. It's pretty bad—a lot is getting stolen every day," said a prosecutor in the Queens County district attorney's office, which handles airport theft cases in New York.
Authorities attribute an escalation to the sour economy and to tighter security around cargo, which historically has been a target for thieves. Passenger baggage is now easier pickings. In addition, cost-cutting at airlines and police departments has reduced patrols and enforcement, officials say.
Some thefts are small. Charles Petersen of Biddeford, Maine, had about 20 golf balls stolen from a locked travel case on a March flight from Boston to Tampa. "It feels like they are doing this with impunity," he said.
And some thefts amount to grand larceny. Two Kennedy Airport baggage handlers working for AMR Corp.'s American Airlines were charged in September 2008 with stealing a bag of jewelry worth $280,000. One of the men was a crew chief.
For travelers, the sting of a theft is often followed by frustration with airlines and the Transportation Security Administration, which often are slow to respond to reports and in most cases deny any responsibility. Airline ticket rules—the "contract of carriage"—exclude liability for any valuables in luggage, such as computers, cameras, electronic equipment, jewelry, business documents, artwork or similar valuable items.
Amanda Slaver flew from Rochester, N.Y., to Las Vegas in February and found that her jewelry bag had been unzipped. The good stuff—gold, diamond and sapphire family heirlooms—had been taken and the plastic, glass and metal jewelry remained.
"It was devastating," she said. "Your trust is broken."
For the next seven months she argued with Delta over a $3,000 claim. The airline said it wasn't liable because its contract of carriage excludes valuables from the airline's responsibility. Delta offered her a $100 voucher toward a future ticket. "It seemed less like they wanted to help me and more that they just wanted me to go away," she said.
A Delta spokeswoman says the airline does offer compensation to customers "within the limits of our contract of carriage."
Vijay Dandapani, a hotel executive in New York, complained to both Continental Airlines Inc. and the TSA after a brand-new iPod was taken out of its carton and stolen from his bag traveling from Newark, N.J., to Mumbai. TSA closed his case saying it couldn't help him; Continental sent him a $100 travel voucher.
"You feel violated," he said.
Both airline workers and TSA screeners have access to checked luggage, and it's often impossible to tell who is responsible unless a thief is caught red-handed. Airlines say they try to avoid finger-pointing with TSA over blame. Law-enforcement officials say TSA thefts, though they got lots of attention in past years, account for a relatively small portion of all baggage theft and have been declining.
In 2005, TSA paid out more than $3 million in claims for theft and baggage damage, but by 2008, that dropped to $813,000. Through October this year, TSA has paid out only $446,000 in baggage claims, a spokeswoman said.
TSA has reduced baggage theft as it has moved from opening bags and searching by hand to running them through scanning machines on conveyor belts, limiting the number of bags handled by screeners. The agency says it has also added more surveillance cameras to baggage-screening areas.
A total of 330 TSA officers have been fired for theft since the agency's inception in 2003, a spokeswoman said.
Complaints filed with TSA about property losses—which include theft—have also dropped, down 26% this year through October compared with the same period of 2008.
Airlines say they look for patterns in theft claims filed by customers and work with police to catch thieves. Arrests in Portland, Hartford, St. Louis and New York all included Delta employees or contractors, for example, and Delta says that's because it initiated most of the investigations. In New York, for example, Delta and TSA planted a bag stuffed with electronics in the JFK baggage system and two men working together, one a TSA screener and the other a baggage handler, were videotaped swiping a computer and cellphone, then switching the luggage tags to help cover their tracks.
Since it's hard to pin down at which airport items were stolen, airport police chiefs have launched a new reporting system that tracks the itinerary of a stolen bag, alerts airports along the route and tries to spot patterns, says Chief Mason in St. Louis, who is also president of Airports Law Enforcement Agencies Network, an association of police chiefs. In its first six months, the system has already identified one airport that might be having a problem, he said.
Lost or Stolen
Airlines don't report statistics on baggage theft, and often never know if a bag was simply lost or if it was stolen. Carriers say they do have surveillance cameras in some locations, and they do conduct spot checks at baggage carousels to match tags on bags with claim checks. Theft of an entire bag, while rare, they say, is most often traced back to someone stealing from a baggage-claim carousel, as with the Phoenix couple.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has begun new random luggage checks and increased video-camera surveillance and patrols in baggage-claim areas. Other airports say they patrol baggage areas, watch baggage handlers and sometimes send officers in civilian clothes to monitor activity in claim areas. But baggage theft hasn't been a high priority amid all the other airport security concerns.
It's the lack of responsibility for theft that leaves many customers fuming. Jack La Torre's daughter was rushing home to New York from graduate school at Stanford University in California with a medical condition affecting her hands. Since she couldn't carry anything, she checked her Mac Air laptop in her luggage. The computer never made it home.
Mr. La Torre, a retired New York Police Department lieutenant who now works at Columbia University, pressed Delta to check security tapes and to waive Delta's exclusion of liability because of his daughter's condition.
The airline apologized, but said the stolen item should have been transported by other means. "We do not feel that compensation is in order," Delta said.
"What sort of protection do we have for the consumer?" Mr. La Torre asks.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D1
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