When I recently asked my Twitter followers for examples of looted luggage, I didn’t expect the results would be quite so personal: an oil painting that an artist was carrying home to Chicago; a favorite Swiss Army knife that had traveled the world with its owner until it was stolen on a flight from Mexico to Panama; some fake pearls (and a box of condoms) from a bag at Newark-Liberty International.
Beyond the anger at having something stolen is the distasteful sense of violation, that strangers have rummaged through your most personal possessions.
Chances are good that you know someone who has had something filched from his or her checked bags. You may even have been a victim yourself. For the past decade, airline reports of “mishandled” luggage have hovered at around five complaints for every 1,000 domestic passengers, a figure that buries actual theft reports in a category that also includes loss, damage, and delay. Nevertheless, a series of recent high-profile arrests demonstrates that, no matter the number of reports, the boldness of thieves has increased, leaving both law enforcement and passengers on high alert.
Last February two TSA agents at JFK International airport were arrested on charges of stealing nearly $160,000 in cash from passenger luggage. In 2009 eight baggage handlers contracted by Delta at St. Louis’s Lambert airport were arrested for going through hundreds of bags and taking more than 900 items over the course of a year. Also that year, a Continental employee from Houston told ABC News that she regularly sees her co-workers searching luggage for valuables.
And it’s not just checked baggage that’s at risk. Scott Mayerowitz, airlines reporter for the Associated Press, says, “I won’t step through the metal detector until I see my bag enter the X-ray machine.” It’s good advice—sticky-fingered TSA agents are rare, but they have been known to pocket items from carry-ons and purses in the screening area.
The worst part: Don’t assume that an airlines will readily reimburse you for stolen goods. Their ticket rules rarely cover loss of cash, jewelry, electronics, furs, heirlooms, and other expensive items. (Most travel insurance plans don’t cover much either.)
So in the end, who’s to blame? The TSA acknowledges the criminal actions of “a few individuals,” and a spokesperson told me the agency will “aggressively investigate all allegations of misconduct” and has a “zero-tolerance policy for criminal activity.” In the meantime, with no single agency in charge of securing bags, there’s an unending circle of finger-pointing among airlines, airports, the TSA, and any other group that handles airline luggage. And as the reports of theft continue, passengers should be rethinking how—and what—they pack.
Read on for our tips on how to avoid luggage theft.
Get a suitcase with a TSA-approved lock, which can be opened only by you and the TSA (the Safe Skies TSA Strap is one example). Otherwise, checked luggage must remain unlocked for possible inspection, greatly increasing the risk of pilferage, or the TSA may decide to may break a non-approved lock to gain access.
Secure the zipper tabs of your luggage with inexpensive brightly colored cable ties, also called zip ties, available at hardware stores. The ties secure your luggage, but can be cut if for some reason the TSA decides to inspect your bags.
Flier status could make an airport thief think twice. So if you’re an elite frequent flier—the kind with access to swanky airport lounges—and you’ve been given complimentary luggage tags proclaiming your exalted frequent-flier status, use them.