Your belongings are safer than ever-- and the reason may surprise you

The good news: Based on statistics from major United States airports, in-terminal theft has been steadily declining for the past several years.

"And in contrast to general U.S. crime statistics," says LAX crime analyst John Eells, "the numbers are even more impressive. Property theft here is just one-third of the national average." At LAX, which 200,000 people pass through each day, theft has dropped 27 percent since January 1996.

Why?To begin with, airports have stepped up campaigns to inform travelers specifically about criminal activity. At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, for example, security kiosks dispense brochures and show a short video. In Portland, Oregon-- where theft has declined over the past seven years even though traffic has doubled-- increased foot patrols and audio announcements have also helped, as has training employees at terminal shops and restaurants to identify and deal with suspicious people, and contacting travel agents to encourage awareness from the start.

Larger international airports face more challenges. "Sure, we have audio announcements and signs," says JFK inspector Anthony Infante, "but unless we do them in eighty languages, a huge percentage of travelers don't understand them." JFK's consistently dropping numbers (theft down 60 to 70 percent in the past two years) reflect a more important trend: "Increased airport security aimed at terrorism," says Robert Junge of the Port Authority Airport Security Unit (which includes JFK), "has had a profound effect on the average traveler's level of awareness."

More terrorism and less crime may seem to be strange bedfellows, but Lieutenant Karen Schulz of the LAX airport police confirms the trend. "In direct response to FAA mandates regarding terrorism," she says, "we have a stronger police presence and greater security restrictions in the terminal. These measures lead to a lower incidence of theft." Now, from the moment a traveler enters the building, he is confronted with airline personnel raising security issues-- passengers are subject to increased surveillance, more restricted areas, and heightened policing. All of this makes it more difficult for thieves to operate. The simple act of allowing only ticketed passengers through a checkpoint immediately cuts out most petty thieves.

That's the good news.

The bad news: Travelers' worst enemies remain the same-- themselves. While the occasional setup by professional criminals does exist, airport security staff across the country agree that up to 90 percent of thefts involve negligence on the part of the victim. "If I had a nickel for every time I saw someone walk away from their belongings," says Detective John Little of the Miami-Dade Police Department at Miami International Airport, "I'd be a millionaire. People step into an airport and their minds go on vacation."

"It's a kind of amnesia," says Chief of Police Tom Shehan of Dallas/Fort Worth. "There are so many things to think about-- new stimuli, signs to follow, security to clear-- that even the most educated and astute person is not immune."

terminal amnesia
keep your wits (and your bags)

  • Be sure all your belongings are in your possession at all times. If possible, store valuables on your person.
  • Lock all bags (both checked and carry-on).
  • When placing phone calls or using ATM's, shield your credit and calling cards and secure bulky belongings between your feet. Make sure you have your wallet, bag, and card before walking away.
  • At the X-ray checkpoint, wait until everyone in front of you has completely passed through the metal detector before placing items on the conveyor belt. You don't want to be separated from your bags any longer than necessary.
  • While checking in, leave nothing on the counter if you need to step away, even "just for a moment." Your moment can turn into minutes, and the agent processing your ticket may be too distracted to watch your valuables.
  • As you move through the airport, keep important documents (tickets, passport) concealed, ideally in a zipped or fastened compartment-- even if you have to remove them repeatedly at various checkpoints.
  • Be alert when someone bumps into or jostles you-- possible pickpocket tactics-- especially in crowded places like elevators, escalators, or boarding areas.
  • Use the bathroom on the plane instead of the one at the busy terminal after landing. Otherwise, be sure to take your bags into the stall with you (and guard them between your legs at the sink).
  • When claiming luggage, it's better to wait for a bag to come back around than to leave other bags unattended.