- Apr 30, 2006
- Total Time
Amid a recent spate of arrests around the country for theft from airline passengers’ baggage, officials at Atlanta’s airport say they watch the issue closely but believe new technology and equipment has cut the chances of thievery during security screening of checked luggage.
John Spink, firstname.lastname@example.org
Theft from passengers remains a sticky customer service problem for both airports and airlines, and no airport is immune.
The Transportation Security Administration’s automated inline baggage system at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, completed in 2007, limits human contact with most passengers’ bags.
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Surveillance cameras monitor transportation security officers when they go through flagged bags to search for items that set off warnings, making it easier to investigate theft claims, officials say.
A $2 million grant helped pay for the closed-circuit TV coverage at Hartsfield-Jackson. The TSA is installing more TV systems and inline baggage systems at other airports around the country.
But theft from passengers remains a sticky customer service problem for both airports and airlines, and no airport is immune. TSA surveillance of its own screening does not extend to airline sorting and loading operations, which can often involve different contractors at different airports, making it hard to determine when and where theft occurred. Passengers may endure a long claims process, and those who lost valuables may never recover them. Some claims are found to be fraudulent.
Arrest incidents this year included at least four instances involving employees or contractors of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines or its affiliates, though none was at the carrier’s Hartsfield-Jackson hub.
● In February, officials in Portland, Ore., arrested two baggage handlers employed by Delta merger partner Northwest Airlines after a two-week investigation. Police recovered about 200 items believed to be stolen, including laptops, jewelry and handbags.
● In March, officials announced arrests of several baggage handlers working for Delta and subsidiary Delta Global Services at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Conn.
● Later that month, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport police said they uncovered a theft ring involving baggage handlers working for Delta contractor Huntleigh USA. Police arrested eight suspects and recovered nearly 900 items.
● And in July, officials said they arrested a baggage handler for a Delta contractor and a TSA officer who worked at John F. Kennedy International Airport for theft. The suspects switched luggage tags to direct bags to a different destination and conceal the theft.
Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said “instances of this across our system are incredibly rare” among the 65 million bags Delta handles annually.
Delta won’t disclose how many claims for baggage theft it receives or say how many employees it has fired for theft in Atlanta or elsewhere.
Indeed, available numbers show baggage theft is extremely rare statistically. But it’s difficult to precisely track the number of instances or trend lines, as there is no centralized claims process or database.
The average number of claims filed per month with the TSA declined from about 1,900 in 2003 through 2005 to about 1,400 last year, the agency said. Out of the roughly 655 million passengers flying domestically annually, “the percentage of passengers submitting claims is minute,” said TSA spokesman Jon Allen.
Still, he said, “There has always been zero tolerance” for theft.
The agency has reduced the amount it pays out for claims from $3.2 million a year in fiscal year 2005 to $2.2 million in 2006, $1.1 million in 2007 and $812,759 in 2008, including payments for damage and missing items.
Atlanta is in the top 10 airports in the nation for claims filed with the TSA, but Hartsfield-Jackson is also the nation’s busiest airport.
“It’s consistent with what you would expect statistically,” Allen said.
But claims also can be filed with airlines, so TSA figures alone don’t tell the full story.
Hartsfield-Jackson, which has worked with police and airlines to reduce theft of bags from baggage carousels, tracks theft on a monthly basis, general manager Ben DeCosta said.
“We find that the record here is good. We actually have a reduction of crime year-over-year,” DeCosta said.
However, the airport last week did not release figures to support his contention.
Delta and other airlines, along with the TSA, say they run background checks before hiring employees and fire any caught stealing.
AirTran’s senior vice president of marketing and planning, Kevin Healy, said the second-largest carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson has “effective systems” to reduce theft from baggage but “generally it’s not an issue.”
Last year, one TSA officer at Hartsfield-Jackson was fired for theft from baggage. That was the first such TSA arrest at Hartsfield-Jackson since 2005, when three were terminated, the agency said.
When theft occurs, the mish-mash of claims systems between the TSA and airlines can be a challenge to navigate. The TSA has expressed interest in partnering with airlines on a claims- handling process for passengers.
Delta, AirTran and other airlines, in their “contracts of carriage,” deny liability for the most common types of valuables, including cameras, electronic equipment, jewelry, business documents, artwork or “similar valuable items.”
The standard liability for domestic baggage is capped at $3,300.
The best defense, TSA and the airlines say: Don’t put valuable items in checked bags.
“In a recession like this, this is a crime of opportunity,” said DeCosta. “We are vigilant.”