High airport security may be cutting thefts

By Hugo Martin

Los Angeles Times

(MCT)

At the Philadelphia International Airport, a baggage screener was caught last year stealing laptop computers and a video game system from the luggage of airline passengers.

In September, police in St. Louis broke up a theft ring involving eight baggage handlers working for a contractor for Delta Air Lines.

In October, a former baggage handler at Northwest Airlines pleaded guilty to stealing more than $10,000 in goods from checked baggage, and posting some of the booty on eBay.

But before you swear off airline travel or strap a LoJack device to your suitcase, you should know that, while pilfering from airline luggage is a problem, reports suggest these thefts by government and airline employees may be on the decline.

Complaints filed against the airlines about luggage problems — including theft and damage — totaled 1,442 in the first 11 months of 2009, a drop of about 25 percent from the like period in 2008, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. During the period, the overall number of passengers flying in the United States dropped about 6 percent, so the decline can't be attributed solely to fewer passengers and bags moving through the airports.

In 2005, the Transportation Security Administration paid out about $3.2 million in claims for baggage theft and damage. But by 2008, that dropped to nearly $813,000. For the first 10 months of 2009, TSA paid out about $446,000 in baggage claims, according to the agency.

But don't necessarily credit a rebirth of honesty for the trend.

Because of the threat of terrorist attacks and the advancement of airport technology, airline baggage is more closely watched with surveillance cameras and scanned with high-tech devices, reducing the need to open the bags for inspection. Thus, sticky-fingered baggage handlers and TSA screeners have fewer chances to rummage through your suitcases.

The primary way the TSA catches luggage pilferers is to analyze passenger claims and look for patterns. If passengers are losing valuables on a particular airline, during a specific time of day, the TSA will install hidden cameras or deploy undercover investigators to catch the crooks in the act, said TSA spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino.

"The problem is that we have so many people that touch the bags," she added.

Passengers can file claims against the TSA or the airlines for lost property, depending on who may be liable. While the TSA compiles and discloses the payout costs for such claims, the airlines do not.

But good luck getting the airlines to pay for items stolen from your luggage.

On domestic flights, most airlines claim no liability for valuables lost from a checked bag. So, if you are traveling with something of value, carry it with you on the plane. (The airline policies vary on liability on international flights.)

"Don't put it in your checked luggage," said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines. "Hold on to it in the same way you would hold on to something of value while walking on the street."

Still, the declining reports of luggage theft is little consolation to passengers who lose expensive items on a flight.

The Web site, www.airlinecomplaints.org, is rife with such tragedies, including the story of a man who flew from New Jersey to India on Northwest Airlines in November and discovered that some gifts for family, including an Apple IPod Touch and a Sony Play station game, were stolen from his luggage.

The airline refused to take responsibility for the loss, saying the airline is not liable for missing electronics that are packed in checked luggage.

"This, to me, is customer service at its worst," the passenger said in a posting on the complaint website.

A spokeswoman for Delta Air Lines, which owns Northwest, said the incidents of luggage theft is small but the air carrier works hard to put a stop to it.

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If you are flying this spring or summer and you want to save money, look out for the new surcharges that airlines are adding for peak travel days.

The surcharges, ranging from $10 to $30 per one-way flights, are the airlines' way of squeezing a few more bucks out of passengers who fly on the most popular travel days of the year.

For example, if you want to fly away with your sweetheart for the Valentine's Day weekend, American, Continental, Delta, United, US Airways and AirTrans Airways have added a $20 surcharge for flights taken on Feb. 12th and Feb. 15th.

Most of the airlines have also tacked on the extra fees around the time college kids break away for Spring Break.

In the past, air carriers only added the surcharges for travel around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, said Rick Seaney, founder of www.farecompare.com, a Web site that analyzes and tracks airline fees. But in 2010, he said the airlines are out to grab more cash throughout the year.

"Across the board, domestic U.S. airfare hikes have not fared well over the past year," he said via e-mail. "Charging extra on the busiest travel days has been the next best way to increase ticket prices from their historical lows in 2009."

To see the list of fees that Seaney compiled, go to www.farecompare.com/articles/peak-travel-day-surcharges-for-2010.

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Air New Zealand wants to transform long-haul travel for economy passengers with a new seat design called the "Skycouch."

Imagine three seats in a row that become a flat, bed-like space when the leg-rest panels under the seats are pulled up to snap flat next to the seat cushions.

The airline suggests that couples pay the standard fare for their seats, plus half price for the third seat, and they get to enjoy what looks like a cozy, airborne cot in which to cuddle and nap.

Air New Zealand will put 22 sets of Skycouch seats on the first 11 window rows in the new Boeing 777-300 ER that will take flight in November.

In a statement, the airline's chief executive officer Rob Fyfe said the seats will put "the magic and romance back into flying."

Not too much romance, please. Remember that children may be on board.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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