By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 4/1/2008 12:09:22 PM ET 2008-04-01T16:09:22

With all the other worries associated with air travel — terrorism, airline bankruptcy, long lines at security — few people worry about theft. No, I don’t mean the ticket price or the price of coffee at the airport. I don’t even mean those airline CEOs getting away with robbery every time they cash their paychecks. No, the thief I mean is the one sitting next to you on the airplane.

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In my 20 years in the airline business, I have dealt with stolen bags, laptops, cameras and purses. I have seen pickpockets in action, and I’ve seen thieves slip jewelry off fellow travelers while they were sleeping. What I’ve learned is that travel is a stressful time for most people, and there are other people out there who are happy to take advantage of your inattention.

Here’s what you can do to minimize the risk of theft when you fly.

1. Hang it up carefully
If you are in the habit of hanging your jacket or coat in the closet, take all your valuables — especially your wallet — out of the pockets. That’s the first place a thief will look.

2. Mark your bags
More and more bags look alike these days, so put something on your luggage that makes it stand out from the rest: a sticker or ribbon – anything that makes a mix-up less likely. This will prevent the intentional — and unintentional — misappropriation of your property.

3. Dummy up
Carry a “dummy” wallet or purse that contains only one credit card, $20 in cash and one form of identification. Put the rest of the usual contents in your carry-on bag. That way, you’ll have less to lose if the dummy is lifted or lost.

4. Walk it through
If there is a long security line, your bags may clear the X-ray scanner before you make it through the metal detector. Wait until you are ready to walk through the machine before releasing your purse, wallet or laptop. Sure, there is camera surveillance at security, but your thief will be long gone before any review takes place. Fact: More items go missing in the security line than from any other place.

5. Stow it nearby
Once you’re on the airplane, keep your carry-on bag nearby. Some back-of-the-plane passengers think it’s smart to stow their bag in an overhead bin up front, for an easy grab during deplaning. Believe me, a watchful thief can grab that bag a lot faster than you can push and shove your way to the front of the line.

6. Bury the treasure
If you put your billfold or any other valuables in your bag, don’t put them in the outermost compartments. That’s pretty much telling a thief, “Help yourself.”

7. Watch your seat
Be careful when storing your bag under the seat in front of you; don’t face any pockets forward, or the passenger in front of you may walk off with your goods. Also, never leave anything of value on your seat when you leave it to go to the lavatory or to take a stroll.

8. Do not pass go
Take special care of your passport and know where it is at all times. Losing your passport will ruin your entire trip; trust me on this one.

9. Exercise common sense
Carry your purse with the opening facing toward you, and keep your wallet out of your back pocket. I know this sounds obvious, but when people go flying, common sense often gets checked with the baggage.

10. Speak up
Don’t overreact if you catch someone handling your bag (innocent mistakes do happen), but be firm none the less. Similarly, if you witness a theft, tell someone immediately — a flight attendant, gate agent, security guard — anyone. I‘m sure you would want their help if you were the victim.

I once knew a flight attendant who had a second job as a “naughty party” planner. On her way to a convention, another passenger made off with her bags. She frantically searched the airplane after everyone had deplaned and even ran out into the terminal to see if she could spot her bags, but they were long gone. The worst part of the ordeal was having to provide a detailed description of each bag’s contents, she said.

But can you imagine the face of the person who opened the luggage? Whether it was theft or confusion, someone’s got the surprise of a lifetime!

James Wysong is a veteran flight attendant who has worked with two major international carriers. James recently released a new book, “Flying High With A Frank Steward: More Air Travel Tales From the Flight Crew.” For more information about James, visit his Web site or send him an e-mail.

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