Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is cracking down on baggage theft.
The facility is increasing security patrols and video surveillance in baggage claim in response to last week’s arrest of a couple suspected of stealing nearly 1,000 pieces of luggage. The airport is also instituting random checks to make sure claim tickets match bag tags, and will air announcements warning passengers to be prepared to show identification.
It is an airline’s responsibility to ensure checked bags are returned to their owners. Before last week’s arrests, however, no carrier serving Sky Harbor had reported a serious uptick in missing bags.
In September, travelers filed more than 131,000 mishandled baggage reports, according to the Department of Transportation. More than 1.6 million reports been fielded since the beginning of the year.
While checked bags are lost more often than stolen, travelers are concerned about the security of their luggage, especially as the busy travel holiday period approaches.
Until the late 1990s, it was standard practice for airline employees to make sure claim checks matched the tags on luggage travelers toted out of baggage claim.
That link in the security chain was eliminated when airline budgets were slashed. Unlike the cancellation of in-flight meal services, few passengers made a fuss over the cutbacks at the carousels.
Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant with Boyd Group International, said the move was actually welcomed. “The positive claim check was something customers didn’t like. A lot of people were getting irritated because they’d have to wait in line to leave the bag claim.”
Most of the time, grab-and-go at the baggage claim works. Video: Baggage claim a boon for crooks
“The actual loss of a bag is unusual and a theft is even more unlikely,” the Air Transport Association said in a written statement.
While the ATA insists its member airlines have adequate security systems in place to protect luggage, it also says that any “public discussion of how any security system works could compromise its utility.”
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Mum over security procedures
American Airlines and several other airlines contacted for this story refused to discuss their baggage-claim security procedures.
Representatives from JetBlue, Continental, and US Airways said they adhere to the DOT’s definition of a “delivered bag” as one in a passenger’s possession, not just available for pick-up on the baggage claim carousel.
AirTran agents at Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson International are assigned to baggage claim conduct random checks on more than half of the flights to make sure passenger claim checks match the bags they’re taking off the carousel, spokesperson Christopher White said.
“Sometimes people grab the wrong bag. And, yes, sometimes thieves try to steal bags. We work with the Atlanta police on this and it has led to some arrests,” White said.
The goal of Alaska Airlines’ baggage-service guarantee is to rush checked bags from the plane to baggage claim, though airline spokesperson Bobbie Egan said scanning bag tags as they hit the luggage carousel also provides information that can sometimes be the key to tracking a bag that goes missing.
But because baggage theft is so rare, says aviation consultant Boyd, airlines find it cheaper to pay lost-bag claims than for personnel to check bag tags.
Who’s in charge?
While it is ultimately the airlines that are responsible for bags to get in the proper travelers’ hands, the topic presents some “hot potato” issues.
“The bag-to-bag tag matching system is impractical because airports won’t allow airlines to cordon off customers in the baggage claim areas,” said Southwest Airlines’ Brad Hawkins.
While airlines and airports around the country generally work together to keep baggage-claim areas secure, “ultimately, the security of the space where the bags are reunited with customers is the responsibility of the airport staff,” Hawkins added.
Perry Cooper, a spokesperson for Seattle-Tacoma International, suggests travelers file claims with an airline, TSA and airport police when bags go missing.
Outsmart the bad guys
Here are few tips travelers can follow to make sure they are reunited with their bags at the end of their journey:
- Ditch the detours: It can be tempting to grab a bite to eat, make a few phone calls, or do a little shopping on the way to the baggage claim area after your flight. But it’s best to be standing by when the bags begin their ride on the carousel.
- Work in teams: After all, many thieves do.If someone is meeting you at the airport, have them meet you at the baggage-claim carousel armed with your flight number and a photo of your bag that you’ve sent using the camera in your cell phone.
- Say it with style: Some bags really are taken by mistake because so many bags look alike. So put a really obvious, even garish, marker on your bag so it stands out. You’ll be able to pick it out from all the boring, black roll-around models on the baggage belt. More importantly, you’ll notice right away if someone else tries to walk off with your bag.
- Avoid it entirely: Checked-bag fees, waiting around baggage claim and worries about security is reason enough to pack lightly and travel with just a carry-on.
Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, and a columnist for USATODAY.com.You can follow her on Twitter.
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