Unpacking from a family vacation in Puerto Rico this month, Charlene Lord found another reason to hate air travel: Someone might be shopping for goodies in your luggage.
Missing from her son's bag was his Nintendo Wii, a present for his 12th birthday. The Largo mom called AirTran Airways, only to learn that airlines don't take responsibility for electronics and a laundry list of other valuables inside checked luggage.
Losing the Wii and some games was bad enough. But she was really creeped out thinking about a stranger digging through her kid's dirty underwear. "It's like being robbed in your house," Lord said. "Your bag is like your dresser drawer."
Victims can only guess whether a baggage handler, a federal inspector or a crook off the street is to blame. The Transportation Security Administration and airlines often point fingers at each other.
Last month, Tampa International Airport police arrested three baggage handlers working for Continental Airlines on charges of dealing in property stolen from passengers. The police recovered a typical haul for bag pilferers: laptop computers, digital cameras, cell phones, iPods and sunglasses.
What bothers me is nobody really knows how often this happens. You're a lot more likely to be bumped off a full plane, arrive without luggage or get stuck when the airline cancels your flight than to have your items stolen. But bag thefts number in the thousands each year.
Last year, the TSA had 17,032 claims for stolen, lost or damaged items nationwide. Nearly 13 percent, or 2,169 claims, were for items missing or banged up at security checkpoints. The rest were for checked bags.
The agency couldn't break down the national claims Tuesday. But a report sent earlier showed 800 reports of losses and property damage at Tampa International from July 2002 through April 2006.
In 2005 alone, travelers filed 193 claims, including 113 for stolen or missing items. The costliest: $19,508 worth of jewelry that a Southwest Airlines passenger reported losing at a security checkpoint on Christmas Eve. The claim was made a month later.
But the numbers only hint at the truth about thefts. They don't reflect claims the TSA rejected as bogus or those that passengers later withdrew.
They don't show stuff travelers lost at checkpoints that landed in airport lost-and-found bins. With the agency screening an average of 2-million travelers and 2.5-million bags each day, the claims amount to five per 100,000 passengers, the TSA says.
The agency has fired 271 officers for stealing since its inception in 2002. "TSA aggressively investigates all allegations of misconduct and, when infractions are discovered, moves swiftly to end the federal careers of offenders," spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said.
TSA inspectors are supposed to handle bags only long enough to feed them into scanners and open them if an alarm sounds. For an automated conveyor system like the one at TIA, less than one in four checked bags is touched by an officer, said spokesman Christopher White.
No one had a legal right to open bags before the agency's birth after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Scott Mueller, a former baggage manager with Midwest Airlines and author of a consumer guide called The Empty Carousel.
The TSA warned travelers against locking luggage, he said, and theft reports quadrupled. (Government-approved locks, which officers open with a master key, have been available for about five years.)
Mueller blames cost-cutting airlines, too. Many replaced their own baggage handlers with ones working for outside companies. The handlers typically earn just above minimum wage and have no benefits, no high school education and no loyalty to the airline, he said. Those busted in the Continental thefts worked for DAL Global Services, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.
Mueller's advice to travelers is simple. Ask yourself if you really need to bring valuables (such as the expensive camera, iPod or laptop). If you do, put it in a carry-on bag that you watch like a hawk. If you can't, use FedEx or UPS. What rule does Mueller follow himself?
"I don't check a bag."
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or