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Flier says heart medications taken in suitcase search

Jerry Thompson packed his heart drugs in his checked bag. When he arrived, some were missing and a TSA note was left.

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times

Jerry Thompson packed his heart drugs in his checked bag. When he arrived, some were missing and a TSA note was left.

When he opened the suitcase at his son's home in Albuquerque, N.M., Jerry Thompson was alarmed by what he didn't find. And by what he did. Gone from a weekly pill organizer were five prescription drugs the 72-year-old from Zephyrhills takes to keep his weak heart pumping. The nosepiece had been removed from his sleep apnea machine and stashed elsewhere in the bag. Inside was a note: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at Tampa International Airport opened his bag for inspection.

After two days of calls to doctors' offices and pharmacies — and $79 out of his pocket — Thompson picked up replacement pills. But two months after the trip, he's still bothered that someone could get into a checked bag and remove lifesaving medication.

"It's just unbelievable," says Thompson, an easygoing retiree whose most persistent complaints with life involve his putting and chipping. "What else do they take out of your suitcase?"

The TSA is still looking into the incident based on Thompson's $79 claim for the missing medication. "It's regrettable this happened," said Sari Koshetz, spokeswoman for the agency. "But luggage passes through a lot of hands that are not the TSA's hands."

Definitive statistics are hard to come by. The most widely cited numbers suggest stuff doesn't disappear often from passenger luggage. But it does happen with some regularity.

Some 16,000 people a year, or nearly 44 each day, file claims that TSA officers stole, damaged or lost personal property inside luggage. Not bad odds for travelers considering the agency screens on average 2 million passengers and 2.5 million bags daily.

Not every claim equates to a crime by the federal officers. A rash of luggage thefts at Tampa International — including cell phones, sunglasses and digital cameras — led to arrests last year of bag handlers hired by a contractor for Continental Airlines.

The sleep apnea machine in Thompson's bag likely set off an alarm. Electronics in the devices, called Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machines, or CPAPs, can be altered to trigger explosives. The TSA inspects them during checked bag screening and at security checkpoints.

That doesn't explain the missing medications or why the plastic pill organizer, with a two-week supply of two other drugs, was returned to the luggage.

The TSA trains officers not to disturb prescription drugs inside checked bags, Koshetz said. "We'd have no reason to touch his medications,'' she said.

Southwest Airlines, which flew Thompson to Albuquerque, said baggage handlers don't go into luggage. The airline called Tuesday night and offered to pay for his replacement drugs to make up for the inconvenience.

Thompson learned a lesson: Always take medications and valuables like jewelry, cash and electronics in your carry-on bag.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Flier says heart medications taken in suitcase search 03/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 11:00pm]
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