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Tampa International Airport wants more cameras to watch your luggage

Ever wonder if anyone's keeping an eye on the folks with their hands on your checked luggage?

Behind-the-scenes areas at Tampa International Airport where bags get screened for explosives and hauled out to planes will soon get scrutiny around the clock.

The airport is seeking a federal stimulus grant from the Transportation Security Administration for 40 to 50 closed-circuit surveillance cameras. Some would cover luggage areas unwatched by the airport's network of 200 cameras, said Louis Miller, executive director at Tampa International.

TSA officials declined to talk in detail about the surveillance cameras. "The purpose would be to ensure security," said Gary Milano, the agency's federal security director for the Tampa Bay area.

"They could in some circumstances provide information on possible (baggage) thefts."

Pilfered luggage is a big problem for airlines, airports and the TSA. But without a central database for reporting thefts, no one knows just how big.

For the federal fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, the TSA received about 17,500 claims for lost, damaged or stolen items. The agency fired 310 officers for theft between May 1, 2003, and Dec. 19, 2008.

That represents less than half of 1 percent of security officers employed during that period, TSA spokesman Jon Allen said.

"TSA aggressively investigates all allegations of misconduct and, when infractions are discovered, moves swiftly to end the federal careers of offenders," he said.

No officers at Tampa International have been dismissed for baggage theft, the TSA said. The culprits in the last big theft case, in March 2008, were three baggage handlers working for a contractor hired by Continental Airlines. Police recovered cell phones, digital cameras, sunglasses and laptops plucked from luggage.

Most victims never find out who took their property or where it disappeared. A piece of checked luggage can go through the hands of ticket agents, security officers and bag handlers at two or more airports.

Jerry Thompson of Zephyrhills got the runaround last year after he opened his bag at his son's home in Albuquerque, N.M. Five medicines he needed to keep his weak heart pumping were gone from his weekly pill organizer. Inside was a note that the TSA opened his bag in Tampa for inspection.

"I filed a claim, but they said there was no way they were responsible, no way TSA people were involved," Thompson said. He thinks video surveillance of the luggage areas at TIA might help future victims.

The grant, as much as $8.2 million, would cover the entire cost of installing additional cameras and replacing outdated ones. Images and video recordings from cameras would be monitored by both airport employees and local TSA officers.

Separately, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport has requested $660,000 from TSA to build an automated screening system for checked bags.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Tampa International Airport wants more cameras to watch your luggage 08/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2009 10:50pm]
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