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With JetBlue, Southwest, you have just 4 hours to claim baggage theft

Checked luggage goes through many hands: skycaps, baggage handlers at both ends and federal security officials.

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Checked luggage goes through many hands: skycaps, baggage handlers at both ends and federal security officials.

Somewhere between a curb at Boston's Logan Airport and luggage claim at Tampa International, somebody snuck a bottle of pure maple syrup and some change from Millard Keller's black bag last week.

Keller went home, then to bed. He didn't open the bag until morning. So the 57-year-old retiree lost the chance to get reimbursed by the airline, ­JetBlue Airways.

JetBlue's policy gives domestic passengers four hours from when they step off the plane to make a claim for luggage lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered. He lost only $5 or $6 in coins and a quart of syrup, worth not quite $30. Still, Keller felt twice violated.

"Where is that (policy) posted?" he asked. "Is it on a sign in the airport somewhere?"

The deck is stacked against victims of bag theft at the airport. Checked luggage can move through many hands: skycaps, federal Transportation Security Administration officers and baggage handlers at both ends of a trip.

Airlines point out that only TSA officers are authorized to open checked bags. But they touch only the small number flagged as possible threats by automated screening equipment, the TSA says. And then while other officers — and often security cameras — can watch.

The feds suggest airline baggage handlers have the most opportunity to steal. They can easily pull checked bags into unobserved places during sorting and loading.

No one knows how often stuff gets stolen. Airlines don't disclose bag theft statistics. The TSA received an average of about 1,400 claims for missing and damaged property each month last year, down from about 1,900 from 2002 through 2005. With 650 million people flying domestically each year, the TSA says, those numbers are really small.

But if you're one of the unlucky few, like Keller, is the four-hour rule fair?

Airlines like you to file a claim quickly. It's always easier to track down what happened before too much time passes. But most people don't open bags before returning home. Unless the crook left the contents a mess, it could take a while to figure out something's missing.

Four hours "is not enough time to allow customers to get home with a bag and look at it," said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines, which allows 24 hours to make a theft claim.

Among the seven largest U.S. airlines, only JetBlue and Southwest Airlines have a limit as short as four hours from when passengers arrive at their destinations.

JetBlue says the deadline can be waived if passengers convince the airline they were ''unable to give notice" of a loss. "It's not a hard and fast rule," said Alison Croyle, a spokeswoman for JetBlue. "We want to work with customers."

But even if Keller gave notice in time, he would have been out of luck. JetBlue's contract of carriage (PDF), the long legal document where airlines spell out their policies, responsibilities and liability limits, also exempts claims of loss or damage to food. A reservations agent offered Keller a $30 voucher for a future flight. He refused, using profanity, Croyle said.

Keller says he put it like this: ''What makes you think that with your attitude, I'd ever want to fly with you again?"

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

Time limits to report luggage theft (from arrival)

JetBlue: 4 hours

Southwest: 4 hours

Continental: 4 hours*

American: 24 hours

United: 24 hours

Delta: 10 days

(*From discovery of theft)

Source: Airline Web sites

FAST FACTS

Tips to avoid baggage theft

. Never put valuables such as jewelry, computers and expensive cameras in checked luggage. Put them in your carry-on bag or mail them ahead by express delivery, with insurance.

. Put a TSA-approved lock on your bag. Officers have equipment to open it if necessary.

. If you must pack an expensive item, put it in an unlikely place for thieves to look, such as wrapped in a pair of socks.

. Go straight from your plane to baggage claim, so bags don't sit unattended on the carousel.

With JetBlue, Southwest, you have just 4 hours to claim baggage theft 11/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 3:05pm]
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