Flying to this busy airport hub for the holidays? It may be best to avoid checking bags.
Earlier this week, 68 suitcases pilfered from George Bush Intercontinental Airport were found in a trash bin outside a Houston pet store -- the work of what authorities think is a band of brash luggage thieves.
Was it an inside job? Or did the thieves manage to walk into the baggage claim area and snag dozens of suitcases without anyone noticing?
Houston police, who are investigating along with the FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, are saying little. But they have determined that the stolen luggage came from nine airlines.
"It's still an ongoing investigation," Houston police spokesman Gabe Ortiz said. "Some of the luggage appears to be from international flights."
Carol Stack, owner of the Pet City store where the luggage was ditched, said her business had recently had a fire, and an unusually large Dumpster was out front for debris.
The morning after Christmas, employees attempting to discard some junk noticed the trash bin was already packed -- with luggage from all over the world, much of it still containing clothes and other belongings.
"This is a very big Dumpster, and it was just jammed full of luggage with the tags still on it," Stack said. "There were bags from France, the United Arab Emirates."
Stack doesn't think this was an isolated incident. She said she received a call Thursday from someone who found a bag in another Dumpster, Saudi passport still inside.
Like most American airports, Bush Intercontinental doesn't check claim tickets before allowing people to leave the baggage area.
That policy continued this week despite the thefts.
Airlines contend that stopping each person is unnecessary and would cause substantial delays, further testing the patience of passengers already weary of dealing with post-Sept. 11 security rules.
"We can always check tags when there is a need, and periodically do," Continental Airlines spokeswoman Mary Clark said. "But the number of bags that do not arrive with customers is less than 1%, and the number stolen is even smaller, so we are not talking about a major problem."
Catherine Mayer, vice president of airport services for SITA, a company that designs airport luggage systems, agreed that the number of lost bags is low considering how many are checked. But the figure has been rising, she said, and might be reduced with more automated systems that track bags as they travel from plane to baggage carousel.
"It's pretty sad, because I am part of the industry and even I don't have full confidence that my bag will arrive on time," said Mayer, who carries her luggage onboard whenever possible.