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High airport security may be cutting thefts

At Philadelphia International Airport, a baggage screener was caught in March of last year stealing laptop computers and a video game system from the luggage of airline passengers.

That same month, police in St. Louis broke up a theft ring involving eight baggage handlers working for a contractor for Delta Airlines.

In October, a former baggage handler at Northwest Airlines pleaded guilty to stealing more than $10,000 in goods from checked baggage, and posting some of the booty on EBay.

But before you swear off airline travel or strap a LoJack device to your suitcase, you should know that, while pilfering from airline luggage is a problem, reports suggest that these thefts by government and airline employees may be on the decline.

Complaints filed against the airlines about luggage problems -- including theft and damage -- totaled 1,442 in the first 11 months of 2009, a drop of about 25% from the same period in 2008, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. During the same period, the overall number of passengers flying in the U.S. dropped about 6%, so the decline can’t be attributed solely to fewer passengers and bags moving through the airports.

In 2005, the Transportation Security Administration paid out about $3.2 million in claims for baggage theft and damage. But by 2008, that dropped to about $813,000. For the first 10 months of 2009, TSA paid out about $446,000 in baggage claims, the agency said.

But don’t necessarily credit a rebirth of honesty for the trend. Because of the threat of terrorist attacks and advances in airport technology, airline baggage is more closely watched with surveillance cameras and scanned with high-tech devices, reducing the need to open the bags for inspection. Thus, sticky-fingered baggage handlers and TSA screeners have fewer chances to rummage through your suitcases.

The primary way the TSA catches luggage pilferers is to analyze passenger claims and look for patterns. If passengers are losing valuables on a particular airline, during a specific time of day, the agency will install hidden cameras or deploy undercover investigators to catch the crooks in the act, TSA spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino said.

“The problem is that we have so many people that touch the bags,” she said.

Passengers can file claims against the TSA or the airlines for lost property, depending on who may be liable. Although the TSA compiles and discloses the payout costs for such claims, the airlines do not.

But good luck getting the airlines to pay for items stolen from your luggage.

On domestic flights, most airlines accept no liability for valuables lost from a checked bag. So, if you are traveling with something of value, carry it with you on the plane. (Airline policies vary regarding liability on international flights.)

“Don’t put it in your checked luggage,” said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines. “Hold on to it in the same way you would hold on to something of value while walking on the street.”

Still, the decline in reports of luggage theft is little consolation to passengers who lose expensive items. The website www.airlinecomplaints.org is rife with such misfortunes, including the story of a man who flew from New Jersey to India on Northwest Airlines in November and discovered that some gifts for family, including an Apple iPod Touch and a Sony PlayStation game, had been stolen from his luggage.

The airline refused to take responsibility for the loss, saying it was not liable for missing electronics that are packed in checked luggage.

“This, to me, is customer service at its worst,” the passenger said in a posting on the complaint website.

A spokeswoman for Delta Airlines, which owns Northwest, said incidents of luggage theft were few and that the air carrier worked hard to put a stop to them.

Surcharges galore for peak travel

If you are flying this spring or summer and you want to save money, look out for the new surcharges that airlines are adding for peak travel days.

The surcharges, ranging from $10 to $30 each way, are the airlines’ way of squeezing a few more bucks out of passengers who fly on the most popular travel days of the year.

For example, if you want to fly away with your sweetheart for the Valentine’s Day weekend, American, Continental, Delta, United, US Airways and AirTran Airways have added a $20 surcharge for flights taken Feb. 12 and 15.

Most airlines have also tacked on the extra fees around the time college kids head off for spring break.

In the past, air carriers only added such surcharges for travel around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, said Rick Seaney, founder of www.farecompare.com, a website that analyzes and tracks airline fees. But in 2010, he said, the airlines are out to grab more cash throughout the year.

“Across the board, domestic U.S. airfare hikes have not fared well over the past year,” he said via e-mail. “Charging extra on the busiest travel days has been the next best way to increase ticket prices from their historical lows in 2009.”

Good flight’s sleep on a ‘Skycouch’

Air New Zealand wants to transform long-haul travel for economy class passengers with a new seat design called the “Skycouch.”

Imagine three seats in a row that become a bed-like space when the leg-rest panels under the seats are pulled up to snap flat next to the seat cushions.

The airline suggests that couples pay the standard fare for their seats, plus half price for the third seat, then enjoy what looks like a cozy, airborne cot in which to cuddle and nap.

Air New Zealand will put 22 sets of Skycouch seats at the first 11 window rows in the new Boeing 777-300 ER taking flight in November. Rob Fyfe, the airline’s chief executive, said the seats would put “the magic and romance back into flying.”

Not too much romance, please. Remember that children may be on board.

hugo.martin@latimes.com


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