News Article - August 27, 2007

Reports of thefts from luggage at PHL  
  Chalk up another worry for airline passengers who check their baggage at Philadelphia International Airport. A number of US Airways customers this summer are reporting the loss of valuables - primarily jewelry, electronic equipment and new apparel - from checked bags, both inbound and outbound from the airport. Evidence of the thefts is anecdotal, based on a stream of recent e-mails we've received. We've found little reliable data to show if incidents that passengers believe are thievery are greater at the airport or US Airways' Philadelphia operation than they are elsewhere, or if the number of incidents has risen this year.

   A message from Geoff Rabinowitz, a Marlton business traveler, is typical. He flies frequently enough to know the unwritten rule: Never put anything of value in a checked bag. But that's what he did in late June on a US Airways flight from Boston to Philadelphia, checking two bags, one with his laptop computer inside. Rabinowitz got his second bag back after the flight, but not the one containing the laptop. After he filed a report with US Airways, the bag was delivered to his home the next day - clothing disheveled and the computer gone. He's gotten nowhere, he said, in trying to get compensation from the airline, which has a written policy that it isn't responsible for items such as laptops and jewelry.

   "I know it was stupid," he said on the phone last week. "One of my biggest concerns, besides the fact they stole my property, is that, if they can get away with taking something out of bags, what can they put in bags without getting caught? In today's world, that's a pretty scary thought." Assuming the theft occurred at the airport, the culprits could be in one of three groups with access to bags: US Airways workers, baggage screeners from the Transportation Security Administration, or employees of private companies the airlines hire to deliver misplaced bags to passengers after they're found.

   US Airways acknowledges that pilfering of bags takes place at Philadelphia and elsewhere, and employees who have been caught have been fired. But the airline could not provide statistics on the number of reports it has received from passengers, today or in the past, who say items have been stolen. "We don't tolerate this," spokesman Philip Gee said in an e-mail message. "Through investigation, employees found to pilfer items in checked bags are subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination." Travelers also have reported thefts from carry-on bags as they passed through TSA's security checkpoints.

   TSA doesn't have precise figures on the number of passengers who report what they think were thefts from bags, because it lumps them in all claims for damage or loss. But the number of total claims is minuscule compared with the number of passengers processed: In 2006, it averaged 1,443 a month out of the 65 million passengers a month. TSA says it has a zero-tolerance policy for employees caught stealing and it has fired three Philadelphia workers and 269 nationwide over the last four years for it. "I can assure you we aggressively investigate every allegation of misconduct," TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said.

   The U.S. Department of Transportation compiles data on lost or damaged bags in its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, but it has no separate category for reports of alleged theft from luggage. The DOT report includes a page for the TSA claims figure. Airline industry officials note that US Airways and other carriers are frequently the victims of fraud themselves on the part of dishonest passengers who make phony or inflated claims for items supposedly lost from baggage.

   TSA and US Airways officials also said in their defense that all employees are supposed to go through the same screening that passengers do, for weapons or other prohibited items as they enter the airport. At US Airways, surveillance cameras and security officers monitor activity "throughout the ramp operation" in Philadelphia, Gee said. But two US Airways baggage handlers, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to reporters, say that many employees believe there is widespread theft, and that personal bags they carry to and from the job aren't normally inspected as they leave work.

   Being a thief "is pretty easy to do," one of the ramp workers said. "There are lots of places where you can just pull off, and, sitting in the cart, go through bags." At least one alleged thief does have discriminating tastes in alcoholic beverages, according to Jennifer Dein, a college student from Villanova, who reported the loss of two pricey bottles of liquor from a checked bag en route from Philadelphia to Chicago. Left behind were two bottles of cheap champagne.

   "It makes you wonder who they're hiring, who their supervisors are, and what kind of surveillance they're under," said her father, Robert Dein, who reported the incident to the airline and recounted it in an e-mail. US Airways customers who have reported items lost from checked bags say that almost as aggravating as finding that items are missing from luggage is the process of filing claims with the airline for lost or damaged bags. The airline's performance is uneven, they said, with some reporting efficient and sympathetic handling of the claims and others reporting frustration in getting information.

   Karl Brown, a Lansdale business owner and frequent flier on US Airways, said he had the same concern Rabinowitz did about what could be placed in baggage without a passenger's knowledge. He said he reported to US Airways the theft of a laptop and other electronic items from a checked bag last month on a Philadelphia-Chicago flight. "It suggests a lack of control on the part of management," Brown said. "It's obvious there are bad guys, but people will get away with as much as they're allowed to. . . . I'm especially alarmed because, since 9/11, we're not allowed to lock our luggage anymore. I like to check bags, but I don't know what to do if I have to transport something of value."

   US Airways executives express frustration of their own at finding and keeping a good workforce in Philadelphia to handle bags and service planes. Last year, many of the complaints were about bags often taking close to an hour to reach luggage carousels after a flight landed. We hear few complaints about that this year. This summer, the airline has more than 1,660 ramp workers at the airport, almost half of them hired this year to replace those who have left, Gee said. Earlier this month, US Airways fired 57 baggage handlers who the airline said were part of a scheme to defraud the company with stolen computer passwords that they used to cheat on overtime they worked.

   The whole picture bewilders customers such as Lauren Suhre of West Chester, a frequent US Airways traveler who said she lost jewelry from a checked bag that took three days to be delivered to her during a recent trip to North Carolina. "Why can't they get their arms around it?" she asked. "I can't imagine working for them."

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer