Sunday, December 11, 2011

Baggage Theft, Smuggling at Besieged American Airlines

It was bad enough when AMR Corp. (parent of American Airlines) filed for bankruptcy recently under Chapter 11, but it seems that very often when airlines are reorganizing, other bad things also happen.

In a recent media report originated by The New York Times, It now appears that American, the third largest carrier in the US, also has an internal security problem brought on by Victor Bourne, a Bajan [Barbadian] baggage handler/ring leader for American who along with confederates at both JFK and in Barbados, were bringing drugs and contraband into the US, while also pilfering checked luggage.

Although American has had isolated cases of theft from checked luggage by airline employees and contractors, testimony at Bourne's trial in federal court in September and October disclosed a sophisticated enterprise that implicated several baggage handlers at Kennedy, although their criminality went well beyond occasional baggage theft.

Unfortunately, for the airline Bourne's gang concealed drugs in secret panels inside aircraft; stole laptops, lobster and fine clothing and yes, even rifled through passengers’ belongings for perfume, liquor and electronics. The result was that upwards of twelve employees of American either pleaded guilty or were convicted.

In November 2010, four part-time baggage handlers for American Airlines were arrested on charges of stealing valuables from luggage at Philadelphia International Airport. Detectives working with airline security officials set up surveillance cameras and caught workers taking electronics, cameras and jewelry from passengers’ bags. Three of them pleaded guilty.

In 2009, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) received some 6,750 reports of property missing from checked baggage from all scheduled carriers. Passengers reported the total value of their losses as nearly US$5.3 million. Although clothing was a frequent item that was stolen, digital cameras also disappeared with some degree of frequency.

Nevertheless, from 2002 to 2010, American Airlines generated more such reports than any other airline.

Although it is clear that most American Airlines employees are honest, dependable and ethical, the examples outlined herein demonstrate the enormous impact that a few bad apples can have not only on an airline, but an entire industry.

COMMENT: As for Bourne, although he was convicted and could face decades in prison, he reportedly has requested a new trial on the basis that testimony introduced at trial that led to his conviction was tainted.

Unfortunately, at the foundation of the majority of cases of theft from checked luggage, is the fact that TSA requires all all such luggage to be left unlocked in the US. Although I can understand the critical importance of screening checked bags for explosives, TSA has yet to identify a way of keeping the hands of the dishonest out of unlocked luggage, despite TSA's emphasis on the use of technology. Until some enlightened TSA executive can design a way of preventing theft from unlocked, checked luggage, widespread theft will continue.

In the meantime, air travelers are urged to carry ALL valuables aboard the aircraft in their carry-on luggage and not to place laptops, MP3 players, smart-phones, iPads, jewelry and other valuables in checked luggage.

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