A Traveler’s Lament

How the TSA, FAA, and airlines encourage crime

Last night I found myself talking on Google Talk with a man I will call Randy. Randy messaged me shortly after reading a piece written by me about my upcoming travels and my worries that delays, loss, and theft of things in my checked baggage might spell issues above and beyond those that can be repaired quickly. My knifes and other kitchen tools, for example, will have to be checked or, for big money, sent via USPS and local mail carriers between stations.

I mentioned briefly that I’d lost things while traveling. A few e-Cigarette pieces, including a $120 mod, parts of my camera setup, a tripod, that stuff. Matt Mullenweg had his camera equipment stolen in 2008, Jon Udell as well – and he recommends packing a starter pistol to get your bags treated differently. I wasn’t, until now, willing to go through the issues associated with such hacks, so I chanced it – and lost something on almost every trip.

Last year law enforcement told CBS News that every day over 200 items are stolen from checked baggage in New York City alone. That’s a lot and, if it’d happened anywhere else, would have been cause for an extensive investigation. Imagine 200 cameras being stolen from a hotel in Chicago…

In the case of TSA and baggage handler theft, however, the lines are much more fortified. TSA regulations make it impossible, even for law enforcement, to obtain names of baggage handlers who handled a specific item. Baggage handlers and TSA are also able to interact with luggage in a virtually prosecution free room, being encouraged to handle, touch, inspect, and manage tens of thousands of bags and boxes every day. Within the hustle and bustle of such an operation things disappear. And that’s where Randy comes in.

“Essentially we all know that we can take what we want and we know who the people are who take things. But we can’t talk about it and our supervisors know but tell us not to ‘shit on the company’,” he told me. According to him, whenever things go missing TSA will blame baggage handlers, baggage handlers will blame TSA, and both will refer to something Randy called “unpublished laws” (I was unable to nail him on which laws he is referring to and if he means “regulations”) making it impossible for anyone to obtain camera footage or even the names of baggage handlers and TSA personnel interacting with one’s luggage.

Airlines know this as well. When my camera went missing I was told, informally of course, the formal response offered a thorough investigation, that I should take the $300 because “we don’t know if you’re not lying about this” and be happy since there was virtually no way for me to ever see the camera again or even get an investigation started. “You’re not the only one, Mister, heck you’re not the only one today or even on your flight…,” she told me.

Later, six months down the road and on a wholly other continent, I found my camera using the “Stolen Camera Finder” on a whim. It was in Turkey, used to take great landscape pictures, and later posted pictures of the outside of MIA airport and the drive there from a town outside Miami. Figuring I had no way of recovering my belongings I simply gave up and forwarded the person’s name to the authorities at MIA airport and the TSA. Nothing ever came of it, though the name of the person in question matches the name of someone living in a suburb outside Miami. It is a federal felony to even insinuate I’ll visit said person to get my, now three year outdated, camera back.

This is a vicious cycle. One in which baggage handlers and TSA employees work in a lawless environment, protected from prosecution by regulations put into place to protect those who are tasked with protecting us. At slightly above minimum wage a small number of those employees are tempted to steal, the climate of blame shifting and lack of law enforcement insight just adds encouragement.

As a traveler I am in a pickle. I am not allowed to check many items and not able to check many more. My most valued possessions, cameras and laptops and tablets, are with me at all times now, no matter how much this causes inconvenience and issues at the screening line. But the thefts and lack of prosecution are not prices I am willing to pay for a part of questionable safety in airline traffic. Unless the laws change and the dealings of for-profit, publicly traded, companies become open to scrutiny and prosecution we’ll continue to lose millions of dollars in equipment to airport and airline theft every quarter. And no one will talk about it or attempt to change it. While good handlers like Randy continue to be forced to watch on or leave, bad apples will continue to steal.

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