Damaged, Lost Luggage Claims Fall by 50 Percent
WASHINGTON - Complaints that airport screeners lost, stole or damaged items in passengers' bags have plunged more than 50 percent as the government imposed tighter safeguards on luggage, federal records show.
Passengers who discovered missing or damaged belongings demanded money from the Transportation Security Administration 11,700 times in 2009, a steep drop from the 26,500 claims filed in 2004, according to TSA figures. The claims involved both carry-on and checked bags.
The agency has deterred baggage theft and damage by adding surveillance cameras to rooms where luggage is screened. The TSA and airports also have installed "hands-free" conveyor belts that whisk suitcases past screeners into bomb scanners.
"Every time you handle a bag, you've got a great opportunity for baggage theft and baggage damage" by screeners, airport consultant Michael Boyd said. "In the airline business, the key thing is to reduce human contact of all types."
Fewer claims save taxpayers millions. The TSA paid passengers $3.2 million for losses in 2004, but just $343,000 for 2009 losses, although about 3,000 claims from last year are under review.
Miami International Airport spent $2.7 million to add cameras, and in 2007 installed a conveyor-belt system in one terminal. Conveyors replace bulky machines that require screeners to insert and remove each bag.
Claims against the TSA in Miami fell to 369 in 2009 from 941 in 2004.
"We take security very seriously here," said airport security and operations chief Lauren Stover.
The payment demands represent a tiny fraction of the 600 million passengers and checked bags screened at 450 airports each year. The TSA has nevertheless acknowledged theft problems, firing 330 screeners for stealing. In 2006, TSA inspectors began teaming up with local police to investigate baggage theft by screeners and airport workers.
The TSA says the decline in complaints has also come as the agency urged passengers not to place valuables in checked bags, spokeswoman Kristin Lee said. Checked baggage decreased about 20 percent from 2004 to 2009, as many passengers opt to carry on their bags.
Passengers mostly say the TSA lost items such as jewelry, cameras and clothing in checked luggage. Nearly 35 percent of claims are for damaged items.
Larry Stocker of Los Angeles said he had no problem getting $135 from the TSA last year after his eyeglasses were crushed when a screener at Los Angeles International Airport put them through a checkpoint X-ray machine. "I was a little on the irate side and said (to a TSA supervisor), 'Look at the video monitor! You guys did it,' " Stocker recalled. The supervisor signed a claim form on the spot.