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I-Team: Air Travel’s Dirty Little Secret

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A CBS4 I-Team investigation into your safety exposed a dirty secret about airline travel. You may think when you drop off your luggage and it goes through security, it’s secure. I-Team investigator Stephen Stock uncovered just how wrong you’d be.

“(My wife and I) traveled all over the world and never had a problem,” said frequent air traveler Jay Aimis.

Sunrise residents Jay and Brenda Aimis travel the world extensively.

“All over (the world),” Jay Aimis said.

“I can’t believe it happened to me,” Aimis said, remembering what happened on a recent round trip from Fort Lauderdale to New York and back. It was only then that they crashed face to face into a major but little known air travel problem, what some call the dirty little secret surrounding air travel these days.

“We picked up our luggage, came home and I’m going through (the luggage) to pull out the camera because I wanted to get the pictures,” Jay Aimis said. “The case is there but no camera.

It was a $600 digital camera that contained pictures of their granddaughter’s third birthday celebration from their trip to New York.

And it was gone.

The camera had been taken from their checked luggage.

“It’s the idea that they allow somebody that could get into your personal things,” Brenda Aimis said recalling her dismay at finding her luggage in disarray. “They had my cosmetic bag in there. Everything was upside down just like (they were) rummaging through everything.”

The CBS4 I-Team has discovered that this is a common complaint of air travelers.

Airline luggage and bags, which are unlocked because of TSA security rules, are routinely found ransacked and valuables like jewelry and cash disappear at every airport in the United States.

“They prey on the congestion, the confusion, the amount of people there,” aviation security consultant Jim Butler said.

Butler is a former police chief with Coral Gables Police Department who now works with Wayne Black Associates, a worldwide aviation security consulting firm located in Miami.

“Security at the airport with the baggage is not what it used to be,” Butler said.

While no airport official would speak on camera, several who asked not to be identified said most luggage thefts are the work of either TSA security workers, airline baggage handlers or fellow air passengers.

A top security official at MIA did tell the I-Team by telephone that employees are supposed to go through a metal detector before and after each shift. But the official admitted that that did not always happen and that workers could enter and leave with stolen items during their shift.

To see how bad the problem really is, the I-Team dug through a little known database of items reported stolen by airline passengers to the TSA (Transportation Security Administration).

“You’ve got sophisticated crooks (at the airport),” Jim Butler said.

“Miami-Dade aviation gets a lot of money for the security at that airport,” Butler said. “My concern is the security at that lower level is wide open. These people are allowed access to whatever.”

Digging through the TSA’s data, the I-Team found 128,632 passenger claims of items stolen from their luggage dating from 2002 thru June 2008 at airports across the country. That’s 54.2 claims filed by passengers somewhere in the United States every day! The amount of value on the stolen items placed by the passengers themselves and reported to TSA exceeded $5.5 Billion ($5,585,286,601.08).

The stolen claims include missing still and video cameras, video game consoles, computers, guns, tens of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, even cash.

“You’ve got distraction crooks,” Butler said. “You’ve got crooks specializing in the carousel stealing golf bags from all over the nation. You’ve got the other internal thefts from the bags themselves. It’s just a whole litany of problems.”

According to the TSA’s own data, Florida airports are among the highest in the country in the number of reports of stolen items by airline passengers.

From 2002 through June, 2008, there were 4020 reports of items stolen from luggage filed by passengers involving Miami International Airport. In the same time frame, Fort Lauderdale\Hollywood International Airport was involved in 2662 reports of stolen items from luggage.

Even when you factor in the millions who fly through our airports, the rate of stolen item claims here exceeds one a day.

The highest per capita complaints are at Palm Beach International Airport which had .3119 reports for every 1,000 passengers who board or get off airplanes at the airport.

Miami, at .2482 reports for every 1,000 passengers and Fort Lauderdale, at .2402 reports for every 1,000 passengers, rank fifth and sixth per capita, respectively in the nation.

Only Tampa International Airport (.2499 per capita) at #4, Newark International Airport (.2534 per capita) at #3 and New Orleans International Airport (.2602 per capita) at #2 rank higher.

“Those people down on that lower level of the ramps they have access to everything,” aviation consultant Jim Butler said. “Those people, those ramp handlers, those baggage handlers can get from one part of the airport to the other. It’s a problem, law enforcement has known about it for a while and they still haven’t been able to control it.”

The TSA refused to talk about this on camera with the CBS4 I-Team.

In fact almost no airport, airline or law enforcement agency would speak on the record or on camera about this problem.

TSA spokeswoman, Sari Koshetz, did send us a statement by e-mail saying “…a claim does not equal an act of theft on TSA’s part. TSA screens approximately 2.5 million pieces of baggage per day with claims filed for less than one claim for every 50,000 bags.”

You can read the entire e-mailed statement from TSA by clicking here.

But Koshetz wouldn’t answer questions about why TSA agreed to pay out or settle $10,844,675.03 in damages nationwide to airline passengers in 61,110 thousand different cases where they reported theft from their luggage.

During the same time period, 2002 through June, 2008, TSA paid out $606,243.11 in damages for 2920 claims filed by passengers at Miami International and Fort Lauderdale\Hollywood International Airports.

“You’ve got baggage handlers who know when they’re inside the belly of the plane what they do is set up the suitcases and they build up a wall,” Jim Butler said. “In the belly of a plane there’s no security there’s no supervision there’s no visual, you know.”

The I-Team watched as airline baggage handlers and TSA workers walked in and out of secure areas at Fort Lauderdale International and in some cases even MIA, with no one to check them. While we saw no one steal anything, some of the workers carried bags that could have easily concealed items out of the airport.

“It’s a crime of opportunity,” said Chief Roy Liddicott of the Broward County sheriff’s district office at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. The sheriff’s office must patrol an area where more than 11,000 workers with security badges are allowed access.

“We had one incident about five years ago or so where we had a couple of airline employees working with a couple of TSA employees, ended up making multiple arrests. We shut that right down,” Liddicott said.

Chief Liddicott was the only law enforcement official who agreed to talk about this problem with the I-Team on the record or on camera.

I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked “What are you doing to make sure the baggage handlers aren’t going through our luggage and taking things?”

“We have deputies both uniform and non-uniform,” Chief Liddicott replied. “We have quite a presence out here. We set up surveillances. We have from time to time set up phony bags.”

Liddicott said his reports show 156 incidents of reported thefts at Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International in 2008. That’s up from 141 incidents of reported thefts in 2007.

But Chief Liddicott also said that many people who report stolen items to TSA do not file the same report to the local policing agency such as Broward County’s Sheriff’s Office.

Aviation security consultant Jim Butler said that in years past, some missing and stolen luggage even ended up in the false ceiling of MIA’s terminal and was discovered by workers only during recent new construction there.

“You’ve got to get better security,” said Jay Aimis about all airports. On the other hand, Aimis admits that “I could just kick myself all over the place” for putting that camera in his checked luggage.

The Aimises warn anyone traveling not to do the same thing they did or risk losing something far more valuable than just a camera.

“You can replace the camera,” Jay Aimis said. “(But) you can’t get those pictures back.”

Consultant Jim Butler said this issue also raises the issue of security at our nation’s airports. “They’re getting the stuff out of the airport,” Butler said. “Who knows what’s coming in?”

“I hope it’s not a crisis that forces it (improvement of the problem) or an emergency,” Butler said.
(© MMX, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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