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Bags Stolen From Baggage Claim: The Airlines' Big Luggage Security Problem | Frommer's PrasitRodphan / Shutterstock

Bags Stolen From Baggage Claim: The Airlines' Big Luggage Security Problem

Many travelers won't know or remember this, but there was a time when airline passengers had to to present a claim check in order to pick up their luggage after flights.

Until the early 1980s, it was standard for passengers to be asked by a security representative in the baggage claim area to match the code number on their checked-bag receipt to prove their checked bags belonged to them. In those days, the claim check was often the perforated stub of the luggage tag. That way, the airlines knew that each piece of luggage went home with the person who checked it.

It's past time for some simple luggage security to return to baggage claim.

Just look at some recent headlines, which reveal a consistent and global problem with the major airlines' safe custody of our baggage.

* As the Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday, A woman's luggage didn't make it on to her recent American Airlines flight to Burbank, California. After five days with no news, American finally told her it found the bag and would take care of the issue—but then it delivered the wrong bag to her. So the passenger tracked her stuff down with an Apple AirTag.

The passenger told KTLA, a local TV station, that she went to the location of the AirTag to check things out. "That day I saw dozens of suitcases, brand new suitcases, name-brand suitcases strewn across Western and Sunset,” she said. “Rows and rows of suitcases, bicycles, baby strollers with airline tags on them everywhere.”

How do "dozens" of suitcases move undetected from an airport baggage claim 10 miles away, even traveling around a mountain range that's in between? The evidence would appear to suggest a major operation stealing luggage out from under the airlines' noses.

* Last week in Hong Kong, authorities arrested two people who it accuses of repeatedly traveling to the baggage claim area of Hong Kong International Airport to steal luggage containing luxury-brand clothing and jewelry. Authorities say the pair managed to haul some $140,800 in stolen possessions before they were caught. 

* Seattle's SEA-TAC airport said that luggage is being stolen from baggage claim at record rates. In 2011, there were just 97 cases, but in recent years, that number has swollen to nearly 500.

* Similar thefts from the luggage carousel have also been reported in GermanyCharlotteSan Jose, Philadelphia, Denver, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Houston—well, you get the idea. It's a big problem. 

The airlines and the airports have responded just as you'd expect.

In official statements, they claim they take safety and security seriously, blah blah blah, and they're working closely with law enforcement to assess appropriate measures, blah blah blah. 

They also point out that "mishandled baggage" rates remain fairly steady

That's true, but it's also more blah blah blah. 

When the airlines started charging us to check our bags, they turned it into a paid service. The lost-luggage rate should now be closer to zero, because we're paying.

In the early '80s, checking baggage was a free amenity on the airlines, yet passengers could often enjoy the peace of mind of knowing a sentry at the carousel area would ensure no item at baggage claim would be stolen.

About a decade ago, airlines began charging us $25 ($33 in today's money) to check a bag. Now the fee is $40–$45 (yes, it rose higher than the rate of inflation), yet the airlines appear to have invested in no safeguards at baggage claim in return for that. No added security measures at baggage claim, no RFID tracker tags provided as part of the purchase. Despite advances in cheap tracking technology and the collection of all that cash, the airlines still may not even know where your bag is.

It's almost as if charging us to check bags was just a cash grab and a way to make flights look less expensive than they actually are.

The Burbank passenger who found her luggage by a Los Angeles intersection says she lost $6,000 in personal and professional items. American Airlines says it will only give her $1,700. So she's suing.

As long as there are weak financial costs for "mishandling" our luggage, the airlines will be likely to calculate that it's just not worth the expense to take care of our belongings.

That's why I remind you about how much more attentive baggage security once was with just a security officer on duty. With today's technology, the clearance process could be made to be much faster, smoother, and frictionless.

The American consumer has quietly accepted a dramatic degradation in the quality of their purchases. We have become sheep for the fleecing.

As long as American travelers keep shuffling, zombie-like, through disrespectful and shoddy airline experiences, the bad times will continue. 

Demand better.

Start with your airlines, and then with the government that is supposed to be overseeing them. 

We're paying to check bags. We should demand responsibility from the airlines in return.