A Valuable Lesson For Security Checkpoints

Passengers wait at a checkpoint at Reagan National Airport. Some travelers have complained of inaction on lost or stolen items.
Passengers wait at a checkpoint at Reagan National Airport. Some travelers have complained of inaction on lost or stolen items. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

It's an airport ritual every passenger must endure.

When preparing to board a flight to Puerto Rico last July, John Wright of Tiverton, R.I., took off his shoes and belt and placed them in a plastic bin. Then, he said, he then took off his Rolex watch and wedding ring, placed them in another bin and sent it down the conveyer belt of the X-ray checkpoint machine at Boston's Logan International Airport.

But Wright's standard screening went awry, he claims. When he made it through the checkpoint to pick up his belongings, the Rolex had come out but his $7,000 ring was missing. He ordered the Transportation Security Administration officials to stop the conveyer belt. He asked the three TSA screeners to look for his ring. Nothing. He asked to speak to a supervisor, who also helped conduct a search. But still, nothing.

His wife, Janet, was directly behind him in line going through the security checkpoint, and Wright insists one of the TSA employees snatched the ring.

"I traveled 15 feet and lost a $7,000 diamond wedding ring. They looked on the ground and conveyer belt. Nothing. I thought I was in a secure area," said Wright, a middle school health teacher and high school varsity football coach.

Wright called the TSA's complaint number, filled out lost-and-found forms, and reviewed airport security videos of himself at the checkpoint. But the TSA in September denied Wright's claim that the agency was at fault for the loss of the ring.

So last month Wright filed a suit against the government agency seeking reimbursement for the ring and attorneys' fees. He alleges that a TSA employee stole the ring and accuses the TSA of negligent hiring and supervision.

Last year, the TSA had 12,800 claims for lost or stolen items, according to TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis. Of those, 11.5 percent, or about 1,500 claims, were from items that went missing at security checkpoints. The number of claims has dropped from 2004, when the TSA had 14,800 claims for missing items, of which 13 percent -- or about 1,900 -- were declared missing from airport checkpoints. The agency did not break down the percentage of lost versus stolen items.

Davis said there have been cases in which items were taken by other passengers, either on purpose or by mistake, thinking it belonged to them.

Davis said many of the items end up in the TSA's lost-and-found departments at airports around the country, as a result of passengers forgetting them at the checkpoints.

But theft is also involved. Since 2003, 130 screeners have been fired for stealing, 53 of them from January to Oct. 18 of 2005. Still, of the 80,000 screeners who have worked for the TSA since 2002, Davis says, the number of employees terminated for theft is an "incredibly small percentage" of the workforce.

"TSA maintains a zero-tolerance policy for theft in the workplace. We aggressively investigate all allegations of misconduct, and when infractions are discovered, the offenders are immediately removed from service," she said.

Davis declined to comment on Wright's case but said passengers who believe an item is stolen should not only contact the TSA, but also fill out a local police report. Wright said he did not fill out a police report because the TSA did not make a police officer available. Instead, he says, he was just told to contact the TSA's complaint department.

For many frequent fliers, removing personal items and placing them on the X-ray machine's conveyer belt is a strategic game of follow the bouncing ball. Many frequent travelers have strategies to keep track of their belongings, such as stuffing their keys, wallets and other smaller items into carry-on bags.

Herndon telecommunications engineer Amandeep Dhillon said he places items such as his watch, ring and credit cards in a small plastic bag and places the bag inside of one of his shoes, which is in the bin on the belt.

(TSA's Davis says travelers don't have to remove wedding bands and rings while going through security checkpoints. Davis said fine jewelry -- not costume jewelry -- doesn't have enough metal to trigger the sensors.)

Some frequent fliers sympathize with Wright. Richard Beels of Scranton, Pa., said he stuffs personal items inside a pouch of his laptop computer case. Also, before he walks through the magnetometer, Beels says, he makes sure that all of his items go far enough under the X-ray machine before proceeding through just to make sure his items aren't on one side of the machine while he's on the other.

Yet, despite hiding items in his laptop case, Beels alleges he has had money taken from his computer case twice at security checkpoints and he claims that he also had some items taken from his checked bags. He filed a complaint with the TSA but never heard anything in response.

"They don't make it easy," said Beels, a network consultant.

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