Fliers flinch at entrusting fragile items to cargo hold

Baggage

August 12, 2006|By TRICIA BISHOP | TRICIA BISHOP,SUN REPORTER

It's part of the frequent flier's bible: You don't put valuables in checked bags. Security personnel might rifle through them. They can get lost or stolen. The wear and tear of being tossed around can't be good for any breakables inside.

But after this week's foiled terrorist attacks in Britain, airline passengers are being told - depending on their destination - to pack away laptops and BlackBerries, expensive perfumes, cosmetics and even some medications.

The restrictions come as Department of Transportation statistics show that baggage handling has been getting worse, when Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials discourage locking luggage, and when some airports have pilferage problems.

Most airlines won't pay for damage to fragile items, including computers, video equipment and medicine. They cap their liability for any damage.

Airlines are not promising to handle luggage with kid gloves or to change their liability rules. Instead, many airline officials say passengers should leave the good stuff at home.

"They don't necessarily have to take along the Rolex and Louis Vuitton and all of the rest of it on this particular trip," said John Lampl, a spokesman for British Airways, which has one daily flight between London and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. "Common sense has to prevail."

His sentiment was echoed yesterday by spokesmen for the TSA, Southwest Airlines and a consumer group. David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's trade group, suggested leaving the $400 perfume at home and taking along the Old Spice.

In the U.S., the TSA has banned nonessential liquids and gels from carry-on luggage. And all flights from the United Kingdom, regardless of the carrier, follow British Airways' new rules, which ban all but critical carry-ons on international flights from the U.S. That means no books or newspapers, electronic car keys, cell phones or decks of cards.

And absolutely no laptops.

If fliers want to bring those items, Lampl said, they're going to have to check them.

"The consumer is completely exposed! They are not even allowed to lock up their luggage to protect their materials," Nipon Das, wrote in an e-mail interview. Das is a former Baltimore business development official who still consults in the area, though he lives in New York.

He spends most of his time running around the country and occasionally gets back to his English homeland. He carries a collection of electronics wherever he goes.

"This will be a major hassle," he wrote. If airlines don't take responsibility for damaged items or let laptops back on long flights, Das predicts they will "concede a significant chunk of their high-margin business travel" to private charter jets - where seats cost about the same as a business-class flight with fewer restrictions.

Ken Vogel, a 48-year-old Potomac lawyer, was at Dulles International Airport yesterday to see his teenage son and daughter off to London. A frequent business traveler, he dreads checking his laptop the next time he flies.

"It's fragile," he said. "You need an IT guy to set it all up for you. ... If it breaks, it's bad."

Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Aviation, said he's worried that the new rules will put more stress on the beleaguered baggage-handling system.

"We're forcing more passengers to check more of that baggage in a system that is dysfunctional at best," he said yesterday.

In May, Mica led a hearing on Capitol Hill, hoping to find ways to improve baggage handling. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 3.6 million reports of "mishandled" bags came in last year, meaning that items were delayed, lost, damaged or stolen. That was a 26 percent increase from 2004, when reports increased 28 percent over 2003. Complaints in the first half of this year were up 1.7 percent over the same period in 2005.

Still, in the "scheme of things" that's not too bad, said ATA spokesman Castelveter. Worldwide, more than 3 billion bags were checked last year, and 3.6 million U.S. incidents is a relatively "small number," he said.

Mica said several dozen TSA workers have been arrested for stealing from bags. Last year, a former BWI baggage handler was convicted of bank and mail fraud for stealing from the airport, and a Dulles handler was convicted of stealing more than 2,000 credit cards by rummaging through mail. In Miami a few years ago, six airport employees were arrested for stealing from luggage.

TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said airport workers have been required to have security badges for years to get access to secured areas, such as those that route and load baggage. But security efforts have been ramped up since the attacks of Sept. 11. Airport employees are now subject to background checks against government watch lists and other public records before employment, Kudwa said, and monitored from then on.

Theft, though, is less of a concern for many travelers and far less common than damage. Bags tend to tumble down carousels, and handlers have been known to toss them into aircraft.

Roland T. Rust, an airline industry expert and department chairman at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, predicted:

"There will be no more carrying back wine from wine country in California. That shows you how drastic this really is."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Jamie Smith Hopkins and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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