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Screeners are saddled with excess baggage

Published August 14, 2005

Demitra Apostolos, 29, is a native of Pinellas County and a graduate of Florida State University. (No, this isn't about the fight over the Seminole nickname.) These days she's a graduate student at Arizona State University.

The field in which Demitra is pursuing her master's degree is called "ethnomusicology," the study of music and culture. Her specialty is native American powwow music and dance.

Since at least the early 1800s, she told me, native peoples have held competitive powwows, social gatherings in which participants compete for honor. The modern version also can involve cash prizes.

For her thesis work Demitra traveled much of the United States this summer, paying special attention to the Plains tribes. She tape-recorded their ceremonies.

On July 11, Demitra flew home to Tampa International Airport for a sad purpose, a memorial service. She packed her tape recorder and her tapes in her checked luggage. She stayed here for about 10 days.

Back at school, she opened her suitcase. Her tape recorder and her tapes were gone. Nothing else was missing.

There was a note in her suitcase from the federal Transportation Security Administration. It was a standard notice inserted in searched luggage. "Your bag was among those opened for physical inspection," the note said.

Her belief is that her graduate work disappeared during the TSA search.

"It was a big part of my field work that I was doing over the summer," she sighed. "It's just gone now." She will try to write her thesis without it. She's going through the usual missing-items claims process.

I suggested to her that maybe somebody else took it - after all, that sort of thing happened all the time even before the TSA was formed.

This did not seem likely to her. "I don't know why anyone would want cassette tapes," she said. What are the odds, she wondered, that her bag would be searched, and then also hit by thieves?

This is the question I asked the TSA.

Lauren Stover is a TSA spokeswoman based in Miami. She hears the question all the time, and winces at news reports that seem to take TSA theft for granted.

"It seems that the perception of TSA is that we're the agency that inspects the bags, so we're the agency that steals from them," Stover said.

Stover said that yes, there have been isolated incidents around the country. But the overwhelming majority of missing-item complaints that get solved turn out to be somebody else's fault.

Sometimes, passengers report something missing, then find it later or even realize they never packed it.

Sometimes, passengers blame TSA agents for stealing things that were stolen by somebody else along the way. (You might remember various scandals involving baggage handlers, for instance.)

There have been cases, Stover said, of passengers accusing TSA screeners of stealing carry-on items from conveyor belts. Surveillance tapes show the items being taken by someone else in line.

"We get a lot of calls from people afterward who apologize," she said.

Seeking a frame of reference, I checked the records. In the last monthly report before September 2001, before our modern era of airline security, U.S. airlines received more than 266,000 complaints about luggage, including missing items.

In other words, a lot of bags had problems before the TSA ever existed. Is it really that wacky a coincidence that some of the "problem" bags today also might be searched by the TSA?

Demitra still finds it hard to believe that the TSA search has nothing to do with her tapes. She hopes they'll show up in the lost-and-found. I hope so, too.

But it is a useful reminder to the rest of us. Our "private property" in the belly of the airplane is not private at all. Decide whether you can carry on the things most precious to you. Use a TSA-approved lock for the luggage you do check to learn more, go to click on Travelers and Consumers, then on Travel Tips.

As to whether such precautions are inconvenient - well, it depends on the alternative, doesn't it?

[Last modified August 14, 2005, 00:52:03]

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