Sky Harbor’s luggage scandal: Who’s to blame for a thousand stolen bags?

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By Christopher Elliott

Outraged? No, those of us who fly suspect this kind of thing is happening at every major airport in the country. It’s the only explanation for the thousand stolen bags.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center would have to be ten times its size if every piece of lost luggage ended up there.

And so we see this when we pick up the morning paper: News of nearly 1,000 pieces of stolen luggage being found while police served a search warrant at a home near Phoenix.

Here are details from the Phoenix police department. (Related: There’s something odd about this lost luggage claim.)

What the heck?

The Arizona Republic has the following disturbing details:

The suitcases were stacked without identification tags, the owners’ names erased from the bags they never picked up at Sky Harbor International Airport.

Detectives uncovered nearly 1,000 pieces of stolen luggage Tuesday while serving a search warrant at a home in the northwest Valley, linking the items to Keith King, who’s accused of plucking the bags off airport baggage carousels.

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Phoenix police found the bags at a home in Waddell, 35 miles from the airport, many emptied – a property crime considered rare despite the flow of more than 200,000 people each day through Sky Harbor.

Police officers arrested King three weeks ago at the airport after an officer noticed him grabbing a random bag off one of the carousels. He was given a misdemeanor-theft citation and released, though police said he returned to the airport days later.

That prompted reader Joseph McNeely to make the following observation:

Remember when you used to have to match your luggage with a luggage tag!

This is outrageous to caution travelers on what to do and not do when the airlines and the airport have totally abandoned any pretense of securing the bags. Anyone at any airport can simply take your bag from the carousel and leave with it.

They are now charging you for checked bags. But they don’t want to accept responsibility for them. I barely secured my own bag on my last trip as some one removed it from the carousel … also I always put identification inside the bag, not just rely on tags. If they are found whoever finds them are without excuse as to notifying me. I even put a copy of my flight itinerary.

The airlines take your money and then by “law” are limited to pay nothing for your stuff!

That’s true. The problem is not just lax security. It’s that airlines don’t have to pay you much if they lose your luggage, or if it’s stolen.

Here’s what the government rules say about “lost” luggage

If your bags are delayed, lost or damaged on a domestic trip, the airline can invoke a ceiling of $3,300 per passenger on the amount of money they’ll pay you. (This limit is $3,000 for flights before December 22, 2008.) When your luggage and its contents are worth more than the liability limit, you may want to purchase “excess valuation,” if available, from the airline as you check in. This is not insurance, but it will increase the carrier’s potential liability. The airline may refuse to sell excess valuation on some items that are especially valuable or breakable, such as antiques, musical instruments, jewelry, manuscripts, negotiable securities and cash.

In other words, the most an airline would pay now is $3,300. Truth is, it’s almost always significantly less.

So the airlines don’t have much incentive to safeguard your luggage, even though they now charge a fee to transport it. The government’s luggage rules are wishy-washy. Airport security, when it comes to checked luggage claims, is at best porous. (And who is responsible for the bag between the plane and the carousel, anyway?)

No wonder this happened. (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problems.)

Whose fault is this? Apart from the thieves who stole more than 1,000 pieces of luggage, it’s hard to find someone not to blame.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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