More gate-checked bags means more valuables stolen

The New York Times ran a collection of stories from recent airline travelers who complain that they've been losing valuables out of their carry-on bags. The problem isn't so much with checked bags, but with gate-checked ones, which are the bags the airline asks to take off your hands at the gate, and then returns to you at the gate of your arrival city. Gate-checking almost always happens because of space constraints.

The airplane may not be big enough for much more than a coat or a purse (Delta Connection's small planes are notorious for this--gate-checked bags are "pink-tagged" on those), or the flight is too booked.

One guy told the Times about losing a video camera (plus all the footage of a ceremony honoring his son). Another lost a small GPS unit. A third said that he even lost a few dimes that he used as golf tees. The passengers had these things as they passed through security, and up until the moment they boarded the plane. But when they got off and were handed their bags, they'd been robbed.

The Times story is anecdotal, but the blind spot is real, and it's widening as passengers eschew paying for checked bags. The TSA points out that it has been active in keeping a closer eye on the portion of the screening process that happens after bags are checked. It says that the amount of claims it has paid on lost or damaged items is down by two-thirds since 2005, when it got busy tightening its practices. But those eagle eyes are not trained on the tarmac, where bags are gate-checked and where much of the action has shifted this year.

Now that nearly every major airline requires a fee for the first checked bag, the natural response of many flyers has been to avoid checking anything. Often, this means carrying items (larger items, more valuables) that they would normally have checked. As overhead bins become overstuffed, airlines are culling more carry-ons from boarding passengers. Once bags leave their possession, they enter a plane-side netherworld where there is no system in place to keep wayward airport employees from nicking your good stuff.

The TSA may be vigilant about its indoor inspection areas, but who's watching your bag when it's under a plane? The security of the flight is being looked after, but the security of your belongings isn't.

A few things you can do to avoid theft from gate-checked bags:

  • Every one of your carry-ons should be capable of locking, or at least of having your own travel lock affixed at the gate.
  • Everyone is allowed two carry-ons, and one of them is a "personal item." Put your most precious valuables in a very small, purse-size bag that you keep with you and is not likely to be gate-checked.
  • Sit on the left side of the plane. For some types of aircraft, both human boarding and the loading of baggage happens on the port side, and you'll be able to keep an eye on your luggage's movements through the windows.
  • Avoid gate-checking by paying to check them at the counter. It's annoying, it's expensive, and it allows the airlines to dodge taxes on a service they used to have to pay Uncle Sam for. But at least in the terminal, the TSA is trying to keep an eye on bag workers.
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