This week we mark the first anniversary of the Frequent Flyer column by revisiting one of the first topics of this column — lost luggage.
The trauma that follows the realisation that your baggage has been lost can be best understood by looking at the faces of passengers you find in the lost-and-found offices at airports.
Some of the responses you get during the follow-up process are just a knock-down; for instance, your baggage got lost on a flight from Cape Town to Nairobi and you get updates like, “Sir, you are very lucky we traced your lost bag to Manila in the Philippines, it should be here in another few days.”
Often when you follow up in a few days, you are lucky if you find the bag and they don’t tell you that it is now in Caracas, Venezuela.
I wonder why they even call those offices “Lost and Found” when the lost piece is never found, particularly if it contained valuables.
Despite technological advancements, it beats me how airlines manage to lose bags on a direct flight within one continent or geographical area.
According to SITA — which supplies airlines and airports with baggage handling IT tools like the Word Tracer System — the air transport industry has cut the rate of mishandled bags by over 50 per cent globally since 2007, saving airlines $22 billion.
SITA is working on new technology that will ensure that lost baggage is traced and returned to owners within 48 hours.
Accordingly, 70 per cent of the airlines have committed to using the new technology which should be operational this year, and will allow passengers to receive real-time updates — like that of a GPS system — regarding the whereabouts of their misdirected bags.
While travellers may take comfort from these developments, they should not relax since there is a new problem: That of inflight theft.
In May last year, a South African teacher was jailed for nine months by a Hong Kong court for stealing HK$3,500 on a Cathay Pacific flight from Johannesburg to Hong Kong. Interestingly, the offence was committed in business class even though he was an economy class passenger.
Earlier, the same court had convicted another man to 14 months in prison after he stole HK$1,500 on the pretence of retrieving cold and flu medicine from a passenger bag on a separate flight.
Late last year, Saudi Arabian Airlines crew successfully thwarted three robbery attempts aboard their flights after International Air Transport Association (IATA) issued a circular to airlines around the world of internationally organised gangs carrying out thefts during flights.
So how does one decide to comfortably steal at 35,000ft without worrying about being caught in the act?
Of the many reported incidents of onboard theft, one underlining factor is that passengers become less vigilant and take comfort in the fact that there is nowhere a thief can run to.
Banking on their observation of your activities between check-in and boarding, as you visit duty free shops and how and where you keep currency in your hand luggage etc, these onboard thieves usually have their victims marked well in advance.
According to a passenger who has been a victim, the thief had requested to be allowed to board before other passengers as he seemed to have a medical condition.
Most likely the reason for wanting to board early was to observe where his victim was going to sit and which overhead bins they would store their bags in. A common trick of the trade is that the thief will then place their bags in the same overhead bin, next to the victim’s bags.
On a flight that is more than six hours, the thieves strike after meals service, as this is the time most passengers settle in for a snooze or entertainment.
This usually provides a perfect cover for retrieving and rummaging through bags.
The unfortunate thing about inflight theft is that most victims only realise they have been robbed after reaching their destinations.
Also Read: Why you need to get travel insurance
Valuables like cash, electronics and jewellery should all be stored in secure lockable bags. Unlocked bags are easy targets.
Where hand baggage is unlockable, keep the zipper side facing the inside of the baggage bin. Ladies’ handbags, which of course do not lock, are safer placed under the seat in front of yours, where you can feel it against your feet.
Remember, just because it’s a flying steel cage, that’s no reason to get reckless with your personal belongings. Always be as vigilant as you would be on ground.
This post was earlier published in The East African Magazine May 27, 2017 Beware of inflight thieves next to you.