Air Travelers Urged to Unlock Bags, Opening Liability Issue Critics wonder who'll pay for losses, damage once inspectors can freely search luggage.

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer


WASHINGTON -- The government on Thursday asked air travelers to leave
checked luggage unlocked for security screeners to inspect starting Dec.
31, but the policy prompted an outcry after officials failed to specify
who would be liable for lost, damaged or stolen articles.

With passengers checking about 1 billion pieces of luggage a year, the
new policy by the Transportation Security Administration to check for
hidden explosives is expected to entail opening millions of items - in
many cases while the passenger is not present.

"That leaves a lot to be desired from the standpoint of making people
feel comfortable," said Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel
Coalition. "What happens if you have an expensive camera and it's

The requirement also will test how much privacy passengers are willing
to give up for security's sake.

Airline liability for damage, loss or theft of luggage is clearly
spelled out in government regulations. But the security agency has no
set policy on how it will handle complaints of security-related damage,
which critics and travelers rights groups fear may be widespread.
Agency officials say they will deal with such problems case by case.

Although some airports will use X-ray machines to inspect luggage, some
of the bags will still have to be checked by hand.

So screeners will not have to break locks, the agency is advising
travelers to secure their bags with cable ties, locking plastic strips
that are generally used to fasten wire bundles in computer and stereo
setups. The strips can be snipped off without damaging a bag.
Eventually, the security agency expects to offer them to travelers for

If screeners do have to open a bag, agency officials said they will
leave a note inside with a toll-free number to call if there is a
problem. The line will be staffed from 5 a. m. to 7 p. m. Pacific
time on weekdays and
7 a. m. to 3 p. m. Pacific time on weekends.

"That's not sufficient," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air
Transport Assn., which represents major airlines. "What if they closed
[a bag] improperly and your belongings fell out? Who is liable? How do
you make a claim? What can you expect? The public needs answers. The
absence of consumer information is breathtaking."

There will be consumer safeguards, said security agency spokesman Brian
Turmail: "If someone gets back a bag with something missing, they can
call our consumer-response center."

However, passengers who persist in locking their bags run the risk of
having their locks cut off. The security agency "will not be
responsible for damage to locks," Turmail said.

The agency also urged travelers not to pack food or beverages in checked
luggage. Some foodstuffs may spill or smear as the bag is searched.
Others, such as cheese and chocolate, may trigger a false alarm by
explosives detection equipment.

Photo film can be damaged by screening equipment and should be kept in
carry-on bags. Presents in checked baggage must be unwrapped.

Turmail said the agency is working hard to get the word out to
passengers in the hope that luggage screening will go smoothly.
Additional information is available online at

With millions of bags jostling around on conveyor belts and jetting
around the country each day, airline officials said problems are

Major airlines reported about 120,000 complaints of lost, damaged or
delayed bags in October, the latest month for which statistics are
available. That covers complaints just from loading and unloading
closed bags. Industry officials fear that passengers angry over
security mishandling of baggage will take it out on the airline, not the

"Airlines that mishandle baggage typically have a customer-service agent
on the receiving end of the complaint, and a written claim is taken on
the spot," Wascom said. "Who's to say that anyone is doing anything
when you call an anonymous person at the end of an 800 number that isn't
even manned
24 hours a day? More needs to be done."

The closer inspections stem from a congressional mandate that all
checked bags be screened with explosives detection equipment by the end
of the year.
The security administration will be using two types of technology, and
both require some bags to be opened.

Some luggage will be screened by SUV-size machines akin to the medical
scanners used by hospitals. The airport version of the scanners has a
high false-alarm rate. In some cases, doubts can be resolved only by
opening the bag.

The security agency will also employ devices that detect explosives
residue on a swab that is touched to the bag or its contents. To
guarantee a high success rate in detecting bombs with this type of
equipment, a substantial proportion of bags must be opened.

At airports where screening will take place in lobby areas, such as LAX,
many passengers will be able to watch as their bags are opened.

But at other airports, such as John Wayne Airport in Orange County, the
screening equipment has been built into the luggage conveyor system. At
these facilities, most passengers will not know their bags have been
opened until they arrive at their destinations.

Eventually, most large and medium-size airports are expected to adopt
the more efficient behind-the-scenes model.

David Stone, federal security director at LAX, said authorities are
exploring options for opening locked luggage that would not require
cutting locks off.

"We are sensitive to that," Stone said at a news conference Thursday.
"Do we have some master keys? Do we know some combinations? So we're
working with the airline industry to find out the best way to do that,
the smart way to do it."

The government cannot indefinitely escape liability for luggage damaged
by security, lawyers said. Airlines are now liable for up to $2,500 in
damage per passenger on domestic flights. The regulations governing
airlines may become the basis for rules that apply to the agency.

"They are going to have to develop a system for reimbursing passengers
for lost or stolen bags," said Barry Steinhardt, a lawyer who follows
security issues for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Nothing has
ever occurred on this scale before, where you have the government
searching a billion bags.
So, law is going to be made here."

Warren Dean, a Washington aviation lawyer who formerly worked in the
Transportation Department, said the security administration should have
addressed the liability issue before instituting the new policy.

"The government requires airlines to explain to passengers how claims
are going to be handled," Dean said. "The government should also live
by the same rules."

Times staff writer Jeffrey L. Rabin in Los Angeles contributed to this


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