Airline Employee: Co-Workers Often Pillage Luggage

Passengers regularly report items stolen from checked baggage.

March 31, 2009, 10:17 PM

April 1, 2009 — -- Though airline ticket prices are dropping, passengers may be paying in other ways.

Thousands of passengers file complaints with the Transportation Safety Administration each year claiming that items have been stolen out of their checked luggage.

Now one airline employee has come forward to say the thieves are actually her co-workers.

A Continental Airlines employee in Houston talked to ABC News affiliate KTRK on the condition that her identity be disguised.

The woman said she has seen fellow employees rifle through bags at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, saying that while security is tight at check-in, luggage isn't nearly as safe once it's moved to a loading area .

"It happens every day. It's very often that we may run across Continental guys going through their [passengers'] luggage," she said. "They run everything tightly up at the top, but poorly at the bottom."

ABC News asked Continental about the employee's accusations. In a statement it said, "Thefts from baggage are extremely rare. We have active security operations at airports including IAH [Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport]. We assist law enforcement agencies in investigating and prosecuting theft cases when they arise."

But Houston teacher Madeline Hartwell said her bags were pilfered a few weeks ago at the Houston airport, but on a different airline. She says souvenirs she packed in her bag in England never made it home.

"I had added extra tissue in between. The bags were there, but the items were gone. My concern is that something is going on. There is theft from within," Hartwell said.

An undercover video, shot three years ago by ABC News affiliate KNXV and police at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, shows what police say is happening more often -- unsupervised baggage handlers rummaging through luggage, then hiding stolen items in their pockets.

"If I was to fly a flight with Continental, those are the things that I will be thinking about," said the Houston employee.

Baggage Handlers Allegedly Stole 900 Items From Luggage

Two weeks ago police at Lambert-Saint Louis International Airport broke up a massive theft ring. Eight baggage handlers allegedly stole 900 items from passengers' bags -- everything from laptops and cameras to cigarettes and cologne.

"They were stashing stuff and then when they left were carrying it out in their coats or fanny packs or backpacks," Lambert Police Chief Paul Mason said.

In Hartford, Conn., last month, state troopers arrested 11 people who worked at Bradley Airport for stealing from bags being unloaded from flights.

Police said the thefts had been taking place for years.

Those recent arrests are little consolation for travelers like Hartwell.

"All those security measures were taken for us, what security did we have for our bags?"

The Houston Continental employee says if she flies, she makes sure to carry anything valuable on the plane with her. Experts say the best place may be in your coat pocket or in a small bag that you can watch, even when it goes through security conveyer belts.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events