By Catharine Hamm
10:30 AM EST, December 23, 2013
Question: I took my family on a trip to Seattle on Alaska Airlines in August. While unpacking my luggage in my hotel room, I found a nasty surprise: a filthy latex glove. Obviously, someone had gone through my belongings and left it behind. Besides the ick factor, there was no form in my suitcase saying it had been inspected. I didn't notice any items missing, but I had to launder all my underwear just to feel comfortable wearing them. My baggage has been searched before; in one case, a form was left; in another, items were stolen and no form was left. Could you please tell me what the Transportation Security Administration policy is supposed to be regarding searching passengers' luggage?
Answer: We will never know what happened to Del's luggage or who searched it or why because the video that would have revealed that no longer exists, the TSA told me.
Those videos generally are kept for about 30 days, said Ross Feinstein, a TSA spokesman. That bit of information won't help Del, but it is a big heads-up for anyone who has issues with a bag search: If you have a complaint or a concern about what has happened to your bag, speak up right away or the video that may solve the mystery will go the way of all things.
As for the baggage procedure, here's what Feinstein said in an email: "Explosive Detection System [EDS] machines are utilized to screen all checked luggage. Through a sophisticated analysis of each checked bag, the EDS machines can quickly capture an image of a single bag and determine if a bag contains a potential threat item."
If that happens? The bag goes to a "resolution room," where it will be inspected.
"The vast majority of bags screened by the EDS do not involve any physical inspection by a TSA officer," he said. "However, bags that [set off an] alarm may be opened and inspected before [they are] reintroduced to the system, where [they] continue onto the aircraft."
The TSA is supposed to leave notification if the bag has been opened and inspected.
At LAX alone, 23 million bags a year are screened at the rate of about one a minute. You can see why notification doesn't always happen, although I would have appreciated a note from the person who left the yo-yo in my checked luggage some years ago explaining whether it was a gift or a commentary on my personality.
The TSA is not the only organization with access to your bag. That has, in the past, led to some finger-pointing. The TSA would point to the airline; the airline would point to the TSA; and in the end, nobody was held responsible because nobody could be proved responsible.
But thanks to technology and an airline bar code, it's easy to determine whether the TSA has inspected a bag, Feinstein said. That doesn't solve the issue of missing items, but it does narrow the list of suspects.
As you're packing for your end-of-the-year trip, remember that if an item is irreplaceable, don't pack it in your checked bag. In other words, if it's your grandmother's strand of cultured pearls, keep it in your carry-on, which you never let out of your sight (and to which you have affixed a luggage tag with your name and phone number, just to be sure). Better yet, leave the necklace in the safe deposit box and wear the fakes.
And now to the question of whether you can carry wrapped packages with you when you fly: You can. Whether you should is another question. Here's the issue: You have spent eons of time wrapping and ribboning your packages. You put them in your suitcase or your carry-on. But something sets off the alarm. Bye-bye, beautiful wrapping. The TSA will have to open them to inspect.
Wait until you get wherever you're going to wrap your gifts. (Don't carry your scissors in your carry-on, by the way.) And while we're talking about what you can and cannot take, don't take your stun gun in your carry-on baggage. The TSA reported that it confiscated 13 for the week ending Dec. 13. Likewise, don't take regular guns or things that look like guns, hand grenades and a whole list of other weapons in your carry-on bags. Also on the banned-for-the-carry-on-bag list: cranberry sauce, dips and gravy. Yep, gravy and grenades are in the same no-fly category (for hand luggage, anyway). Just say no to pocketbooks full of either.
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