Sea-Tac Baggage Handler Thefts Prompt Scrutiny

Port of Seattle police are investigating whether two baggage handlers suspected of stealing from travelers' suitcases at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are part of a larger problem.

The two men arrested last week work for Menzies Aviation, a London-based company that contracted with Alaska Airlines in 2005 to manage ground operations. Menzies personnel replaced about 500 union workers who were laid off to save the airline about $13 million per year.

The arrests follow two high-profile mishaps involving Menzies' workers in 2005 that raised questions about the company's safety practices.

The employees, 22 and 19, were both released by police while the investigation continues, airport spokesman Bob Parker said.

"We're trying to find out if there are more people," he said.

The 22-year-old was arrested Thursday after authorities said it was discovered he was selling pilfered cigarettes at the airport. He would open luggage and take valuable items, which apparently includes a laptop computer, Parker said.

"He was selling enough cigarettes often enough that it got somebody's attention," Parker said.

The 19-year-old tried to use a stolen credit card at a Coach leather goods store in Bellevue, and police relied on security camera footage to identify him, Parker said.

Investigators recovered two laptop computers, 15 DVD movies, one video camera and one video player while investigating the two men, Parker said.

Menzies employs about 400 workers at Sea-Tac, said John Geddes, a company spokesman.

"Menzies, Alaska Airlines and the Port of Seattle have a zero tolerance policy in dealing with theft and take the security of passengers and their possessions as the top priority," according to a written statement issued by the company. "Menzies will continue to work with Alaska Airlines and the Port of Seattle to tackle this issue."

"If they're found guilty, they will be dismissed," Geddes said.

In December, Menzies fired six employees at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport after they were charged in connection with a luggage theft ring, Geddes said. Police recovered about 160 discarded bags, with 68 found in a trash bin outside a pet store near the airport, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The baggage was stolen from flights connecting through Houston to other destinations, the Chronicle reported.

Geddes said he was unaware of other thefts by Seattle employees.

In 2006, the airport had 575 bags reported stolen overall, out of 30 million processed, airport spokesman Parker said.

Menzies has had its share of bad publicity since it took over Alaska's ground operations.

Last year, a Menzies' worker was charged with misdemeanor assault after he shoved two United Airlines workers in a dispute that started because the victims thought the defendant was driving a luggage cart too fast through their area.

A warrant was issued for the Menzies' worker, Feleti Moimoi, 21, after he missed a court hearing in August, the King County Prosecutor's Office reported.

In December 2005, a baggage handler driving a vehicle accidentally bumped an MD-80 on the ground, leaving a crease in its fuselage. The worker didn't report the incident, and the crease reportedly ruptured into a foot-long gash, causing the flight to lose cabin pressure and make an emergency descent. None of the 140 passengers was seriously hurt, although six passengers sued the airline.

Less than two weeks later, a Menzies' worker lurched forward in a tow tug while a plane was boarding, causing it to strike a baggage-loading machine and its door to hit the jetway. Airport officials said such ground incidents are fairly common around the country.

After the accidents, the company said it bolstered its safety oversight personnel at Sea-Tac, instituted twice-daily safety briefings and made changes in equipment and procedures.

Menzies provided ramp operations for many years in other locations for Alaska before starting in Seattle and is a leading industry provider of ground operations, Alaska spokeswoman Amanda Tobin Bielawski said.

The company has employees at 93 locations in 23 countries, according to its Web site.

"There were some initial challenges with the system in Seattle, but Alaska worked closely with Menzies in identifying and resolving those quickly. We've seen great progress, and they're delivering on their operations," she said.

The thefts didn't concern Greg Curfman, 54, a Kingston resident, who waited for his baggage Tuesday after arriving from Hawaii via Los Angeles. He said he puts his valuables in his carry-on luggage.

But he preferred that Alaska Airlines still used its own baggage handlers, noting that there would be little incentive for a 20-year employee to steal from luggage and lose a union-negotiated salary and pension benefits.

"If you have lower standards, you're apt to have more problems," he said.

STOLEN LUGGAGE

Theft victims should call 206-433-5400 to file a report with Port of Seattle police. Lost claims also can be filed with the Transportation Security Administration, although the TSA recommends travelers also file lost or stolen claims with their airline.



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