Dec. 28--The 68 pieces of baggage that turned up in a trash bin Tuesday near George Bush Intercontinental Airport were probably stolen by a team of thieves in a single day's work while airline staffers were stretched thin by the demands of holiday travel, a Texas travel adviser theorized Wednesday.
"It sounds like a hit-or-miss holiday grab bag," said Tom Parsons, of Arlington, who operates Bestfares.com. "They probably grabbed enough to fill up a little van, then went off somewhere and rifled through it."
Another possibility -- an inside job, with somebody taking the luggage on its way from the airplanes to the baggage-claim area -- was not something investigators would talk about.
Meanwhile, it looked like business as usual at Bush on Wednesday. In Terminal C, the airport's busiest, hurried travelers whisked their bags off the carousel and headed for exits without anyone in authority checking whether the numbers on the ticket matched those on the bags.
Parsons said it is costly for the airlines to pay tag-checkers. It is a job that neither the Houston Airport System, which oversees operations at Bush and Hobby, nor the federal Transportation Security Administration performs.
Continental Airlines spokeswoman Mary Clark said many travelers would object to the delay that checking would cause. The airline does not check tags against bags, she said.
Not checking is standard practice at most U.S. airports, Parsons said, but checks are more frequent elsewhere. He said his bags were checked recently when he picked them up in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Although 68 bags may seem "an amazing number" to steal from carousels, it's not that hard to do for a gang, he said.
"We had something like that in Dallas. A group of guys would go from one terminal to another and pick up a couple of bags each place and throw them into their car," he said. The group would later hold garage sales to sell their loot, including the luggage, he said.
At Bush, Parsons speculated, "Those guys were working at different terminals, they took their time and then moved on.
"When you look at the number of terminals and the number of places where you can pick up your bags, it doesn't take that many stops before you've got 70."
"Some bags will sit there on the carousel and go around for three or four laps, and that's a good sign of a missed connection. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that maybe nobody is going to claim this bag," he said.
Airlines have personnel to remove those bags to prevent theft, but sometimes they're busy elsewhere, Parsons said.
Houston Police Department spokesman Gabe Ortiz said investigators have returned all the bags to Continental after gathering what evidence they could. "We were trying to fingerprint, but not all surfaces will hold prints," he said.
Clark said Continental will distribute the bags to the airlines involved and will deliver them free of charge to Continental passengers as soon as they can be identified and located. Those who are missing luggage should file a complaint with their airline, she said.
9 airlines involved
Investigators and Continental released few details about the investigation and did not disclose the airlines, flight origins and destinations involved.
An HPD news release said the luggage, found at 230 Bammel Westfield in north Harris County, came from "as many as nine different airlines."
The statement said police are working with customs officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but an FBI spokesman said the agency is no longer on the case.
Although the Houston Airport System has security cameras throughout the airport, investigators declined to say whether they are checking the videotapes.
Some of the bags reportedly came through Terminal D, which handles most international flights. There, arriving passengers pick up their baggage in a customs area closed to the public. It was not clear how thieves obtained access there, if they did.
FBI spokesman Orlando Munoz said there is no evidence that the incident exposed any national security or terrorism vulnerabilities.
Federal officials and Parsons agreed that so few bags are stolen across the country that it is difficult to compare baggage security among airports and airlines.
In October, the last month for which U.S. Department of Transportation statistics are available, Continental reported 6.09 "mishandled" bags per 1,000 passengers, or one bag per 164 passengers.
But almost all of those complaints involve late-arriving baggage, often caused by missed connecting flights, Clark said.
"Of all the baggage that we carry, less than 1 percent doesn't arrive with the customer, and of that, 98 percent is returned to the customer within 24 hours," she said.
Baggage theft is rare, said Clark, who has worked with Continental for 15 years.
To make sure that your recovered baggage gets back to you, Clark advised, "have your name, address and phone on the inside as well as the outside, in case the (identification) tag is removed."
Parsons added that it's also a good idea to put your destination hotel address in the bag.
Clark said she doesn't know how long the Bush passengers will have to wait to retrieve their bags.
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