Guns at O'Hare are disappearing: Firearms being stolen from checked bags

Aug. 14--Several handguns have been stolen from bags checked by police officers, military personnel and others on United Airlines flights departing O'Hare International Airport, sparking concern that the weapons are loose in what is supposed to be a secure part of the airport.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been "a handful" of firearm thefts from luggage being handled by United personnel, Chicago police spokeswoman Monique Bond said. Bags containing guns also have disappeared, authorities said.

News of an investigation surfaced days after new security restrictions were placed on airports across the nation in the wake of British authorities foiling what they said was a plot to blow up U.S.-bound airplanes.

Aviation security experts said stealing from checked luggage long has been a problem at many airports and that guns are a favored target because they are easy to smuggle out and easy to sell.

Still another concern is that putting something into a bag could be just as easy as taking an item out, experts said.

"It's a problem at every airline and every airport," said aviation security consultant Douglas Laird.

United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski would not discuss the investigation Sunday except to say the airline is "working with the authorities on this matter." United, based in Chicago, is the dominant airline at O'Hare.

Also joining police in the investigation are the FBI and Chicago Department of Aviation.

For police officers, word of the thefts is being circulated on the Chicago police union's Web site, which warns of an officer whose weapon was stolen--one of "several cases" in "an ongoing problem"--that investigators confirmed for the union.

"United Airlines is having a serious problem with theft at O'Hare Airport," a notice on the Fraternal Order of Police site says. "This is something to think about next time you arrange vacation or business plans. Perhaps United Airlines is not the correct choice for flights for law enforcement or military personnel."

The FOP posted the warning as a service to its members after a union member's gun was stolen, President Mark Donahue said.

He said he knew little about the investigation's status or when the gun was stolen.

"He expressed his concern [to the union] just in the last week, so I'm guessing it wasn't too long ago," Donahue said.

Experts said there are generally two sources of such thefts: airline employees or Transportation Safety Administration baggage screeners. Stealing from checked luggage is a problem that dates back decades, Laird said.

People checking in luggage carrying a gun must declare their weapon with a ticket agent. Stealing the gun could be as easy as a ticket agent notifying a baggage handler below about which bag to open, Laird said.

Although the law requires guns to be carried in locked, hard-sided cases, baggage handlers have no problem getting into such luggage, he said.

The other possibility, experts said, is that TSA screeners who X-ray or inspect bags by hand could be pocketing the guns.

"Nobody has ever really resolved a real way around it," Laird said. "There's a real dilemma with baggage theft in the airline industry."

Watching the bags with cameras would be very costly, he said, with hundreds of cameras needed to survey the wide area where bags are handled, he said.

But David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group for passenger security and savings, said such safety should be a priority.

"It's certainly troubling news," he said. "Especially with a gun, you'd think they have a higher level of security."

Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo., said he is suspicious of TSA handlers. This year, TSA handlers in Seattle have pleaded guilty to stealing prescription drugs, and in two separate cases, a total of three screeners in Hawaii have pleaded guilty to stealing money from checked luggage.

"The TSA blames the airlines, and the airlines blame the TSA," Boyd said.

He said the guns probably do not pose a threat to passengers because they are "probably in a pawn shop in Cicero by now."

But if the guns can be removed, he said, other objects could be put into a bag.

"Operatives putting things in bags could be a problem," Boyd said.

Lara Uselding, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security in Chicago, said the TSA is helping the investigation.

"The TSA works very closely with its local law enforcement partners to ensure that proper operations are conducted by all airport partners in compliance with the Airport Security Plan," she said. "All misconduct will be addressed on a case-by-case basis and dealt with accordingly."

In the meantime, Laird said he has simple advice.

"Would I ever check a weapon or valuable? No, I'd FedEx it."

dheinzmann@tribune.com

jbnoel@tribune.com

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