Locking and unlocking checked luggage


Dear Steve, I’d like your input regarding the editor’s statement on page 2 of the February ’07 issue. He wrote that U.S. air travelers can lock their checked bags and added, “Of course, Travel Sentry® Certified locks must be used.”

That these locks must be used is not entirely true. For the past several years I’ve checked bags at both Washington, D.C., airports for international flights and used my own little padlocks.

Most major airlines at both airports already require all travelers, after they leave the check-in counter, to take their bags to a nearby location for screening. With my locked bags, all I have to do is hang around the screening location for a few minutes until my bag goes through the screening machine and is dumped unceremoniously on the conveyer belt or ramp. In this way, if the screeners need to open my bag (though this never has happened), I’m there to unlock it. When I mention that my bag is locked and so I’ll wait while they screen it, the screeners never seem surprised.

Furthermore, when I’ve connected elsewhere (e.g., New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Miami) for an international flight, I’ve never seen any evidence that my padlocks have bothered anyone. I suppose that once a bag is screened at one U.S. airport, other U.S. airports through which it may be transferred may not screen it again.

I also suspect that different U.S. airports may have different policies about baggage locks, because I’ve heard other American travelers say that they’re not allowed to lock their bags at all when departing their home airports. Either the airport policies are different or these folks were misled.

Leaving a bag unlocked is an obvious invitation to theft, of course, especially for international travelers and even more so for anyone traveling to a developing nation where any American or European is rich by their national standards. But with the keys available to all TSA agents, I don’t think the TSA-approved locks are the answer.

From my observation, I wouldn’t trust TSA agents to guard their keys very carefully. I expect there’ll soon be ways for others to get hold of them, if they can’t already do so.

As for the TSA-approved combination locks, I’ve found that combination locks sometimes jam and can’t be opened even with the correct combination.

I’d rather take the chance that, somewhere and someday, some security agent may decide to clip off my padlock. That’s never happened to me in many trips abroad since 9-11, but, just in case, I always carry some of the one-time, inexpensive PrivaSeals available from Magellan’s. It might be interesting to learn if there is a policy that is consistently enforced at all U.S. airports with international departures. — STANLEY BACH, Washington, D.C.


Dear Stanley, there may be a consistent policy, but I seriously doubt that it’s applied consistently. My wife and I flew to Los Angeles’ LAX over the Presidents’ Day weekend to see our son, and the security clearance experience was entirely different in each direction.

Coming back, my nearly empty toothpaste tube was confiscated since it originally held more than three ounces. The TSA agent was being irrational, in my mind, but I’m sure she thought ‘a rule is a rule’ and that a possible catastrophe was being averted by her diligence. I accepted that and pressed forward, after I managed to put my belt and shoes back on.

Years ago when I was working for United Airlines, I transferred from a nonunion airport to an airport staffed by employees who were newly divided between nonunion people handlers (agents, like I was) and slightly higher-paid unionized baggage handlers. Being new to this airport, I was admonished to never touch a bag once it was placed on the conveyor belt, lest I become the subject of a union grievance. The baggage handlers were guarding their prerogatives, which in turn protected their jobs.

One evening, however, they heard a suspicious clicking noise coming from a bag and advised me that finding out why it was clicking was not in their job description, so I had to determine whether or not it was safe to load the bag onto the passenger’s plane or else relegate it to some far corner of the tarmac.

This was back in the days when a number of planes were blown up by suitcase bombs checked in by people who had just purchased cheap flight (crash) insurance, either on themselves with their families as beneficiaries or on their dispensable spouses with themselves as beneficiaries.

In those days most suitcases had built-in locks, it seems. As I knelt down with my heart in my throat, I tipped the bag on its side and my supervisor handed me a “magic” key. With it, I was able to open the bag and, thankfully, found an innocent, battery-operated toy whose switch had just been accidentally tripped on.

What surprised me about this episode was the size of my supervisor’s collection of master keys that opened virtually every imaginable brand of suitcase or padlock. Until then, I never knew the collection even existed.

My point is airlines have always been able to open your suitcase, locked or not.

Regarding locked baggage, the current official word from the TSA is this: “In some cases, screeners will have to open your baggage as part of the screening process. If your bag is unlocked, TSA will simply open and screen the contents. However, if you decide to lock your checked bag and TSA cannot open it through other means (magic keys?), then the locks may have to be broken.

“TSA is not liable for damage caused to locked bags that must be opened for security purposes. TSA suggests that you help prevent the need to break your locks by using a TSA-recognized locking mechanism. These ‘special’ locks can be opened by TSA using tools (magic keys?) provided to us by participating industry members and can be purchased at multiple retail outlets.”

Two of the companies that make TSA-recognized locks are Travel Sentry Locks and Safe Sky Luggage locks, available through companies like Magellan’s (800/962-4943, www. magellans.com), Sharper Image (800/344-5555, www.sharperimage.com) and most luggage shops.

TSA’s travel tips include the following: 1) Don’t pack fragile or valuable items. 2) Travel with unwrapped gifts. 3) Put undeveloped film in your carry-on luggage. 4) Put I.D. tags in and on all baggage, including laptops. 5) Double-check to make sure no prohibited items were inadvertently packed. 6) Don’t overpack.

If your bag is inspected, reclosing it may be difficult, making it a prime candidate for delays — and, of course, delayed baggage can end up in never-never land rather than in your home or hotel where you need it.

From my own experience, even the “old money stuffed inside a rolled-up sock” trick can’t get past some of those bag-pilfering pros, whether they are criminally tempted baggage handlers or anyone else, so I highly recommend you never ever violate tip number one.