- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

The Transportation Security Administration has opened an office to handle a backlog of complaints from airline passengers who say they have had property lost, stolen or damaged during airport screenings.

The 20-member office, which opened last month, operates out of TSA headquarters at Pentagon City in Arlington.

“About two-thirds of pending property claims with TSA were filed within the last 180 days,” said Brian Turmail, TSA spokesman.

The TSA began overseeing baggage checks at the nation’s airports in January. As of Oct. 29, the agency had received 19,660 claims of lost, stolen or damaged property.

Mr. Turmail had no figures for compensation to passengers but said the number of claims was small compared with the quantity of baggage screened.

“The backdrop of those claims is that well over 300 million passengers have taken domestic flights since the first of the year, with each passenger having an average of more than 1.5 bags,” Mr. Turmail said.

Since January, the TSA has asked airline passengers to leave their checked luggage unlocked so screeners can comply with a congressional order to inspect all bags for explosives.

TSA officials said their claims office has already reduced much of the backlog of complaints.

“We have caught up with the job of logging and acknowledging claims and are now able to shift staff to examining the merit of claims and process them for payment or denial,” Mr. Turmail said. “Given the shift in our resources, we expect payment of claims to accelerate over the next several weeks.”

Two baggage screeners in Miami and one in New York have been fired from their jobs and arrested this year on charges of stealing property or cash from baggage.

“Every time a bag is opened, there is an opportunity for either theft or loss of property from passengers’ bags,” said David Stempler, the association’s president. “What is sometimes thought to be theft by screeners at checkpoints can be theft by other passengers or can also be that items fall out of bags at the time of screening. In addition, if zippers or other closures are not fully secured, then items can fall out later.”

Airlines will pay up to $2,500 on claims when they are at fault. The TSA’s liability is not limited, but Congress is considering capping it at $2,500.

Part of the delay in processing the claims is determining whether the TSA or airlines are at fault, Mr. Turmail said.

Airlines declined to provide comparable figures on the number of property claims filed before the TSA took over security screening.

“If we can easily determine that TSA or an airline is responsible, then TSA or an airline will pay out the claim,” Mr. Turmail said. “If we cannot determine who was responsible, then we will both pay out the claim based on a formula that is yet to be finalized.”

Passengers can file claims through the TSA’s toll-free phone number, 866/289-9673, or its Web site, www.tsa.gov (for travelers and consumers).

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