Page last updated at 13:25 GMT, Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Airport baggage thefts uncovered

by Maggie Dolan
BBC News

CCTV of locker room captured by Italian police
Polizia Giudiziaria at Ciampino caught baggage handlers on CCTV

The extent of thefts from passengers' luggage by baggage handlers has led to the biggest inquiry of its kind mounted at Stansted Airport by Essex police.

An investigation by BBC Inside Out in the East found 22 handlers have been arrested since December 2006.

On Wednesday the last offender was jailed for eight months at Chelmsford Crown Court after admitting theft.

A former worker for handling company Swissport told the BBC that a colleague went through every bag on every flight.

Items recovered

He added: "There was stuff written on the locker about him and even the management knew and they did nothing."

"They [the management] could have got CCTV or something - you don't even get searched going out of the airport"
Former baggage handler

From December 2006 Essex police officers began working with Swissport to gather intelligence to identify patterns of theft from luggage at the airport.

This resulted in 22 baggage handlers being arrested in connection with thefts between December 2006 and June 2007.

Eight were arrested in one raid in December and the rest over the next six months.

Det Sgt Vic Murphy said the operation targeted the "small element of bad apples" among staff.

Most have been cautioned by Essex Police.

The last offender, Adam Roberts, 22, from Silks Way in Braintree, was sentenced to eight months in jail on Wednesday after appearing before Chelmsford Crown Court.

He pleaded guilty to theft and handling stolen property.

Hidden cameras

A whistleblower told the BBC nobody knew how long the thefts had been going on at Stansted but he said security in the baggage area was not tight enough.

He said: "They [the management] could have got CCTV or something. You didn't even get searched going out of the airport, that's the main thing."

A similar investigation has taken place at Rome Ciampino Airport, involving staff from another baggage handling company, where there are regular flights to Stansted Airport.

Officers at Polizia Giudiziaria at the airport noticed that thefts were taking place on the outgoing journeys.

Alexandra Prod'homme-Bennett
I was so amazed that after all those months they could have found my camera
Alexandra Prod'homme-Bennett,

A spokesman for Polizia Giudiziaria told the BBC: "When the passengers [who had] departed from Ciampino discovered the thefts, they were always at home."

Officers at Ciampino Airport spent a month monitoring staff from another baggage handling company coming in and out of the locker room.

The officers concealed hidden cameras in the lighting and worked round the clock gathering intelligence.

The baggage handlers were seen hiding anything metallic such as jewellery, watches and i-Pods in their steel toe-capped boots to avoid detection by security.

At the end of the operation in February 2007, 13 baggage staff were arrested and dismissed.

The police are still trying to find the owners of hundred of items of jewellery that were recovered during the operation.

One of the victims from Stansted Airport was Alexandra Prod'homme-Bennett from Nunhead in London who had her bag stolen in February.

Traced through car

Her camera containing 300 photographs, including her only record of her daughter Mila's birth and first year, was in the bag.

Essex Police discovered her camera in the locker of a baggage handler at Stansted and after months of detective work Det Con Kevin Collett reunited her with her camera.

"I was so amazed that after all those months they could have found my camera," she said.

Stansted Airport
Twenty-two baggage handlers have been arrested at Stansted

"When they had tried to look at the pictures on the camera they had all been deleted, obviously by the person who had taken it.

"Thanks to their high-tech equipment they managed to access all the photos - and through one of these photos of my car they found me. They traced me through the number plate."

According to recent research by Southend travel insurance company InsureandGo, one in 10 people questioned have lost or mislaid baggage in the last two years.

And about a third of people said they mistrusted baggage handlers.

The firm's managing director Perry Wilson said: "We began to notice a problem last year. Claims for lost luggage had gone up some 85% year on year.

"We realised there was a major problem with the airlines and the baggage handlers.

Global problem

"I would like some honesty and someone to find out what is actually happening behind the scenes so we can actually realise what customers need for their cover," he said.

Swissport refused to tell the BBC what measures had been taken to tighten security.

But it said that searches did take place when considered appropriate.

In a statement the company said it wanted to reassure passengers entrusting their baggage to its staff that everything possible was being done to keep it secure.

The company said theft was a global problem and Swissport did not believe it had any greater problem than other ground handling providers.

  • The BBC Inside Out programme on baggage handlers will be broadcast on BBC1 at 1930 GMT on Wednesday.

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    Undercover cameras filmed baggage handlers



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