The worrying rise of theft at 35,000ft

Overhead lockers are a target for thieves
Overhead lockers are a target for thieves - Moment RF

Chances are that when flying, you have more valuables on your person than you ever would on a normal day. Not only your wallet and phone, but also perhaps a laptop, cash, cameras, jewellery: all rich pickings for thieves.

If you were carrying these riches on a trip to the supermarket, you wouldn’t leave them unattended – and yet, on a plane, you might be separated from your bag for several hours as it sits in an overhead locker.

Airlines don’t divulge statistics on in-flight theft – and when incidents occur, police reports are provided by the local force at the aircraft’s destination, both of which make it impossible to judge exactly how many hand baggage thefts occur, or if numbers are increasing.

However, headlines concerning high-profile cases certainly are on the rise. This winter alone, events included a man stealing $23,000 (£18,200) cash from fellow passengers on a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Singapore, and the arrest of a ‘serial’ theft suspect in Tokyo, thought to have targeted flights transiting through Asia to Europe and the US.

“In-flight theft isn’t as audacious as you might think, and some people make a career of it,” says personal security expert Lloyd Figgins, CEO of the Travel Risk and Incident Prevention (TRIP) Group, and author of The Travel Survival Guide. “It’s easy for thieves to see where you place your luggage, and when you’re distracted. On cheap domestic flights, criminals can more than cover the cost of their ticket by relieving tourists of their valuables – and they don’t have to go through immigration or security when they get off. They simply disappear.”

How do in-flight thieves work?

Crimes range from the simple to the sophisticated. Last summer, the Canadian government updated its travel advice to warn of a rise in “theft from carry-on baggage stored in the overhead compartments and under the seats. Often the traveller does not realise that something is missing until much later.”

In November, Mudit Rai landed at Lucknow Airport in India to find that his bag containing an Apple laptop had been swapped for another. “When the flight landed I remained seated, waiting for others to leave first,” he told local media. Rai initially believed there had been an innocent mistake, but the incident is now being investigated by the police.

In the case of the Tokyo arrest, police said that the 51-year-old suspect would pretend to check his luggage in the overhead locker while stealing passengers’ high-value Euro and US dollar notes – swapping them with small denominations of Indonesian and Cambodian notes, in order to maintain the wallets’ weight and volume.

Do planes have CCTV?

Aircraft do use CCTV, but generally not overlooking their cabins. After the 9/11 attacks, commercial airlines installed cameras at their cockpit doors to enable pilots to monitor those who request entry – but wider surveillance was quashed by aviation unions, over concerns that employees would be unduly observed while working.

On terra firma, it is a similar story on Eurostar, which also has no on-board CCTV. National trains and ferry lines, however, do tend to have cameras: it is common practice among the likes of Stena Line, Brittany Ferries and P&O Ferries.

In the absence of CCTV, nothing oversees a cabin’s goings-on except passengers and cabin crew – who are of course trained to spot incidents. “If [crew] identify suspicious behaviour, protocols require them to advise the pilot, who is the highest authority on the plane,” advises a spokesperson from Vueling. “If it is required, the pilot might decide to request the local authorities to intervene.”

What to do if your hand baggage is stolen mid-flight

If you notice something is missing, inform the cabin crew immediately, says Figgins. “Don’t wait until you’ve exited the aircraft, as by this time the thief may have gone, or handed your possessions to an accomplice. Thieves often work in pairs or groups to minimise their chances of getting caught. Make your complaint vocal and encourage other passengers to check their belongings, as they may be victims too.”

Whether you notice the missing belongings during or after the flight, you should obtain a Property Irregularity Report (PIR) from the airline and register the incident with the local police for a report. “This is crucial,” says Jonathan Frankham, general manager of travel insurer World Nomads. “You must also retain all associated documents – tickets, luggage tags, etc – as these are vital for any claims. Keep receipts for any emergency purchases you need to make, along with itineraries and booking confirmations affected by the incident.”

When claiming for cash or valuables, you will need “proof of purchase”, warns Tim Riley, MD of travel insurance company True Traveller. “You must provide a bank statement or an ATM report to prove you had withdrawn the cash.”

And before buying a policy – or entrusting your hand luggage to a distant overhead locker – check your insurer’s T&Cs regarding “unattended belongings”, says Riley. “Policy wordings can vary. Lost baggage is usually covered if not left unattended, so this means that a theft from an overhead locker may be covered

How to secure your hand luggage in-flight

“Think of the security of your hand luggage like an onion,” says Figgins. “Make it multi-layered: the more security procedures (layers) you have in place, the harder it makes the job of the thief. Criminals like to select targets that will be easy and offer them the best chance of not getting caught. Make it difficult for them.”

Place your hand luggage in the locker opposite your seat, rather than the one above you, so you can see if anyone tries to interfere with it – and where possible, lock it with a padlock.

You should keep valuables, such as cash, passports and electronics on your person at all times, especially when asleep or in the bathroom. “As close to your skin as possible,” says Figgins. “Spread your cash out in different places and never keep it all in the same place. Passports reach a good price on the black market, so are particularly attractive to thieves.”