Who pays now when bags rifled at airport?

When Diane Dinkmeyer, a regional sales manager for a cosmetics company, flew from Seattle to Spokane on United Airlines on March 12, she left her four suitcases for curbside check-in at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Inside her bags were a video projector, cosmetics and expensive items she uses in her presentations to customers.

But when she got to Spokane, three of her four suitcases — all sealed with plastic Transportation Security Administration (TSA) ties indicating they had been checked by the government inspectors — were empty but for her clothes and some paperwork.

Dinkmeyer, who lives in Denver, figures she lost $8,000 worth of equipment.

With TSA now inspecting luggage, a new question has been injected into airline travel that has passengers and airlines alike shaking their heads in uncertainty and frustration: Who pays if something is stolen?

Where the airline once would take responsibility for luggage theft, that's not certain anymore.

"Since TSA has the right to open luggage and inspect it, and airlines handle it, it's shared responsibility," said Joe Hopkins, spokesman for United Airlines. "How do you pin down responsibility? We handle claims that come in and make judgments on a case-by-case basis."

Sasha Kopf flew from Seattle to Boston on American Airlines. When she opened her luggage, which also had a TSA seal, she discovered her large stuffed toy hippopotamus was missing, along with several pieces of her clothing. The hippo was later found next to the American Airlines counter in Seattle, and she had to pay to have it shipped home.

Both Dinkmeyer and Kopf were told to file their claims with TSA, and they called the TSA number provided. Dinkmeyer never heard back from TSA. Kopf, after two days with no return call, tracked down a public-relations spokeswoman who helped her file a claims report.

Jack Walsh, spokesman for Alaska Airlines, said that if a passenger reports a theft from a bag opened by TSA, the airline will refer him to TSA. Alaska won't cover the loss.

"Before, TSA didn't exist and the airline was on the hook," he said. "Now that's a thing of the past. We give them an e-mail address (for TSA), two phone numbers and a mailing address."

To prevent fraud and false claims, passengers may be required to provide proof that an item was actually in the luggage.

Dinkmeyer and Kopf came forward after reading about Seth Goldberg, a New Jersey man who flew from Seattle to San Diego earlier this month. In his suitcase were two "No Iraq War" signs. When he opened his bags, which had TSA seals, he found a card from TSA notifying him that his bags had been opened and inspected. Handwritten on the side of the card was a note, "I don't appreciate your anti-American attitude."

TSA says it's still investigating the Goldberg incident.

As for stolen items, TSA said there are no firm rules. "There's no set policy. We look at it on a case-by-case basis," said Suzanne Luber, TSA spokeswoman. "There's nothing that stops a passenger from filing a claim with TSA and the airline."

She said TSA still has some technology hurdles to overcome, such as having phone lines sufficient to handle the volume of calls. She said video cameras are being installed in baggage-handling areas for surveillance when bags are inspected.

TSA advises passengers not to lock luggage, because agents will break the locks if they inspect the bags.

Bob Parker, Sea-Tac spokesman, said there doesn't seem to be a growing problem with baggage theft at the airport. He said that in February 2002 nine baggage thefts were reported; this past February there were 11.

"With 70,000 bags coming through here every day, this is a pretty safe place," said Parker, adding that four months ago there was a theft problem at Sea-Tac and, worried that employees might be involved, the airport did stakeouts. The thieves were later discovered to be two men who walked into the airport and stole bags off the carousel.

Meanwhile, Dinkmeyer said she's not optimistic that she'll recover her loses. Her insurance will pay no more than $250 for business supplies, and she said her Power Point machine was worth $3,000. She said she wrote TSA and was sent forms to fill out, telling her it may pay fair-market value, not replacement value.

"This is pretty bizarre. You can't lock anything or they'll break it open. You can only carry one bag on board. What's a person to do?"

Kopf said she doubts she'll be compensated for her clothing. "There's more menacing issues in the world," she said, "but there seems to be a trend where branches of government seem to have immunity to insinuate themselves into your life. I appreciate that they're trying to make flying safer, but in any other profession there has to be some sort of accountability. In this situation, this just doesn't exist."

At the very least, Kopf said, she hopes TSA will compensate her for flying her hippo home.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com