Los Angeles International Airport police are calling this week's arrest of six people — and detention of 14 others — the largest passenger luggage theft case in the department's 30 year history. But the alleged theft is not a sign of weak security, experts said.
“Over the years when I was there, the pilferage of baggage was always a problem,” said Michael DiGirolamo, who was deputy executive director of operations at LAX from 1996 to 2010. “It was always very tempting for people who worked at the airport to [pilfer] bags for valuables.”
DiGirolamo said in the 1990s, a group of gang members got jobs at the airport so they could steal. He remembers even mailbags disappeared between the airplanes and the postal distribution center.
“It’s very hard to secure bags,” he said.
The Transportation Security Administration requires that anyone with access to an airfield pass a criminal background check. No one convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor is granted permission.
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LAX contracts with 15 baggage handling companies.
The Los Angeles Airport Police Division is in charge of granting security credentials to LAX and Van Nuys airport workers who need access to restricted areas. It does a fingerprint-based criminal history check with the federal Department of Justice and Homeland Security and a security assessment.
But even that's not enough.
“Even in a situation where somebody comes with every intention of being honest," said Robert Gardner, a security consultant for small airports and former law enforcement officer with Simi Valley Police Department, "all of these opportunities present themselves. They see other workers getting away from stuff. It kind of snowballs.”
Detectives with airport police and Los Angeles police said the baggage handlers arrested this week had been stealing for months, lifting jewelry and electronics from luggage.
“The property thefts were linked to a group of suspects, all of whom are current or former employees of companies contracted by involved airlines to mainly provide baggage-handling services,” according to a statement from the L.A. airport police department.
Authorities delivered more than two dozen search warrants at LAX and in nearby cities.
Contract baggage company Menzies Aviation employs some of the suspects arrested in the luggage theft investigation. It issued this statement:
Menzies never tolerates the theft or destruction of property and requires all of its employees to conduct themselves in an ethical manner and in accordance with all laws and regulations. Menzies supports this enforcement action and pledges its complete cooperation with the police investigation.
Every Menzies employee undergoes a thorough company, Los Angeles Airport and U.S Customs and Border Protection background check prior to employment, and is trained extensively to perform their jobs safely, efficiently and with integrity. We believe the actions under investigation were limited to a handful of employees, acting independently.
A spokesperson for the L.A. Airport Police Department said detectives don’t believe the thefts were part of large criminal ring.
“We do have our issues with theft, with employee theft and we work on those everyday,” L.A. airport police chief Patrick Gannon said last year.
Then there are the other crimes.
Last October, two former employees of an airport vendor were sentenced to three years probation for felony possession of a destructive device. They pleaded no contest to exploding dry ice bombs at at the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
LAX saw a 10 percent increase in crime last year compared to 2012, led primarily by an increase in larceny followed by aggravated assaults reports.