CHICAGO – For a convicted thief like Anthony Hargrove, baggage carousels at Chicago’s airports have apparently been an attractive target.
Since the 1990s, Hargrove has been arrested at least 12 times on charges of stealing bags in the arrivals areas of Midway and O’Hare airports, and at least five times he has been convicted.
The 59-year-old’s history of theft went largely unnoticed by the public until last month, when police said he fled from O’Hare with what turned out to be a rare Indian guitar, a crime that drew international attention after the victim described the loss on Facebook. Police nabbed Hargrove a few days later as he allegedly tried to steal more luggage.
Hargrove’s string of arrests and convictions for theft over the decades highlight the vulnerabilities of airport baggage claims, areas that are often barrier-free, open to the public and near quick escape routes to public transit and away from the airport.
Airlines bear responsibility for security at baggage carousels at O’Hare and Midway, but many carriers believe their liability ends once the bags have been delivered, aviation experts said. Ultimately, the space is a public area, resulting in airlines and airports blaming each other when something goes missing, they added.
“Once it hits the carousel, boy, that is the grayest area of all in my mind,” said Joe Brancatelli, editor of a noncommercial website for business travelers.
Baggage claim theft happens regularly, aviation experts said, but not enough for airlines and airports to spend money to mitigate the risk. Airlines report the theft figures to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but the data is not separated from lost or misplaced luggage figures.
Before 9/11, security guards stood by baggage claim exits at many airports, ensuring that luggage tags matched the ticket claims held by travelers.
But airlines have largely stopped doing that because it was too costly, and they decided there wasn’t enough luggage theft for that measure to be necessary, said Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant.
Baggage claim security today is handled differently across the country.
For example, airlines are in charge of monitoring the carousels at airports in New York City, Atlanta, Denver and Los Angeles, but the responsibility is managed by both the airlines and airports at Reagan National and Dulles International airports near Washington.
Airlines have security cameras mounted in the terminals, and airport police walk the grounds at airports across the country. But neither tactic is foolproof, the experts said.
“It’s a bigger problem than most people know,” said Scott T. Mueller, who has worked in the commercial airline industry for 24 years and wrote the book “The Empty Carousel.” “It’s just too easy. Most of the bags are on wheels. Even if the bag weighs 200 pounds … you pop the handle, and you’re rolling out the door.”