Lou Ann Naples of Old Saybrook, a frequent traveler, says she never checks her baggage at an airport without securing it with a Tumi lock recognized by the Transportation Security Administration.
When she picked up her luggage at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers after a flight that originated at Bradley International Airport, her Tumi suitcase arrived safely but the lock didn't. Inside, she found some of her Easter-related items damaged and a TSA "notice of bag inspection" in her suitcase.
"This," she says, "was not a nickel-and-dime lock. This was a $25 to $30 lock."
On several previous trips, she says, the TSA had unlocked the Tumi, opened her luggage for inspection, then left behind a notice — and no damage.
The TSA, created in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and now part of the Department of Homeland Security, screens every passenger and all luggage at more than 450 airports in the United States. Passengers are encouraged to secure their luggage with locks that the TSA can open, if necessary, with a master key. (For a list of TSA-recognized locks, click here.)
Most luggage travels untouched by the TSA.
"At most airports," says TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy, "the larger airports, you're going to have an inline system that's fully automated. So the only bags that even come into our possession are the ones that somehow alarm. In those cases, we would have to do a bag inspection."
At Bradley, says McCarthy, the TSA screens checked bags directly behind the ticket counter, visible to travelers. When the bags clear X-ray screening, they’re placed on a conveyor belt and loaded onto the aircraft.
If a lock isn't recognized by TSA or somehow won't open, McCarthy says agency personnel will first try to contact the passenger.
"We make every effort," he says. "We can call over to the airlines and they can page the passenger at the gate. We'll see if we can get the combination or key and open it up. But sometimes it's just not feasible. There's no 100 percent guarantee that it won't be cut off."
The TSA does not reimburse passengers for locks either cut off or damaged on airport conveyor belts. It also warns that the force of two baggage conveyors can rip the lock off luggage.
Naples still filed a claim. She wanted reimbursement for the lock, but when the TSA representative handling the claim requested several delays, she wanted more.
"After several weeks of his phone games," she says, "I left him a message telling him that I mean business. I wanted reimbursement for my missing lock and for the damage to the Easter artifacts I had in my suitcase."
Naples now wanted $150.
"There is no reason for my lock to be missing or for the contents of my suitcases to be damaged or in complete disarray," she says. "I travel with expensive, durable Tumi suitcases. Nothing gets damaged in my suitcase."
By now, several weeks had passed since her trip. The TSA offered to inspect the video of her suitcase's handling from the airport's close-circuit cameras. Naples said the TSA representative then said the agency, in fact, no longer had the video.
"Really?" says Naples. "The TSA does not keep video longer that a couple of months. I highly doubt that."
The TSA, says McCarthy, actually saves video footage for about 30 days.
"In this case," he says, "by the time we got to it, it was well after the fact. . . . It was just unfortunate."
The TSA screens more than 1.8 million passengers and about 2.5 million pieces of luggage each day. Claims have dropped dramatically, from 16,439 in 2008 to 9,697 in 2013.