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In-flight theft: Watch your wallet

Travelers have a "false sense of security" on planes — then their passport or cash goes missing.

A model poses on a new business class seat of SWISS International Airlines during a presentation at the airport in Zurich, May 21, 2008. Often travelers feel a false sense of security from petty crimes while on planes and particularly in business class. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

PARIS, France — By the time Gregory Hendricks noticed his wife’s passport was missing during their Paris-bound flight from Washington Dulles International airport, it was already too late. After they arrived at Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport, the Hendricks were escorted through a security checkpoint to board a return flight home.

The in-flight theft that Gregory Hendricks blames for ruining the surprise French vacation he gave his wife might be more common than you think. While no government agency or industry group keeps statistics on in-flight theft, it’s not hard to find examples of the crime.

Last month, five business-class passengers traveling from Tokyo on an overnight Air France flight to Paris woke to find 4,000 euros in cash and other currency missing. A police investigation is ongoing in that case.

In April, the son of television actress Cybill Shepherd is scheduled to stand trial for in-flight theft. Cyrus Shepherd-Oppenheim, 22, was arrested last month after passengers identified him as the person who stole cash, a digital camera and other items from the carry-on bags of fellow travelers during a flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia.

“There’s a false sense of security on a plane,” said Steven Frischling, a frequent flyer turned airline industry blogger, who has written about the subject. “People feel safe because they’re in a confined metal tube. What can happen?”

Once passengers disembark and the items are gone, there is little anyone can do. The Tokyo-Paris flight may have attracted attention because it involved a large sum and it occurred in a business-class cabin, which is generally smaller and thought to be safer.

Nevertheless, an Air France spokeswoman said, “Passengers bear the sole responsibility for baggage that is not checked-in.” The company maintained that such occurrences are “infinitesimal” when considering that the airline transports about 150,000 passengers on 1,700 flights daily.

Detectives in flights’ destination cities do follow up on cases and network with each other, according to Paul Sireci, the chief of police at Tampa International Airport. His department, for instance, generated seven in-flight theft reports in 2008, compared to 131 theft reports airport-wide.

“If you are a victim of a theft then one theft is a problem,” Sireci wrote in an email. “But considering the number of flights we have during the year, seven reports of theft is a very small occurrence.”

The incident involving the Tokyo passengers was covered by the media and likely will be forgotten in a few months. But for passengers who’ve experienced a similar inconvenience, it’s a lesson learned hard and remembered.

“I was kind of jaded in thinking that people who made that trip were pretty honest folks,” said Hendricks, 49, by telephone. Asked why, he said, “because of the price of the ticket.” Upon further reflection, he added, “Now, it might be why they can afford to fly.”

How they do it

Frischling said he has been in anonymous contact with thieves who make a living stealing at airports. “There is a definite method to doing this,” he said.