United Plays Dangerous Game With Luggage, Lawyer Says

     HONOLULU (CN) — A woman who successfully sued airlines in the 1970s claiming a lack of notice on overbooking policies now says United Airlines’ undisclosed policy of sending checked bags ahead of passengers puts passengers at risk of terror acts.
     Citing the 1988 downing of a 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, as just one example of a bomb smuggled aboard a commercial airliner in “unaccompanied luggage,” lead plaintiffs Kathleen Watson and her husband Barton Watson — also the filing attorney — claim that United Airlines’ practice of placing passenger baggage on earlier flights to clear room for more profitable last-minute express air cargo without telling customers shows a wanton disregard for their safety.
     Unlike international flights, which have automated “passenger baggage reconciliation” systems to prevent someone from checking a bomb-laden bag and simply leaving the airport, domestic flights rely solely on Transportation Security Administration bomb-screening equipment.
     TSA inspection of checked bags, however, is highly imperfect. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General criticized TSA screening in a 2015 report titled “The Transportation Security Administration Does Not Properly Manage Its Airport Screening Maintenance Program.”
     An ABC report later in the year alleged that “TSA failed to detect mock explosives 95 percent of the time during airport security tests,” the complaint says.
     A second round of testing was, by Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth’s own admission, “disappointing and troubling.”
     United Airlines’ practice of “maximizing unaccompanied luggage” first came to the attention of the Watsons when they arrived in Honolulu on the second leg of a flight from Seattle via San Francisco in 2015 and discovered that their bags had not arrived with them.
     The Watsons became suspicious, the complaint says, by the business-as-usual manner in which the United Airlines agent checked her computer and informed them that their bags would be arriving in an hour on another flight.
     When Barton Watson persisted, saying that in 50 years of flying to Honolulu he’d never had his bags arrive late and that he suspected foul play in Seattle — where the Watsons had been involved in a disagreement with baggage handlers — the agent suggested they could fill out a lost bag report.
     Alerted again to the casual demeanor of the agent, Barton Watson demanded to speak to the supervisor in charge. Watson reiterated his concern and handed his two baggage claim checks to the supervisor, according to the complaint.
     The Watsons also note in their complaint that they paid the $25 checked-bag fee for each suitcase.
     After a good deal of time looking at his computer, the Watsons says the supervisor said that the two bags had been properly loaded in Seattle, but had been checked onto a separate flight to Honolulu in San Francisco.
     Undeterred, Barton Watson pressed his claim that the Seattle agents had somehow been involved in routing their bags onto the wrong plane in San Francisco. Again, the agent said no, according to the complaint.
     The Watsons say that again Barton reiterated to the Honolulu supervisor that there could be no other explanation, that there was plenty of time during their 3-hour layover to load their bags.
     According to the Watsons, the supervisor again defended the agents but also elaborated by saying that United Airlines has a checked-baggage policy to place passenger bags not on their flight with them, but on the earliest next available flight so as to make space for air cargo. The flight with the Watsons’ bags had been scheduled to leave before the Watsons did but was delayed.
     The supervisor went on to insist that the practice is not illegal and gestured toward the Delta and American baggage carousels — where people were waiting for bags on similarly delayed flights — saying, “Everyone does it,” the Watsons say in their complaint.
     According to the couple, United breached its duty to notify customers before they board an airplane of its unaccompanied bag policy, and that the airline acts in collusion with Delta and American Airlines to defraud its customers. Delta and American are not parties to the Watsons’ complaint.
     United earned $3.5 billion in baggage fees from 2010 through the first quarter of 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The airline did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
     The Watsons seek compensatory and punitive damages for themselves and all others similarly situated.
     A TSA spokesman told Courthouse News that the agency has no control over airlines’ baggage policies.     
     “The manner in which an airline determines the need to load checked baggage onto an aircraft is an airline decision and TSA has no role,” the spokesman said. “All bags are screened for explosives, by TSA, using explosives detection technology, prior to loading onto an aircraft. There is no concern from the TSA how an airline transports screened bags so long as those bags are screened, which the law requires.”

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