File Not Found

On Sunday, September 19, David Stark landed at Denver International Airport on Frontier Airlines flight 447, which had originated in Philadelphia. Stark had checked two pieces of luggage in Philly: a box of clothes and a black suitcase that, when he packed it, had contained a Hewlett-Packard laptop computer in a black zippered case.

After retrieving his two pieces of luggage from the Frontier carousel, Stark returned to his home in Evergreen, opened his suitcase and found a handwritten red, white and blue notice from the Transportation Security Administration informing him that his bag had been opened and searched before it was put on the Frontier flight. What Stark did not find was the laptop computer. It was gone.

"I didn't think a slip of paper was a very good trade for an $1,800 computer," he says.

Stark called Frontier and filed a missing-item claim. The Frontier representative suggested that he also call lost-and-found at Philadelphia International Airport.

So he did.

"The woman who answered the phone told me that, first of all, they didn't have the computer, and second of all, it must have been a Frontier Airlines employee who removed it and I should call Frontier's baggage office there in Philadelphia."

So he did.

"They told me that Frontier baggage handlers do not go through luggage and it must have been a TSA employee who removed it, either by accident or for theft, and they said I should call the head of the TSA there in Philadelphia."

So he did, six times, before the head of TSA screeners in Philadelphia, Stephen Orlando, finally called him back the next day. "He said there's no way a TSA screener could have taken the laptop because they do all the screening out in the open, with multiple screeners," Stark says. Then Orlando recommended he try lost-and-found again.

So he did. Still no luck. He asked the woman on the phone, "Who manages the lost-and-found office at Philadelphia International?"

"Oh, TSA," she told him.

At that point, Stark filed a theft claim with the Denver Police Department online. His report was one of at least four similar reports the DPD received that week from DIA passengers who discovered once they landed in Denver that electronic equipment or jewelry was missing. Detective Michael Greer, who investigates theft claims at DIA, says that he logs an average of six or more claims every day. "A lot of folks just want a report number to give their insurance company," Greer says. But Stark's homeowner's policy doesn't cover thefts from luggage.

"The worst part," he says, "is that it wasn't even my laptop," he says.

Stark is an inventor and had traveled to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with U.S. Department of Energy officials about a new process for window sealing that he has patented. Also at the meeting was his friend and business partner, who lives in Florida. Before they left their hotel in Washington to fly home, Stark's partner asked him to take the laptop and give it a tuneup before they met again. Stark agreed. Fortunately, Stark had backed up the computer's most important files on CD before packing it.

"I put it in my suitcase because I knew I wouldn't need it on the plane. I realize in retrospect that wasn't my wisest of moves, but what bothers me most is, I can't get anyone to give me a solid answer on what happened to it. I've seen all this reporting on CNN about the finger-pointing between the airlines and TSA, and that's exactly the situation I'm in."

The creation of the Transportation Security Administration, in November 2001, added a new link in the chain of custody for airline baggage. And since its inception, the number of complaints of stolen items from luggage has more than doubled across the airline industry, on both domestic and international flights. The most commonly reported stolen items are laptop computers, prescription painkillers, jewelry and women's underwear. Like Stark's, most of these complaints have disappeared into a bureaucratic netherworld where federal officials blame airline baggage handlers, airline officials blame TSA screeners, and neither the government nor the airlines will accept responsibility.

Following a series of scandals in which TSA screeners were caught red-handed stealing from passengers in Miami, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Detroit and Denver -- two screeners were arrested here this year -- the TSA last month paid out a total of $1.5 million to 18,000 of the 26,000 people who have filed theft claims since last June. However, the average payout was a paltry $110. (The government agency had a little looser grip on its purse strings last November, when the TSA blew $500,000 on a party for 543 employees held at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington, D.C.)

The TSA's Orlando did not return repeated calls from Westword.

A manager in Frontier's Philadelphia baggage office who identified himself only by his first name, Larry, said he was familiar with Stark's loss and had looked into it. "There's just no way it was our guys," he says. "They didn't have time to get in his suitcase. And I have already verified with TSA here that they have a very accurate record that they screened his bag, took out the laptop and then replaced it. Now, whether it was actually replaced or not, I have no idea. You want to know anything else, you call our corporate office there in Denver."

Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas acknowledges that customer theft claims are on the rise, but he argues that it's not the fault of the airlines. "People have this perception that they're flying Frontier, and therefore Frontier stole it, but we have no reason to enter the bags. We just put them on the planes. It's TSA that opens the bags. The best advice we have for passengers is, don't put anything in your bag you don't want stolen."

DIA spokesman Chuck Cannon says he's not sure who is at fault for the increased number of theft complaints, but it's definitely not the airport administration. "That's an issue for the airlines and TSA. We don't do luggage. It's the airline personnel and TSA personnel who touch your bags. We don't touch your bags."

Like most airlines, Frontier does not reimburse customers for lost or stolen electronic equipment, including laptop computers, according to Rule 230F9 of the airline's Contract of Carriage. Stark received a copy of Rule 230F9 attached to an October 8 letter from Bobbi Murray, Frontier's manager of baggage services. Murray's letter thanked Stark for his cooperation and patience, informed him that after a thorough search, Frontier had been unable to find his laptop, and referred him to an enclosed check for $90.90, a "full and final settlement of your claim."

Stark wonders what calculator his claim went through to come up with that amount. Why the ninety cents? "I think Frontier should have either completely rejected my claim or settled for a reasonable replacement cost," he says.

Frontier spokesman Hodas points out that of all the bags Frontier has handled so far this year, "only .000042 percent" resulted in theft claims. Stark says that's probably a higher percentage than his chances of ever seeing his partner's laptop again.

"I'm an engineer, and I like to calculate odds. I play the lottery, and I'd say it's more likely I'll hit the Powerball this week than get that computer back. At this point I'd settle for a straight answer on where it went."