Jerry Cain put his iPhone into the side pocket of his laptop bag and placed it in the X-ray machine at San Francisco International Airport in December, but moments later when he retrieved his bag and headed to his flight, he discovered the phone was gone.
He immediately returned to the security checkpoint and scoured the area, to no avail. Then he asked the gate’s security agents for help.
No phones had been turned in, they said, and sent him away.
Next he hurried back to find me — his partner of 10 years — and we both returned to security, this time to speak with a supervisor. We explained what happened, and again the response was little more than a shrug.
Then I asked about filing a report, and insisted that the supervisor take my name and cell phone number, in case the phone was discovered. He reacted by instructing a gate agent to confiscate my belongings and to X-ray and search them, to see if I possessed the missing phone.
Stunned, we left the checkpoint feeling frazzled and angry and decidedly poorer. The phone would cost $700 to replace.
The incident also made me wonder how often valuables disappear during security screenings at San Francisco’s airport, and if our experience with airport authorities was typical. I decided to find out. The challenge, I quickly learned, was navigating the dizzying multitude of jurisdictions involved. No single agency or individual seemed answerable for the problems.
— The Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency that oversees airport security, referred questions to Covenant Aviation Security, a private subcontractor. San Francisco International is among 16 airports nationwide, out of 450, where security is privatized. Covenant said it could not comment without permission from the TSA.
— The airport’s management also deflected questions, saying the San Francisco Police Department was in charge. Sandra Tong, the airport police bureau’s commander, declined several requests to be interviewed. Although the department has a force that responds to criminal matters, the airport is actually in San Mateo County, so cases are transferred to the county sheriff’s office for investigation.
— Even responsibility for lost-and-found is splintered: Covenant handles items from security checkpoints. The San Francisco Police Department manages articles found elsewhere in the terminals. The airlines deal with belongings left on planes.
As a result, for some missing items, passengers must contact as many as six different offices.
No agency would provide statistics on airport thefts, but industry observers said it was a significant problem.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com and a veteran travel writer, said thefts of valuables were common, “but many are not reported.”
In the past five years, more than 400 TSA agents nationwide have been fired for stealing, he said, but most thefts are crimes of opportunity by travelers preying on fellow travelers.
Electronics, for example, are easily stolen at security checkpoints. “You can’t assume that because the person next to you in line bought an airline ticket that they’re honest,” Hobica said.
Sgt. Wesley Matsuura of the San Mateo County sheriff’s office agreed and said that cases of theft rarely involved security workers. “As far as the screeners go, I find them very trustworthy,” Sergeant Matsuura said. “And they know there are cameras everywhere.”
Michael Bolles, a spokesman for Covenant, said lost items were often a result of passengers’ distraction: last year 60,103 items were mistakenly left behind at San Francisco’s security checkpoints (out of 40 million passenger screenings), but the company declined to say how many were returned to their owners.
He said the proper procedure was to have passengers fill out a claims form or contact the police when they say they believe valuables have been stolen.
“We will provide all necessary assistance to SFPD as requested,” Bolles said, “including the review of security tapes to determine what might have happened.”
That procedure didn’t happen in the case of our missing iPhone. But in terms of the theft itself, experts said Jerry had to shoulder some of the blame. His laptop bag pocket had no zipper, making the phone easily pilfered. (Hobica recommends locking valuables deep inside carry-on bags.)
And although our exchange with security workers was courteous, being searched made me feel intimidated. We walked away, not wanting to risk being detained as troublemakers and missing our flight. No report was ever filed that could have prompted an investigation.
TSA and Covenant representatives said my partner, Jerry, should file a report now, but he sees little benefit and has declined.
“That won’t get my $700 back,” he said.
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.