I’ve had things stolen while in church, but never during a flight. On a recent PAL flight from Manila to Bacolod I put my iPod and headphones on my seat to go to the CR. A little later I discovered they were missing. First time in 56 years of flying I’ve lost anything on a plane. Just goes to show, wherever you are, never, ever leave valuables unattended!
The loss of my old iPod was no big deal, but spare a thought for the Turkish businessman who had $260,000 in cash and jewelry stolen last year from his carry-on bag which he placed in the plane’s overhead compartment during a flight to Hong Kong.
I’d not heard of in-flight theft before, but it seems stealing from sleeping and unknowing passengers is on the rise. The majority seem to occur internationally—many within Asia. The people who steal from passengers’ carry-on bags are both flight attendants and fellow travelers.
In 2015, three Chinese men were taken into custody for stealing cash and belongings of passengers on board an Egypt Air flight from Cairo to Dubai. The in-flight thieves were caught by marshals after a crew member noticed the suspicious behavior of a passenger who was visiting the CR repeatedly.
The thieves waited until everyone was fast asleep and then opened the overhead compartments to steal passengers’ property. When the marshal entered the CR after one of the suspects came out, he found stolen money skillfully hidden.
Also in 2015, a woman on a flight from LA to New York was arrested for stealing an iPad and other valuables from a tote bag of one of the flight attendants.
While it’s still the safest way to travel with your personal effects, bringing your carry-on bag aboard the flight still leaves us all open for theft. So, what can we do to minimize the risk of losing belongings on a flight?
First, don’t do as I did and leave something valuable on your seat while visiting the CR!
Be watchful: It’s easy to believe that your traveling companions will watch for someone rooting in your bag, but the only one you can count on is yourself.
Watch your seat: Be careful when storing your bag under the seat in front of you. Don’t face any bag pockets forward or the passenger in front of you may walk off with your valuables.
Place carry-on bags upside down: When you place your carry-on bag in the overhead compartment, turn it upside down, so the bag rests on the outer pocket (which often contains valuables) This makes it nearly impossible to un-zip that pocket.
Lock your carry-on bag: While it’s inconvenient, lock your carry on bag so it cannot be accessed while you are sleeping or visit the CR. Most carry-on bags can be locked.
Stow it nearby: Once you’re on the plane, keep your carry-on bag nearby. Some back-of-the-plane passengers think it’s smart to stow their bag in an overhead bin up front, for an easy grab during de-planing. Additionally, when you get to your seat, place your carry-on in the overhead compartment across from your seat—not over your seat. That way you can see anyone who might try to get your valuables.
Bury your wallet and cash in your carry-on: If you put your wallet or any other valuables in your bag, don’t put them in the outer compartments. If you place your passport at the bottom of your bag or stash your wallet underneath a bunch of other stuff, you’re making it harder for them to simply pluck it out with ease.
Add a Label: Thieves could easily swap your plain black bag for their own. Make sure it’s identifiable as yours. Add a label, tie a scarf on it or write your initials on the bag itself. Make sure you can identify your bag with a single glance. When thieves are caught, they often just claim to have made a mistake taking the wrong bag.
Dress Down: Make sure you’re dressed down for your flight. You don’t want to flaunt the fact that you have money and valuables. It makes you a target for thieves who will often choose their victims based on the clothing they wear.
There are really only four things you need to have on your person on the plane—your ID (passport if traveling internationally), a credit card, a cellphone and essential prescription medications. If someone steals every single thing you brought with you, these are really the only things you cannot replace quickly.
Above all exercise common sense. Always remember what English philosopher and author Francis Bacon once said: “Opportunity makes the thief.”
Robert Harland is a British national based in Bacolod and Makati.