Why isn’t Suvarnabhumi more secure?

opinion March 16, 2017 07:11

By The Nation

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Proper surveillance might answer the recurring problem of airport workers ransacking luggage

More complaints have emerged about theft by baggage handlers at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, and once again the reputation of the country’s main gateway – and the trustworthiness of its citizens – is at stake. 

A passenger recently alleged that the lock on her suitcase had been broken and the contents ransacked. She filed a police complaint after airline staff, she says, ignored her initial complaint. Word of her predicament circulated widely on the social media, resulting in a flurry of criticism about the country’s primary air-traffic hub. Her allegation came a little more than a week after a baggage handler at the same airport was arrested for stealing valuables from a passenger’s checked-in luggage. 

We have on several occasions over the past decade heard the same damning accusations from foreign tourists and expatriates claiming to be the victims of luggage theft at Suvarnabhumi. In response to the latest case, airport management has promised to enhance security measures to protect passenger luggage, at the same time insisting that this is its top priority and that the luggage-sorting area and baggage conveyor system are strictly monitored to prevent theft. General manager Sirote Duangratana acknowledges that such criminality greeting visitors on arrival brings shame to both the airport and the country.

Robbery by luggage handlers, officials manning security scanners and even other passengers is not unusual at busy airports around the world. Scanners easily spot jewellery, cash, cameras and other expensive items inside suitcases, an undeniable temptation for airport workers who are not above dishonesty as a means of padding out their salaries.

There might be a dilemma for airline passengers when it comes to deciding whether or not to pack valuables in checked baggage. The traditional wisdom advises that it is foolish to do so. The belief that it’s a safe practice is encouraged by trust in airport officials to be honest and the belief that modern suitcases are impregnable. There is also the argument that keeping valuables in checked luggage is a safeguard against pickpockets and thieving fellow passengers on board the aircraft. Meanwhile theft can also occur at security checkpoints both before and after the bags pass through scanners. 

This is not solely a problem for 

developing nations. The United States has in the past decade seen hundreds of reports of Transportation Security Administration officials stealing cash and other belongings at baggage checkpoints. It is common enough in some European countries as well.

In Thailand the penalty for stealing anything at an airport is not light. It can bring imprisonment of one to five years plus a fine of Bt2,000 to Bt10,000. Unfortunately this doesn’t appear to be enough of a deterrent to discourage offenders. Tougher measures are clearly needed in order to deal with the problem. Anyone charged with theft should of course be immediately suspended from duty and, if convicted, sacked and barred from working at any airport.

There should at the least be security cameras watching the baggage handlers and scanner operators rather than just the passengers. Other countries have had success with the help of video evidence in nabbing airport workers engaged in crime. It might even be advisable to require baggage handlers and checkpoint officials to wear body cameras on the job to keep an eye on their every move, the sort of equipment police in some jurisdictions must wear for the sake of official transparency and their own protection.

It is always a shame when restrictions like these have to be imposed on honest and trustworthy officials – who to be sure make up the majority of our airport staff. Dishonesty and greed among the minority forces the state’s hand, however.