'My £1000 Macbook Air was stolen at airport security and no one cares'
One traveller found that some airports can identify thieves - but do nothing to chase them or return your goodsPassengers are required to hand over their valuables, but what happens if something is stolen?Photograph: Alamy
As travellers sling their wallets, purses, laptops, smartphones, keys and other valuables into the grey plastic tray heading into an airport security scanner, many have a slight frisson of fear. What if you're held up and then find on the other side that someone has raided your tray? That's what happened to student Fernanda Ardiles at London City airport - and to her shock, she found that even though the CCTV could have identified the thief who made off with her GBP1,000 MacBook Air, officials made no effort to pursue him.
Ardiles is desperately upset as the laptop contained vital work for the dissertation she has to deliver - and, in a cruel twist, it is now being held to ransom by the thief. Ardiles, who is studying in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, was travelling home after an Easter break with her parents in London when long delays at the airport meant her bag and MacBook Air went through the security scanner far quicker than she did. She had to wait several minutes to pass through the personal scanner and when she finally caught up with her trays she was horrified to see her laptop was not there.
But rather than getting on the case immediately, she says London City airport staff said they would only contact her when they had reviewed the CCTV footage, long after both she and the thief had taken off.Fernanda Ardiles had her laptop stolen while she was going through security at London City airport. Photograph: Fernanda Ardiles
Staff at the airport, which specialises in short-haul flights, eventually examined the footage and established that a man stole her laptop, but have done nothing with that information. She has been refused access to footage identifying the crook because of data protection rules.
Instead officials have said it is up to her to make a complaint to police and that they will then comply with any CCTV request the police make. Her case will resonate with anyone who has wondered how safe their items are as they proceed through airport security screening. Staff insist that laptops and tablets must be removed from bags and placed openly in trays but, judging by Ardiles' experience, appear to take no responsibility for them.
Passengers sounding the buzzer and facing a subsequent patdown can be a long way away from their items for several minutes, and there is nothing they can do about it. Ardiles says she was shocked that the airport did not appear to have a procedure for dealing with thefts. "After I'd been waiting 10 minutes another Apple laptop emerged which I assumed was mine.
However, it soon became clear it wasn't so I returned to the desk where its owner was waiting. Staff told me to be patient, but mine just didn't turn up. It ended with them assuring me that they would watch the CCTV footage, and that they would be in touch.
After three days of emails I finally got hold of the terminal manager who said there was nothing he could do, but pass it on for investigation. "They have behaved as though this is a minor irritation, as though it is no big deal." She wants to know how an airport can insist that passengers follow its strict procedures but then decline to help, or to take any responsibility if its system breaks down. "My father was travelling through Gatwick a few days after the incident and inquired as to what would have happened had his laptop gone missing.
He was told that staff would quickly examine the CCTV footage in an office next to the security line. Why doesn't City airport have a similar system in place?" she says. The pain is made worse by the ransom note she received from the thief.
She had remotely shut the Apple Mac down and left a message stating that she needed it back as it contained vital dissertation and other work, and would pay a reward for its return. A spokesman for City airport told Guardian Money: "We were sorry to hear of Miss Ardiles' experience, and the subsequent separation from her laptop. "Theft of items at security is a very rare occurrence and where items are taken by other passengers it is usually in error, and the items can be reunited with their owners.
"The security screening is a compulsory legal requirement. The team of security officials that oversee passenger screening act in full compliance with the regulations set and audited by the Civil Aviation Authority and other authorities, and do their very best to ensure unauthorised interference does not happen. When a crime has been committed at the airport, the passenger should report this to the Metropolitan police to investigate, with the airport's full cooperation."
Meanwhile, Ardiles has been forced to buy another computer to enable her to finish her studies. Insurance paid GBP500 leaving her with a similar loss, which City airport has refused to refund.
How secure is airport security?
UK airports have differing attitudes to thefts that take place in security and, as this case suggests, they will probably try to decline claims for compensation if you are a victim. Heathrow told Money that a passenger would be helped in this instance and the matter would be quickly referred to Metropolitan police who are permanently on site.
Stansted says that following a theft, the matter is immediately referred to the police. Gatwick failed to respond. However, Manchester and Luton both told Money that they had no set procedure and it was up to the passenger to call police themselves.
The airports have been coy about how many thefts take place from security screen trays. The CAA said the security screening rules are set by the government but it is up to airports how they operate them. It has been alleged that gangs in the US target air passengers going through security homing in on the unwary, and moving in behind them in queues.
It has been claimed there are two thefts a week from security trays at Miami airport. The advice is to keep wallets and phones out if sight, ideally in zipped pockets, and to watch laptops like a hawk - if you can. The Ardiles case suggests victims of similar thefts should immediately get the police involved, rather than be fobbed off by airport staff.
Difficult, of course, if you have only a few minutes to catch the flight.