Are you planning on checking a bag on an airline soon? If so, get ready to lock and roll. Keying into travelers' anxiety over leaving their checked luggage unlocked for security...

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Are you planning on checking a bag on an airline soon? If so, get ready to lock and roll.

Keying into travelers’ anxiety over leaving their checked luggage unlocked for security screeners, Washington D.C.-based Travel Sentry, a company headed by John Vermilye, who ran Eastern Airlines’ baggage operations for 15 years, has come up with standardized locks that inspectors can open with coded master keys supplied by the luggage industry.

The TSA-certified locks sell for $2-$10.50 and are sold at Brookstone stores, American Automobile Association outlets, Wide World Books & Maps and other retail stores, and online through Magellan’s (www.magellans.com), TravelSmith (www.travelsmith.com) and Lewis N. Clark (www.lewisnclark.com). A red diamond logo identifies them to inspectors. Choices range from tiny key locks in neon colors to metal padlocks with three- and four-dial combinations.

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How well do they work, and how smart is it to use a “lock” to which thousands of people, albeit government inspectors, have the key?

The jury is still out, but the alternatives aren’t enticing.

Complaints to airlines about lost, damaged or pilfered luggage have been rising since the Transportation Security Administration began screening all checked bags for explosives in January 2003, in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

There is no requirement that you leave your luggage unlocked. If you don’t, however, you risk having the lock cut by inspectors.

The confusion is compounded by uninformed gate agents and signs around some airports that lead passengers to believe that you have to leave your bags unlocked. Vermilye, a former TSA consultant, smelled a business opportunity when he discovered that the travel-goods industry lost about 80 percent of the luggage-lock business as a result.

Hand searches

Most bags are automatically screened with scanners, but inspectors pull a certain percentage aside for a hand search. An agent might do an inspection while you’re present, in which case you could unlock and relock your bag, but most often this happens behind the scenes, and if it does, the TSA encloses a note.

“If you travel a lot, it’s very likely your bag will be opened at some point,” says Jennifer Marty, a TSA spokeswoman in Seattle. The Sentry locks mean “there’s options out there now other than just not locking your bag.”

Sounds good, except that some travelers are reporting that not all TSA or airline employees recognize the locks.

When Shirley Pauley of Lackawanna, N.Y., checked in at the Honolulu airport in December, she was told by an airline ticketing agent to remove the locks from her bags.

“When I pointed out that they were the TSA-approved locks, the gentleman checking me in said that he had never heard of them, but if I wanted to leave them on the luggage I could, but they might get cut off.”

As it turned out, the locks worked fine, and Pauley says she’ll be buying another set for her mother when they travel to Hawaii again this year.

“My bags arrived in Buffalo, locks intact. The blue TSA tags were attached to my luggage, so I know that the TSA went through the bags.”

Others haven’t been as lucky.

Ed Hogan of Corpus, Christi, Texas, found one of three locks missing from one of his bags when it arrived in Bangkok for a cruise. “There was no notice inside the bag to indicate it had been opened, nor were any of the contents disarranged.” A second lock was missing when his bags arrived back in Corpus Christi. “I can’t accept the idea that two of these locks would go missing for apparently no reason,” he said. “Needless to say I am not a happy camper.”

On a trip to Mexico, Jenny Nestler, a former travel agent who lives in Kirkland, found that TSA inspectors not only cut her Sentry lock, but also sheared off the zipper tabs on her suitcase.

“There was a TSA sticker across the bag and a note from them inside,” she said, and when she contacted a TSA official at Sea-Tac, she received an apologetic e-mail and a promise he would see to it that Sea-Tac agents would be better informed.

All the manufacturers offer replacement guarantees, but Nestler says she won’t be investing in another one soon. Even if inspectors are more up to speed than they were several months ago, she sees another problem:

“If the TSA can get the key, so can someone else.”

Whom do you trust?

TSA and Sentry say that they have security measures in place to prevent this. Key sets are engraved with serial numbers and are checked out to inspectors by supervisors at the start of their shifts, then returned, Vermilye said. “They’re not small, so it’s not like someone is going to stick them in their pocket and carry them home.”

Using the TSA locks “really depends on your individual comfort level,” says John Thorn, regional manager for Maryland-based iJet, a travel-risk management firm. “Do you trust the TSA folks?

“Me personally, I’d use a TSA lock. If I used my personal lock, I would think it might be more of an incentive for the TSA to look … thinking maybe this person has something to hide.”

Keep in mind that whether to leave bags unlocked is not an issue outside the United States. British Airways, in fact, instructs passengers to lock their bags except when traveling to the U.S.

Seeing red

Whatever the motivations for using them, retailers have sold more than 1 million of the locks since November.

One of the best, says Simone Andrus, owner of Wide World Books, is the SearchAlert lock, a $9.95, 2.5-ounce three-dial padlock made by CCL Security Products of Wheeling, Ill.

The SearchAlert lock includes a window that turns from green to red when the lock is opened.

If you see red when you claim your bag, you’ll know it’s been opened. If you find something missing and/or don’t find a TSA notification of baggage inspection inside, it should speed up the process for making a claim.

Suitcase manufacturers are developing bags with built-in Sentry locks that should be available in the next three to six months.

Carry it on

For those who can manage with only a carry-on bag, this is still the least risky way to go. I travel for weeks with one carry-on size rolling suitcase, and so far, I’ve not found that TSA bans any items that I really need or can’t buy at my destination. (For a list, see www.tsa.gov).

If doing laundry seems like a waste of vacation time, try thinking of it as a cultural experience — a chance to meet locals and practice your language skills. I remember the friendly conversation with a grandfatherly laundromat attendant in Italy last fall. He helped me figure out a coin-operated, hissing, steaming ironing contraption and shared his tips on visiting Naples. I’ve met neighborhood women in Indonesia, Costa Rica and France who took in washing to earn extra money, and learned a lesson about the effects of cheap labor by watching maids in a Bangkok hotel spend hours hand-sewing cloth claim tags into T-shirts.

Filing claims

If you do have a problem with your checked luggage, file a claim with both the airline and TSA. (Fill out a form online at www.tsa.gov/public or call toll-free at 866-289-9673.)

Keep in mind that the airlines’ financial liability is limited. Computers, cameras, binoculars and jewelry aren’t covered, and don’t expect speedy resolution if there’s a dispute over who’s responsible.

“The airlines and the TSA really haven’t sorted it all out yet in terms of who is going to take complete ownership,” Marty says.

Take all the proper precautions, and hopefully it won’t be you who’s left holding the bag.


Airport hotels

Getting to the airport two hours ahead can be tricky if you’re on vacation and your flight back home leaves early in the morning. How do you solve the problem? Do you spend your last night in an airport hotel? Or do you take full advantage of every last minute of your trip by staying in town and relying on a cab or airport shuttle to pick you up at an odd hour? I’d like to hear from you. We’ve set up a special e-mail address to collect your comments. Write to airporthotels@seattletimes.com about your experiences, pros and cons, with airport hotels. Please include your name, the city where you live and your phone number.

Carol Pucci’s Travel Wise column runs the last Sunday of the month in the Travel section. Comments are welcome. Contact her at 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com