America - Andrew Stephen offers advice on hand luggage

Since 11 September 2001, we've all got used to tight airport security, but now every single piece of

I've had three bad experiences travelling in the United States this year. First, a suitcase was ruined after I flew from Florida to Washington. Then a bottle of pills was strewn around a bag inside my suitcase after I checked it into an airport. Third, a travel alarm clock appeared to have been stolen after I flew to Portland, Maine. In each case, I blamed a new policy introduced by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the beginning of this year: the 1.5 billion pieces of luggage checked in at airports each year now have to be searched individually for explosives.

I am not talking about having to take off shoes, loosen belts, be searched by electronic wand or having hand luggage checked at security gates. We have all become used to that since 11 September 2001. This is new this year at all the 429 commercial airports in the US: after you see your baggage disappear down a conveyor belt at the check-in desk, it is likely to be opened and hand-searched by TSA employees. If your bag is unlocked, searchers will simply open it and screen it, says the TSA. "If the bag is locked . . . then locks may have to be broken," its official advice goes on. Then, just to remind us we are in America, the advice adds reassuringly: "You may still transport a firearm in your baggage."

In the first six months of this policy, there were 6,700 complaints that luggage had been broken or items stolen. A rap star named Lil' Kim reported earlier this summer that jewellery worth a quarter of a million dollars had been stolen from her Louis Vuitton bag (moral: use shoddy suitcases). A man named Mike Peree says his rolls of collector coins were stolen. Paul Hudson, executive director of an airline consumer group, says: "There is just no guarantee that your luggage is secure any more."

Two luggage screeners in Miami have been charged with grand larceny for stealing various items from checked luggage; another baggage handler was arrested in New York on charges of stealing thousands of dollars from checked luggage. The theory behind the new rules, it must be said, is inescapably justifiable: in the era of suicide bombers such as Richard Reid, the Briton who tried to blow up a Paris-Miami flight by igniting explosives in his shoes, it is no longer enough to match each piece of luggage with a passenger. Individually, each suitcase has to be searched for explosives in case a suicide bomber has checked it in.

The problem is that different airports use different methods to search the luggage. The bigger airports use explosive detection systems (EDS) that are the size of large minivans and function much like medical Cat scans. The second system, called ETD, involves taking swabs from luggage to check chemically for explosives. But even at the bigger airports, suitcases are still liable to be opened individually. And every time a suitcase is opened, an irritating little note ("we appreciate your understanding and co-operation") is left inside telling you so.

To add to the chaos, the more sophisticated machines give up to 35 per cent "false-positive" readings: peanut butter, jam and chocolate can set the machines off. So the TSA advice is that all food should be avoided in checked baggage; shoes should be placed on top of luggage, and books and newspapers must not be stacked together. Passengers are advised not to put valuables in checked baggage now but to take them as carry-on items, where they are likely to be searched with the owner looking on. "Our highly trained screeners will take great care to secure your bag for the rest of your trip," the TSA still purrs soothingly.

But the overriding problem is that when your baggage disappears down that conveyor belt, it can go through many unseen hands - not just those of the TSA checkers. TSA checkers, indeed, can provide an excuse for airline employees on the make; six Miami airline workers, for example, were sentenced to prison terms and community service for stealing more than $1,000 from British Airways passengers. From conveyor belt to those whose job it is to pack luggage in the belly of the plane, there are multiple opportunities to slip hands into unlocked bags and steal.

What most grumbling passengers don't realise, though, is that measures similar to those in force here have been used in various parts of the world for years. El Al, for example, has been likely to examine your toothpaste in minute detail for decades, but in your presence. Yet it is the sheer volume of passengers passing through those 429 commercial airports - at least 600 million per year on US airlines alone, the Department of Transportation told me - that makes security here so unpleasant.

And that travel alarm clock? I spent the weekend fretting about its loss, until I discovered it in a different part of the bag from where I had packed it; I found myself resenting the intrusion of unseen hands going through my belongings. And so, it seems, do an increasing number of Americans.

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