Managing Inflight Theft: An Airline Perspective

Managing Inflight Theft: An Airline Perspective

Inflight theft is perhaps one of the most discussed topics in recent regional and international airline industry meetings. However, the crime itself is not something new as we have heard reports of personal items being stolen on aircraft for many years. So why has this become a hot topic amongst airlines today? Ken Cheung and Jade Hui have years of experience in managing operations that combat inflight theft. Here they present an analysis and explore ideas regarding what airlines and travellers can do to tackle this problem.

Since late 2014, airlines have seen a new dimension of inflight theft. The major difference between the traditional inflight theft that airlines have experienced in the past and the ones that we see today is that these thieves know exactly what they are targeting: cash.

In contrast with other valuable items, cash does not need to be sold. It can easily fit into a pocket, be hidden in clothes, and can be readily disposed of if the individual is suspected of stealing. Items such as smartphones and tablets on the other hand can be tracked and are traceable if the correct security settings are activated. Considering thieves cannot usually exit a plane immediately after the crime has been perpetrated, and have nowhere to run or hide until the aircraft has landed, they appear to be smart enough not to take unnecessary risks by stealing items that could be tracked before they can make their getaway.

It is well known that this type of inflight theft is rising. This is likely due to the high success rate of this kind of crime, and the fact that most thefts go undetected, or are not noticed until after the victim has left the aircraft. Thieves realise that most passengers let their guard down once they are on board as they do not expect this kind of crime to occur in such an environment. Passengers simply become complacent, taking their eyes off their valuables in the mistaken belief it is safe to do so, making them an easy target. Thieves have already identified these vulnerabilities, which are generated from passenger behaviours and which provide thieves with plenty of opportunities to strike.

“…the perfect time for them to strike since the narrow aisles are occupied by passengers finding their seats, and those who are seated are often focusing on their smartphones as they send last-minute messages or are simply zoning out to see what films are available…”

Additionally, thieves also understand that it is not uncommon for people – particularly businessmen in the Asia Pacific region – to travel with large amounts of cash. This is partly because most countries in South-East Asia remain largely cash economies since credit cards and ATMs are still fairly limited in these regions. In addition, the rapid growth of the Asian and Middle-Eastern travel market is worth mentioning as it has led to many airlines expanding. Due to increased competition, the prices of airfares have fallen and a lot more routes are available. As a result, theft on board aircraft in these regions has sharply risen as their overhead costs are lower and opportunities are broader.

Our analyses found that there are several routes that thieves favour, particularly those between China and Dubai. These are apparently particularly lucrative, not only because they are frequently used by a high number of business travellers, but also because many Chinese workers return home with stacks of cash after working in the Middle East. In addition, Dubai is one of the major hubs that connects Europe with Asia and Oceania, and therefore there are many airlines to choose from. Hence thieves can create random travel patterns, making them difficult to ‘flag’. In addition, it is also relatively easy for organised gangs to obtain visas to travel to Dubai compared to other countries, further contributing to its sense of convenience and making this route enticing to thieves.

From the statistics collected by the authors, the individuals or gangs involved in this type of inflight theft are predominantly males between the ages of 25 and 55. All of the operations that we have observed appeared to be well planned and organised. Typically, they purchase tickets to travel from one of the South-East Asian airports to their targeted destinations via a high traffic airport or hub in Asia and check in early online. By doing so, thieves can choose their preferred seats, which are always aisle seats in the last few rows of the cabin.

Sheng Wanjun, was arrested in Bangkok in June 2016 and charged with inflight theft.
Sheng Wanjun, was arrested in Bangkok in June 2016 and charged with inflight theft.

Thieves always arrive early at the boarding gate and spend their time observing and ‘eye-screening’ their fellow passengers. They analyse the appearance and body language of the passengers, the way they are dressed and the type of carry-on bags they are carrying in order to identify suitable targets. Once the boarding announcement is made, thieves tend to ensure that they are at the front of the queue in order to board the aircraft before others. By boarding early and sitting in one of the last rows of the plane, they have a clear view of fellow passengers boarding the flight. Thieves operating on flights are very keen to watch what types of bags are going into the overhead compartment. While watching bags being placed in the overhead compartment, they also look out for locking mechanisms as well as passengers’ behaviour to determine the best targets.

Thieves will start to strike during the boarding process by moving to the overhead compartment that they have targeted and placing their own bags in that compartment. They will also use this opportunity to search the targeted bag if they realise the owner is distracted. The thieves consider this to be the perfect time for them to strike since the narrow aisles are occupied by passengers finding their seats, and those who are seated are often focusing on their smartphones as they send last-minute messages or are simply zoning out to see what films are available on the inflight entertainment system. The authors also found that no-one pays much attention to a fellow passenger opening an overhead compartment, removing an item and closing it again, even when it is directly over their head. Thieves really depend on this lax attitude and take advantage of unsuspecting passengers.

Thieves will strike at every opportunity, including during the flight, as passengers start to sleep or engage in watching movies or reading. They calmly walk to the targeted overhead compartment and skilfully rummage through their fellow passenger’s carry-on bag. It is easy for them to move quickly and undetected as they have generally targeted the selected bag beforehand. Thieves have also been seen removing the passenger’s carry-on bag and taking it to their seat or into the toilet to search for money. What they do have here is time; they can search through the whole bag and even replace the bigger notes with small ones to make it seem as though the stack of money has never been touched.

“…many Chinese workers return home with stacks of cash after working in the Middle East…”

The majority of inflight theft operations are carried out in pairs; one removes the cash and gives it to his companion who is seated and acts just like a normal passenger. By working together, they are staying one step ahead and reducing their chances of being arrested. This is because if the initial thief is observed or suspected and the police are called to meet the flight on arrival, the cash that they have stolen would not be on their person.

Chinese national Zhang Giang caught stealing on a Vietnam Airlines flight from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City in January 2014
Chinese national Zhang Giang caught stealing on a Vietnam Airlines flight from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City in January 2014

Not all security experts agree the issue is significant enough to cause alarm, and this is true if we compare the figures with, for instance, hold baggage pilferage rates. The number of reported inflight theft cases has been relatively small in comparison, however, it should be noted that many cases go unreported. This is because most passengers don’t realise that they have lost the money until they have arrived at their final destination. Once the loss of money is discovered, many assume it was lost or stolen somewhere else as very few would think that they were pickpocketed inside an aircraft cabin. However, the recent increase in frequency of this type of incident and the increased media coverage have led to passengers becoming more vigilant and attentive of belongings that are placed in the overhead compartments. Indeed, with the improved awareness from both passengers and cabin crew, there has been an increase in arrests of culprits and more incidents are being reported in the media.

“…they target red-eye flights, taking the opportunity to strike while the cabin lights are dimmed and passengers are asleep…”

sleeping in airplane

While we won’t comment on the accuracy or otherwise of media reports, they do have an impact on the reputations of airlines. Reputation management is one of the most important aspects of running an airline, so a high frequency of inflight thefts being reported is less than desirable. Social media is another platform that airlines need to closely monitor and manage. More and more people look at reviews of airlines on social media sites before deciding whether or not to purchase a ticket. Let’s be honest: no-one wants to get on a flight knowing that there are thieves operating in the cabin. What most passengers want on the plane is simple: to sit back, watch a film, sleep or work with a relaxing drink without worrying that they may become a victim of an inflight thief. While reputation is very much a top-level issue, as security practitioners, we should do what we do best and address the problem directly and avoid any reputation risks in the first place. The obvious answer to this is to deter people from engaging in this activity in the aircraft or, in other words, to make it more difficult for thieves to target flights by putting them in the spotlight. In order to do this, it is important to identify suspects prior to boarding, so strategies need to be implemented from reservation to check-in and even through pre-boarding stages. The additional presence and/or patrolling of uniformed security personnel at gates can also help to identify suspects.

Situational awareness is another mitigation strategy that can be used by both passengers and cabin crew alike. Making inflight announcements will increase passenger awareness while providing training to cabin crew can assist them to identify potential members of syndicates. Working closely with the law-enforcement parties such as the police and immigration authorities can also help to strengthen intelligence and interdict their activities on board the aircraft.

As airlines respond in tackling the problem of inflight theft, these well-organised criminal rings have also evolved making it difficult for airlines to track their movements. The authors have noticed that their modus operandi changes all the time. For instance, they have started carrying out their operations individually instead in pairs, and the way they are purchasing a ticket has changed. Very often they only make a reservation a few hours before the departure of the targeted flight and only purchase a one-way ticket, which starts from an outport. We have also seen a trend where they target red-eye flights, taking the opportunity to strike while the cabin lights are dimmed and passengers are asleep. Adding to this, different jurisdictions, and their associated legislation, are challenges that airlines have to face. Most inflight thefts go unpunished by the police due to the difficulties in prosecuting offenders, especially when the alleged thefts occur on overseas-registered aircraft not covered by the respective local law. To close the loophole (and effectively improve the prosecution rate), we must strive to encourage law-enforcement agencies to adopt different approaches in deterring inflight theft onboard the aircraft.

Data privacy is another issue that airlines need to be aware of as many countries now have regulations in place to protect personal data and this, as it does with the reporting of unruly passenger incidents, effectively prevents airlines and authorities from working together by sharing information. In managing the issues, airlines and the international civil aviation community need to consider ways to better cooperate and coordinate activities associated with the identification of a potential thief. Could a change in existing law or its provision enhance the flow of information within the international civil aviation community?

While airlines generally treat inflight security with high importance, to combat this particular threat it is also important for passengers to raise their own vigilance and carefully look after their cabin baggage inside the cabin. The truth is that, as a theft can occur anywhere at any time, passengers should behave the same way as they would if they were in any other public place. Everyone has their part to play in deterring these activities, and we should not solely depend on cabin crew to look after passengers’ belongings after the aircraft doors are closed.

Ken Cheung and Jade Hui are group security managers with Cathay Pacific Airways. Ken is responsible for managing security risk and intelligence and Jade ensures the airline group’s operational security is in compliance with regulatory requirements. They can be contacted at hak_kan_cheung@cathaypacific.com and jade_hui@cathaypacific.com