The scene, Milas-Bodrum Airport in southern Turkey, just arrived. As I exit the terminal into a soggy afternoon I open my luggage to get a jacket but when I reach for the lock, there isn't one. And one of the eyes on the zipper pulls has been wrenched apart.
With a queasy feeling, I unzip the bag and there's the combination lock, twisted off and tossed inside. What's no longer inside my bag is a Nikon zoom lens and much worse, a portable hard drive with all the images from my trip through Georgia stored on it.
When had it happened? I'd taken two flights before I discovered the pilferage, one Georgian Airways flight from Tbilisi in Georgia to Istanbul, then another aboard Turkish Airlines to Bodrum, with a tight connection in Istanbul made even tighter when my baggage – along with that of about 10 other passengers – was suspiciously late arriving at the carousel.
"Never pack valuables in your checked-in luggage". It's one of the mantras of travel, but there are times when not everything valuable fits into your carry-ons. Then again, you take dozens of flights, your bag always arrives intact so you get complacent. Trusting. The stories of baggage theft must be overstated, right? But fly often enough and one day you're going to get hit.
Once you say "see you later" to your bag at the check-in desk and it heads off down the conveyor belt it's going to pass through a number of hands, with opportunities for pilferage up to and including the time it flops onto a baggage carousel at the other end.
Statistics relating to the incidence of baggage theft are hard to come by. Airlines aren't interested, it's the job of airports to maintain security in baggage handling operations so they say. Airlines don't have a clue how many bags are tampered with since thefts don't get reported to them.
Airports do have a clue but they're not saying since negative reports could only damage their brand. It's only when systematic bag theft is unmasked – or when a baggage handler puts on a camel suit swiped from a passenger's luggage and drives across the tarmac as happened at Sydney Airport in 2005 – that the issue comes to light.
Insurers are one potential source of information but their figures are not related to the total number of travellers. Is it 25 thefts from luggage reported per 50,000 passengers or per 5 million?
However, sting operations conducted in baggage handling areas and anecdotal evidence from passengers put the finger on some off the worst airports, and some of the most astonishing reports come from the US. Not surprising perhaps, since the US alone accounts for nearly a third of all the 3.5 billion air passenger movements recorded in 2015.
In 2013, after El Al passengers reported jewellery, computers, iPads and phones disappearing from checked luggage at New York's JFK International Airport, the airline set up a hidden camera in the baggage hold of a 747 and busted seven baggage handlers red-handed.
In 2015 a Transport Security Administration agent at the same airport was arrested and charged after she pocketed a $7000 diamond encrusted watch that a passenger accidentally left in a basket at the X-ray machine.
Some of the worst offenders in the US have been TSA employees, the very ones whose job is to open passengers' luggage in the name of airport security. In an analysis of claims filed with the TSA for lost property between 2010 to 2014, CNN reported 30,621 cases of missing valuables. More than 25,000 of those were from checked luggage, another 5000 went missing at security checkpoints.
The TSA has fired 29 employees at Miami International Airport, 27 at New York's JFK International Airport and 24 at Los Angeles International Airport, all accused of trousering personal effects from passengers' suitcases. In one of the most celebrated transgressions, a TSA screener at Los Angeles International Airport was accused of stealing a $100,000 watch from Paris Hilton's bag.
It's easy to find web chatter decrying lost luggage in one airport or another, and there are common themes. Theft from passengers' luggage has been an ongoing problem at Johannesburg's O. R. Tambo Airport or many years.
Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport is another happy hunting ground for light-fingered larcenists. In 2015, items believed to have been stolen from passengers' bags were discovered in the lockers of six baggage handlers at NAIA. The swag included jewellery, watches, blankets and even TSA-approved padlocks. Seems the baggage handlers had the keys, giving them easy access to any cases with TSA locks.
The boom area in airline theft involves passengers' carry-ons, caused by fellow passengers thieving from carry-on bags stored in overhead luggage compartments. This is a profitable target since laptops, cameras, jewellery and wallets are most likely to be stashed in carry-on bags.
One lucrative target that has not been mined to any great extent by the thieving community is business class lounges.
There's an assumption that business-class travellers are above common pilferage. The clubby atmosphere promotes a feeling of honourable camaraderie, "an assumption that people like us don't do that sort of thing" in the words of one frequent business traveller.
Business travellers will leave briefcases, phones and laptops sitting on tables when they head for the buffet table. Quite often there is an unattended storage area where lounge guests can stow their bags. How easy would it be for a thief to casually walk off with the goodies, and perhaps palm them off to accomplices on the outside?
Listen: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast with Ben Groundwater
Is being an expat the ultimate travel experience?
To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.