Airport Thieves

It could have been just another typical traveling day for him, my younger brother Isaac.  As Senior Vice President of Filipinas Dravo Corporation, a Manila-based engineering and consultancy firm, Engr David has had to go to  Vietnam several times a year  on business.

Last Tuesday, July 18, he left his house early, partly to avoid  the rush hour traffic, and partly so that he could relax a bit before boarding the 10:40 a.m. flight to Vietnam.  Far from being able to relax, what he went through that morning was more than enough to permanently traumatize him as a traveler.

His plane was on time but took off without him.  He was unable to leave. He had lost his passport, tickets, and money somewhere in that twilight zone called the airport X-ray machine.  No one could or would tell him how it could happen.  The place was crawling with  hawk-eyed personnel of the Airport Security Command (formerly AVSECOM).  It was the business of these agents of the law to  suspiciously watch every piece of luggage and glance at every living thing that enters their jurisdiction.

In the long hours that followed, my brother, a 45-year-old methodical and far-from-senile traveler found himself mentally retracing his steps from the moment he stepped out of his car to enter the airport terminal gate for passengers to the time he stepped into the airport’s Bermuda Triangle.

He was a light traveler.  He had a carry-on small suitcase that he could bring into the plane, a camera, and a foldable trolley.  He remembered gently laying his small suitcase and trolley on the steel rollers,  and somebody pushing them onto the moving bed of  the baggage X-ray machine.  As an executive, he sometimes saw this intimidating contraption  as somewhat reminiscent of an office shredder.  Maybe it was because of the strips of rubber that covered its front and back.

In any event, he knew enough of what these forbidding machines could do to unexposed film despite assurances that they are “film-proof”.  That is why he took the precaution of handing his camera over to the attendants instead of having it X-rayed.

As he crossed the metal detector jamb, another agent spotted the belt bag around his  waist.  That’s how sharp the sensing skills of our police are.  My brother does not often carry a belt pouch, but I think his children convinced him it was convenient.

Inside the pouch were his passport, his airline tickets, a small tape recorder, and $4,900 in cash.  Vietnam is still basically a cash rather than a plastic card economy, which is why he was carrying so much cash. On previous trips, he had put his money in more than one pocket or envelope.  But he thought it was so awkward   to have to retrieve all this money from different places when you have to declare it at the airport in Vietnam.

The ASCOM agent requested him to have his pouch X-rayed also.  He meekly complied and anxiously laid his traveling lifeline on the bed of the machine.  As he crossed the threshold detector the second time, he saw, to his irritation, that  an agent had opened his camera, fiddled with the lens, and could not now put it back.  He offered to help him out of the situation by quickly retrieving his camera.

He then turned to pick up his suitcase and trolley which were already waiting at the end of the rollers,  placed these on one of the aluminum covered inspection desks in order to free one hand, and waited for his belt bag to materialize.

To his dismay, the belt bag never came out of the machine’s belly.  It did not take long for my brother to realize that somebody had, in fact,  made it disappear. Somebody or some group, it seems, has been doing a David Copperfield act on the belongings of a few unlucky departing passengers.

From the grapevine, we later learned he was actually July’s sixth victim.

Most of the other victims were allegedly foreign tourists, usually in a hurry to catch their flights and not inclined to go out of their way to complain to the airport General Manager.

General Manager Atayde is new at his post.  According to Engr David, he appeared very concerned.  He promised he would investigate and institute measures to prevent such incidents from ever happening again. As manager, General Atayde is over-all commander of at least 3 mutually independent security groups at the airport: the Manila International Airport Police (the “curb-side” police), the Airport Security Command or ASCOM (also known as the “air-side” police) under the PNP, and the Immigration police.

Turf sensitivities, I am told, are very high in this moral wasteland we call the NAIA.  These 3 police agencies cannot and do not interfere in each other’s work.   Much less will they attempt to investigate each other.  But the social organization of corruption within their respective spheres of operation is well known to one another.

The few remaining good individuals within these organizations can only shake their heads at the brazenness of the thievery being perpetrated upon helpless travelers.  They know the practice is endemic to all agencies that exercise various forms of regulatory powers.

Stealing is probably at its worst in the international airport.  Here, the vultures can prey upon harassed, anxious, and powerless passengers in a perfect situation they totally control.  The average passenger’s psychological state when he enters a regulated area like the airport is not so different from that of a new prisoner entering  jail.  His confidence is at its lowest.  He is an object to be processed by people he doesn’t know. His brief stay in the airport is like walking on numbers.

If a passenger wanted to steal someone else’s bag, assuming he has the boldness to do so, would he do it in the X-ray machine area?  No piece of space in the airport is probably as tightly monitored as this one.  The ASCOM police is in full control of this area.   But if it wasn’t another passenger who picked up Engineer David’s belt bag, who did?


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