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updated: 8/7/2011 3:43 PM

Airlines wary of pilfering passengers

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I just read about a passenger who decided to give something to an airline besides a piece of his mind. According to an article from the China Post, 10 years ago, he slipped a blanket, a cup and a set of silverware into his carry-on on a Cathay Pacific aircraft. He carried it off without a hitch. A few months ago, he returned the goods along with an interest payment of about $30. While he might be the first passenger to ever return the loot, he isn't the first passenger to give new meaning to the term, "lift off."

During the 1960s and 1970s, some passengers managed to pocket entire sets of china and silver from the first-class cabin.

"Blame the trend on hotel soaps," said my old flying partner. Here's why.

Hotel guests started small by packing away tiny bottles of soap and shampoo. Ashtrays, pens and pencils soon followed. Soon towels and bathrobes became fair game. And now reports show a few guests helping themselves to televisions, radios and even mini bars. So it's no wonder a similar trend began to fly with some air travelers.

Several years ago, on a flight from St. Louis to Seattle, I had a first-class passenger (I mean that only as a seat designation) ask to keep a silver spoon. When I told her we weren't in the souvenir business, she snapped, "Next time I'll just take it!"

And many of them did. Most flight attendants will tell you they've had passengers brag about their full sets of first-class china and silver that they have stowed in their cabinets at home. Today you can purchase some of those sets on eBay. Recently I saw a four-piece set of TWA Royal Ambassador china going for $50 and a teaspoon could be yours for $10.

Disappearing silver serving sets and other airline memorabilia cost the airlines millions of dollars. They solved this problem by virtually eliminating anything of value from the aircraft. Blankets and pillows have become endangered species. And plastic ware has replaced silverware. Pilfering a 3-ounce bag of pretzels or a paper napkin just isn't the same. So the souvenir hounds went after bigger game.

During the 1980s and 1990s, emergency equipment became a fashion statement on many Caribbean beaches. When the flight attendants announced inflatable life vests were located under your seat, college students listened. Orange became the new red. Seat belts started holding up pants. And fire extinguishers became drink dispensers. And this problem still exists today.

Airline seat belts go for around $15 and life vests are priced at around $50 online. For the airlines, emergency equipment is expensive to replace and is a no-go item, which can cause lengthy delays. It will be interesting to see if the disappearance of emergency equipment like life vests continues, which airlines will sink and which ones will stay afloat.

Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at gailtodd@aol.com.

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