In-Flight Theft : How Thieves Go Unnoticed On Planes

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6/08/2009 – In-Flight Theft : How Thieves Go Unnoticed On Planes

As the travel season in the Northern Hemisphere peaks this month, I’d like to revisit the topic of theft in-flight. While this is a topic that virtually every airline would rather I didn’t discuss and is a topic often overlooked, it is a significant topic, especially for travelling photographers.

Travellers board their flights and let their guard down. A plane is a sealed metal tube, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, what could happen? Well, having researched this topic extensively over the past year, it seems quite a lot can happen and professional in-flight thieves work flights seemingly invisibly to their fellow passengers on board.

How do thieves work on board flights? They use basic planning and logistics along with the power of observation and skill (if you can call it skill). The common flights targeted by in-flight thieves are U.S. domestic transcontinental flights, with a preference for early morning flights and red-eye flights. Trans-continental flights afford thieves ample time to allow passengers to let their guard down and take naps, as well early morning and late night flights are dark with plenty of passengers sound asleep.

The reason U.S. domestic coast-to-coast flights are ideal is the routes offer many airlines to choose from, creating a random travel pattern, access to lower airfares and no hassle of immigrations and customs. This is not to say there are not thieves on international flights, or a trans-Canada and trans-Australia flights, my research has primarily found those who choose U.S. domestic coast-to-coast flights.

A limited bit of information does suggest however that there is one international route that is targeted by in-flight thieves, the New York to London route. This route is apparently lucrative for both in-flight thieves as well as airlines. The New York-London route is targeted due to its high flight frequency, access to multiple airlines, low fares, no exit immigrations in the US or the UK and high-yield passengers. These factors make this route enticing to some in-flight thieves.

How can an in-flight thief blend in and steal from passengers undetected? Allow me to explain. Once the thieves have planned their flights, often in conjunction with a planned day of stealing in airports, as detailed in this post 30/07/09 – CAUTION : Airport Thieves At Work…and how they do it…, they head to their gate.

Once at the gate an in-flight thief with claim an injury or disability to gain access to pre-boarding. The seats selected by an in-flight thief are always aisle seats, almost always in the last row of a plane. By boarding early and sitting in the last rows of a plane they have a clear view of their fellow passengers boarding the flight. The aisle view in the back of the cabin is an ideal location for people watching. Thieves working on flights are keen to watch what types of bags are going in what overhead bins. The primarily targets for in-flight thieves are small consumer electronics, cameras, laptop cases and women’s wallets from purses.

While watching bags being placed in the overhead bins they also look for locks and bags being placed in the overhead with the zippers facing out or ‘open top bags’ that are easy to get their hand into.

As boarding comes to a close, an in-flight thief will often take their bag (or two or three, they tend to pack bags in-side bags to be used as diversion bags) then walk up to an overhead bin they have targeted and place their bag in that bin.

While in-flight all a thief has to do is wait. Time and complacency are their friend. As passengers start to sleep or get involved in reading, watching movies, conversations, etc they calmly walk up to an overhead bin, with their diversion bag, and skillfully rummage through their fellow passengers’ carry-on baggage. As these thieves have generally selected their targeted bags before going to the bins it is quite easy for them to move quickly and undetected. Watch people on flights, no one really pays attention to a passenger in an overhead bin, even when its directly over their head…in fact passengers are less likely to pay attention to someone in an overhead bin when it is directly over them as to not appear rude or intrusive. In-flight thieves prey on this human nature and use it to their advantage.

While the majority of in-flight thefts occur in economy class, there appears too be limited theft in U.S. domestic first class cabins and some international business class cabins. The smaller premium class cabins and higher costs of domestic first class and international business class travel make the risk-to-reward costs to expensive, while economy class travel is inexpensive and an experienced in-flight thief travels for profit not a vacation.

Why are in-flight thefts so hard to track? Why are statistics on in-flight theft so low? Most passengers don’t discover they have lost an item until they have arrived at their destination. Once the loss of an item is discovered they assume it was lost or stolen at their departure airport or arrival airport. Very few ever assume they were robbed in-flight. It is also nearly impossible to track down a potential suspect from a deplaning flight as once the plane lands everyone on-board scatters.

So…how can you protect yourself from becoming the target of an in-flight thief? With a few simple preventative measures:

1) Lock your bags, a thief needs to be quick and does not have time for locks. Many travellers focus on locking checked baggage, ignoring the risks of their carry-on baggage.

2) Place your bags in the overhead bin with the zipper, or access points facing the wall and facing downward if your bag is unlocked; a thief on a flight will not remove a bag to spin it around to gain access

3) Keep your cash, wallet, passport, etc secure on you, on in a secure bag at your feet. Do not place these items in your jacket pocket you’ll take off or in a non-secure jacket pocket

4) Place a loose camera, which you may hang from your shoulder, under your legs/feet

5) If you’re in an aisle seat make sure your items, such as a laptop bag or small backpack, are fully under the seat in front of you; positioned in the direction of the window seat not the aisle side; or are in some way secured to you (I place my leg through my camera straps)

Remember that while a sealed airplane may seem like a safe place to forget the basics of protecting your personal property, there are professional thieves out there and you don’t want to be their next target!

Happy Flying!


  1. […] Just read an interesting blog post I thought I should share with you all. When I travel it’s usually with quite a lot of kit and although I’m extremely careful, am sure my guard would drop slightly once on board the sealed plane. In this article Steven Frischling explains how theft aboard aircraft is a lot more common than people realise: link […]


  1. I’ve always wondered about this, too. Once I saw a passenger in an overhead locker during a red-eye flight. I knew his bag was further back in the plane, because I saw him put it there. So of course I just asked if he needed any help as he seemed a bit lost. immediately he mumbled something about being confused which locker it was & went back to his seat. Needless to say we kept an eye on him for the rest of the flight.

    I think another attractive target for thieves are crew bags- especially on night flights when all the crew might be in the galley setting up, and away from crew stowages. Sometimes we forget that crew lockers don’t have locks on them any more. (I wish they did, it’s a pain having to lock/unlock a bag every time I need something!)

  2. From what I gathered, crew bags do not appear to be a target. It is interesting that crew bags go unscathed, but many crew place bags in F overhead bins or elsewhere that would not be the primary target for an in-flight thief.

    Happy Flying!


  3. Interesting. Most of the thefts I know of have been from crew bags- admittedly, most of these were left unsecured by the owners. One though was the bag belonging to an engineer. We had to stow it in rear o/h locker as no room up front in flight deck & someone picked the lock & toook his cell & wallet. Not sure how they did it but multiple drink orders plus a ‘medical’ which resolved itself quickly were the likely culprits… (this was into Indonesia, so the guy was never getting it back!) Luckily they didn’t get the company sat-phone he was carrying!

  4. Another important tip for ladies traveling alone is when you leave your seat to use the restroom or walk around on long flights, take your purse with you. My wallet was stolen on a Sydney-LA flight many years ago and I did not discover it until I was in the terminal at LAX. I was in the window seat and I believe the person in the middle seat next to me took it while I was out of my seat during the flight. I now secure my purse with my feet as you suggest when sleeping and take it with me if I leave my seat.

  5. As a flight attendant I can testify that our bags are tampered with. The difference is that we keep our bags where passengers are not allowed to loiter at and we also know passengers like to steal (where are all the blanket and pillows from the previous flights?) and keep a closer eye on our belongings!

  6. Theft is likely to occur anywhere you have concentrations of people and goods but ask yourself this – what is a thief likely to steal? He/she isn’t going to bother with your dirty underwear (although…?) nor are they likely to take your shampoo and hair brush.

    The stuff they want is money, electronic items and passports, and probably in that order. Those are the only valuable items a traveller is likely to carry. Keep that stuff on your person, if you can. Money and passport certainly.

    Keep electronic items bigger than your pockets in a carry on and kept under your feet. Check your carry on before you land to make sure everything is there. If something appears to be missing, the most likely culprit is the stranger sitting next to you, so get up and relay your concerns to a flight attendant. As other comments have indicated, flight attendants are aware of sticky fingers on aeroplanes, even if airlines aren’t.

  7. I recently lost my wallet which I did have on board an Iberia flight but on disembarking and having travelled through to the terminal at Brussels airport I realised it was not in my trouser pocket. I went to the Iberia desk who phoned through to the cabin crew but it was not there and I was then referred to flightcare who checked with the cleaners. Only 5 minutes after disembarking and someone had taken it either on board or while walking through to the terminal. Iberia didn’t complete a report for me and I then had to complete a police incident report the next day at the airport.

    BEWARE ON BOARD FLIGHTS – thieves are about

  8. Just had a passport “go missing’ on a flight from Chicago to Brussels. Will be heeding your advice for the future.

  9. I have to say watch out for flight attendants as well – they also have sticky fingers! On a long-haul London to Sydney flight I had several hundred dollars stolen out of my wallet in my handbag which was in an overhead locker with only our belongings in there. My son saw a female flight attendant take out a bag from our locker as we slept, but he didn’t realise it was my handbag and it was dark so he couldn’t see her very well either. Normally I am much more cautious and put the bag under the seat in front, but assumed that because no one was sitting in front or behind us and we had our own locker, we were fine. Nope! I didn’t realise what happened until I got out in Sydney and went to buy something in duty free. Don’t trust “nice” fellow passengers either – I’m sure this lovely man sitting next to me on another flight unzippered my backpack when I went to the toilet but did not have enough time to actually steal anything. People are sad!

  10. we have a saying in the navy if it is not locked it walks
    I had cash stolen from me so I got smart I had all my pay checks turned into american express traverlers checks in a over seas and banking places they want ID

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