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Because of the specific way I close the zippers, many times I noticed that when I received my checked-in luggage, it was opened and carelessly closed at some point in the journey. Nothing was missing, at least I didn't notice anything of that sort, so I assume X-ray scan is not reliable enough so they manually check through luggages against bombs, drugs and whatnot.

Do they have the right to do it without informing me? Might it already be written somewhere that they do routinely scan your luggages more thoroughly after you check them in, or do they just pretend it never happened?

  • Yes they can. Sometimes you will find a note saying 'Your luggage has been inspected', other times not. Let's wait for someone to quote the specific conditions in a proper answer. – user40521 Apr 12 '17 at 9:33
  • "carelessly closed"? – user13044 Apr 12 '17 at 9:56
  • @Tom the two zippers are not perfectly closed together so there was a gap between them, like if I had a pen in the luggage it could possibly fall out, but again nothing like that happened. – downhand Apr 12 '17 at 9:58
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    @Jan Doggen it's not the airlines that open the luggage, it's the security agencies. – user58558 Apr 12 '17 at 10:23
  • Could the zippers simply have been caught on moving parts or other baggage during handling? – user13044 Apr 12 '17 at 10:24
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As far as I know it's not the airline doing this but rather the airport security staff. I've had my luggage officially opened. I flew shortly after the ban of lithium batteries in checked luggage while having camera spares there. At the gate I got a security warning, my luggage arrived delayed a day later with a official note inside stating what had been removed.

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    My question is whether they have the right to open it without telling me. – downhand Apr 12 '17 at 10:32
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    @downhand I've had colleagues tell me they had their luggage locks broken when flying outside Europe with nothing missing. Whether thats customs, the airline or security; or whether it is legal at all I cannot tell. The Warsaw Convention might be a good place to start research though – Robus Apr 12 '17 at 11:09
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Can airlines open your checked-in luggage without telling you?

Setting aside the specific question for a moment because answering that would require a nexus of the Contract of Carriage and prevailing local laws regarding Shippers and Consignment, (there is a lot of complicated law behind this)...here are some general points answering several aspects of the question.

  • There are probably a number of scenarios where the airline would be technically permitted to inspect any cargo, your luggage included, if a safety or legal problem is evident. For example, if an item is leaking or smells of flammables.
  • However, the airline itself is very, very reluctant to open any items, luggage included because of safety and liability.
  • In practice, the airline would either request the passenger open the item, suspected battery for example, or defer to a Government Agency, unidentifiable substance or suspected drugs.

Do they have the right to do it without informing me? Might it already be written somewhere that they do routinely scan your luggages more thoroughly after you check them in, or do they just pretend it never happened?

  • While the airlines avoid opening items, airport security, TSA in the US for example, absolutely can open and search any of your belongs at any time without informing you in advance.
  • TSA, for example, is supposed to place a Notice of Inspection in the bag if it has been inspected.
  • If they forget, they will consider, not really pretend, that it didn't happen. If you push the issue or file a claim, they can review footage of the screening process.
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    Traveled in the USA last year. 3 or 4 times I got a note in my bag saying it had been opened and searched. My wife never got one! My plain black suitcase must look suspicious... – John3136 Apr 13 '17 at 0:52
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    @John3136 Then it's probably some characteristic of the bag itself that looks suspicious. An unusual mechanical assembly, some thick padding, a suspect looking repair job... – Johns-305 Apr 13 '17 at 12:48
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    I've had my bags opened by TSA many times. And every time, something is broken when they dump-truck everything back in that I had previously packed neatly and carefully. Grr! – WGroleau Apr 4 '18 at 15:24
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This happens all the time and is quite normal. Within Canada and the US, at least, they place a notice in the suitcase saying it was inspected and sometimes even a reference number. It is actually done by security rather than the airline in those countries. So, yes, they can do that without telling you ahead of time, but they notify you after the fact.

When my luggage was inspected in other countries, there has never been a notice. They sometimes break the lock and replace it with a zip-tie in that case. In some countries though, I have been called (and other passengers) to open luggage, so that they can be manually inspected but that has rarely happened.

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When leaving Barrow in Alaska ALL baggage was checked inside. The terminal is small so you can view across the counter and watch them checking. Some bags get a deeper check than others. I had a backpack only so they looked at me, old grey headed female, and only lifted the top layers.

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Yes they do it ALL the damn time! TSA (in US) but airport security WILL check bags deemed suspicious under the x-ray. They cannot take any chances if someone has something suspicious or potentially dangerous goods store in the bag as you can imagine. I have noticed my neatly packed baggage messed with (although nothing was stolen). Baggage marked with 'X' using chalk have definitely been opened and checked, in some countries. Especially if you are traveling through shady countries the chances are even higher that baggage handlers will steal your stuff. Therefore it's not recommended to store any expensive stuff in the checked in bag.

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    If they mark it with a chalk, it practically means they're telling me that they checked it. My question was whether they have the right to do it without telling me. – downhand Apr 5 '18 at 5:20
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    Yes the security authorities in all countries (e.g., TSA in the US) have the right in case someone decides to put something dangerous in the check in luggage. Sometimes X-rays don't tell the whole picture and they have to look at it to determine. I have heard stories where people who were carrying robots to display at conferences had packed them in check in luggage and they were pulled by security fo questioning because TSA couldn't determine what the thing with all the wires was. Baggage handlers don't have the right. – AVJ Apr 6 '18 at 16:31
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The presiding government agencies have the legal right and authority to open, inspect, and search your luggage. Do they have the duty to inform you? I don’t know. In the US, my checked in luggage has been searched. Sometimes they leave a note. Sometimes they do not.

In the case of a non-government agency like an airport or airline, in the US, the following regulations apply:

From Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations:

1544.203 Acceptance and screening of checked baggage.

(a) Preventing or deterring the carriage of any explosive or incendiary. Each aircraft operator must use the procedures, facilities, and equipment described in its security program to prevent or deter the carriage of any unauthorized explosive or incendiary onboard aircraft in checked baggage.

(b) Acceptance. Each aircraft operator must ensure that checked baggage carried in the aircraft is received by its authorized aircraft operator representative.

(c) Screening of checked baggage. Except as provided in its security program, each aircraft operator must ensure that all checked baggage is inspected for explosives and incendiaries before loading it on its aircraft, in accordance with §1544.207.

&

1544.207 Screening of individuals and property.

(a) Applicability of this section. This section applies to the inspection of individuals, accessible property, checked baggage, and cargo as required under this part.

(b) Locations within the United States at which TSA conducts screening. Each aircraft operator must ensure that the individuals or property have been inspected by TSA before boarding or loading on its aircraft. This paragraph applies when TSA is conducting screening using TSA employees or when using companies under contract with TSA.

(c) Aircraft operator conducting screening. Each aircraft operator must use the measures in its security program and in subpart E of this part to inspect the individual or property. This paragraph does not apply at locations identified in paragraphs (b) and (d) of this section.

(d) Locations outside the United States at which the foreign government conducts screening. Each aircraft operator must ensure that all individuals and property have been inspected by the foreign government. This paragraph applies when the host government is conducting screening using government employees or when using companies under contract with the government.

My checked luggage has been searched traveling from Hong Kong to the Philippines. It has also been searched traveling domestically between cities in South Africa. Neither time was I notified nor a note left. Since nothing of value was taken, I can only surmise that it was done by government security. The only way I knew was that the lock (non-TSA compliant) was damaged in China. And, in South Africa, a 20,000 mA rechargeable battery and a book were removed.

The South African incident was very shortly after the ban on lithium batteries in checked luggage went into affect. I had placed the battery in my carry-on. At the last minute, we were told that there was not enough room on the flight for all carry-on bags. Ours would have to be checked. I did not even think about the battery. Upon arrival to our destination, the battery and the book (which was in the same pocket of my luggage)were gone. Nothing else was touched. And, no notification given.

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Like other answers say, not really the airlines, but airport security can and do - it happened to me. Seemingly, a single guy holidaying in the Caribbean is somehow suspicious. At security for my flight home, I was asked all kinds of questions about where I had stayed and what I had done (I had mostly sat on the beach at my 5* hotel), and my carry-on bags were searched - twice. They then sought me out in the departure lounge and asked me to come and have my carry-on bags checked for a third time! They didn't say what they thought I might have, though each time they did that swab thing with the damp cloth on the end of a plastic wand.

And then, when I got back to Heathrow, it was clear my checked-in bag had been opened since I had last seen it (like the OP, I lock my zippers in a certain way). I involved the baggage handling agent, because I was worried about 2 possibilities: either something had been stolen from my bag, or someone had inserted something (possibly illegal?) into my bag. Apart from the contents having being moved around and it being carelessly locked again, there was nothing missing or added. Hearing my story, the baggage handling agent suggested it had most likely been an official inspection. I suggested it would have been nice if they had left a note inside to say so.

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