Airline passengers are facing a fresh crime threat – and this time it is not from so-called in-flight steals – but the theft of travel bags and their contents from city-bound airport buses.
Police feared a wave of publicity over mid-air robberies – which saw more than HK$13 million worth of passenger property and cash pilfered from overhead luggage compartments on inbound flights between 2015 and 2016 – may have forced organised gangs to switch their attention to airport buses. The criminals banked on the fact that passengers who landed safely with their property intact would drop their guard.
The new twist in airport-related crime had seen “many, many” passengers fall victim over recent weeks, according to police sources, and prompted fresh warnings to bus commuters travelling to or from the airport to be extra vigilant.
The police’s public relations bureau would only formally confirm two cases brought to its attention by the Post, insisting that the problem could not be formally quantified because it “did not maintain the requested figures”.
However, a senior police source said there was growing concern over the problem.
“There have been many, many cases involving travellers who have come off flights landing in Hong Kong and then taken airport buses into the city. Perhaps they feel the threat to their property drops once they are on the ground, but this is now not the case,” the source said.
“The number and nature of such thefts – which would appear to involve a significant number of mainland culprits – suggest it is a very well organised, syndicated crime gang.”
On December 6 last year, one case was reported to police in Eastern district. It involved a 25-year-old woman who reported that her suitcase, with property valued at about HK$4,000, was stolen on a bus she took from the airport on the same day.
An investigation was under way and no one had been arrested, a police spokesman said.
Another case occurred 10 days later on December 16 when a 51-year-old foreign woman went to Central Police Station to report that one of her suitcases, with property totalling HK$5,600 inside, was stolen in a similar fashion.
The Post understands that the robbers target passengers who store their bags in a luggage compartment on the lower level of a double decker bus, and then take a seat upstairs.
The issue of so-called in-flight steals, or thefts of property mid-flight, emerged as a real problem in 2012 and hit a high of 77 reported cases in 2015. That number dropped to 22 in 2016, although the total value of the property stolen rose from HK$5.11 million to HK$8.13 million.
The number of suspects arrested fell from a high of 60 in 2012 to 12 in 2016, while prosecutions dropped from a peak of 43 in 2015 to 12 the following year.
Between January and November last year, only six mid-air thefts were reported, with a total value of HK$880,000 in stolen goods recorded.
New data from police revealed that convictions had been secured in 40 out of the 55 cases prosecuted over that two-year period.
Stolen in mid-air: Hong Kong-bound passenger loses HK$2 million in cash and valuables from overhead bin
The rate may stem from a move by authorities to bolster the chances of securing a conviction by making use of “disorderly conduct” provisions in Hong Kong aviation security laws, as well as the more obvious theft laws. The latter legislation at times proved inadequate because it did not cover crimes committed outside Hong Kong airspace on planes registered elsewhere.
A conviction for theft carries a maximum jail term of 10 years while disorderly conduct carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail and a HK$50,000 fine.