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Exploitative Play vs. Non-Exploitable Play: Airport Baggage Claims

These days, I find my poker discussions gravitating towards exploitative play versus non-exploitable play. Today, I thought I’d talk about an exploitative play that’s currently available away from the poker tables.

On Saturday, 2/26/2010, I returned to Las Vegas from a business trip in Costa Rica. The first leg of my journey was from San Jose to Dallas Fort Worth (DFW). The second leg of my journey was from DFW to Las Vegas.

The flight from San Jose to DFW was AA2166, which was scheduled to depart from Costa Rica at 10:45AM CT and land in DFW at 3:05PM CT. The flight from DFW to Las Vegas was AA1795, which was scheduled to depart from DFW at 4:25PM CT.

First off, I should begin by saying that airline security in Costa Rica was a bit intense. Security scoured every pocket of my carry-on, and I was patted down (last time I was patted down was about 4 years ago…my last clubbing venture which will probably remain my last clubbing venture but that’s another story for another time). Granted, security missed the hidden compartment in the back of my backpack, but I was still impressed. Some complain about the time it takes to navigate through security at airports, but I’m all for high security; it’s ultimately for a good cause!

The other unique thing about my experience at the airport in San Jose is that, when boarding began, we were loaded onto buses that then took us to our plane. I don’t know the exact time at which everybody was on the plane and we were ready to depart, but I’m fairly confident that it was past 10:45AM CT by the time the plane moved. Then, we were stuck on the runway for 10-15 minutes because we had to wait for another flight.

At the time, I didn’t think much of this. I figured that a delay on the order of 20ish minutes would be no big deal. A 20ish minute delay turned out to be a little bit more. We landed at 3:25PM CT and deplaned around 3:30PM CT. I knew that timing would be tight with respect to catching my connecting flight to Las Vegas; however, I was confident that I’d be able to sprint to my gate with a few minutes to spare.

Unfortunately, I didn’t account for immigration, my checked bag, and customs. Immigration was no problem. The big problem was my checked bag. By the time I got my checked bag, it was about 4:00PM CT. Customs was no problem; by the time I got through customs, it was around 4:05PM CT. After customs, I quickly handed my checked bag to a AA baggage person who said my bag wouldn’t make it on my flight; it would come in on the next flight to Vegas.

I then ran to the Skyline train. For those who’ve never been to DFW before, all I can say is that it’s huge. There are five different terminals (A, B, C, D, and E), and the Skyline is a monorail that travels on a race oval-like track (much like the shape of a poker table) around the airport. I was in terminal D, and I needed to get to terminal A. Terminal A was as far as you could get from terminal D. Bad beat. After getting off the Skyline at terminal A and sprinting to my gate, it was 4:25PM CT; my flight had left. My bag left for Vegas on a flight that departed around 8:15PM CT, and I left for Vegas on a flight that departed around 9:10PM CT.

Even if my flight had arrived as scheduled, I would have made it to my gate with only about 20 minutes to spare. My connection wasn’t the only optimistic connection. A look at the standby lists for American Airlines flights at DFW implied that American Airlines simply underestimates the time it takes to travel between terminals at DFW (American Airlines has flights going out of multiple terminals at DFW). Maybe I should angle my way in as a flight scheduling consultant for American Airlines…I would have fun with that gig!

Regardless, my bag wouldn’t have been on my flight, and this is the real point of this post. Whenever you check bags, the airline gives you a little tag with a bar code that matches the tag they put on your luggage. I remember about 10 years ago, airport security would check people’s bags as they exited the airport to ensure that they weren’t take other peoples’ bags. These days, those security people are no longer in place.

Theoretically, the presence of the bag owner prevents luggage from being stolen. However, my scenario was one in which my bag arrived when I wasn’t there to claim it. In fact, when I went to American Airlines customer service, there were about 6 other bags (presumably of others who also had connections like mine that were too close for comfort). Since people are free to come and go from baggage claim, what’s preventing someone from hanging out at the baggage claim when a flight is due to arrive and taking a bag or two from the carousel when everyone seems to have already claimed their bags? Maybe someone missed a connection. Maybe someone took longer than expected to get something to eat. If I was an aspiring criminal with knowledge of how many connections at DFW are missed, I’d be at the airport whenever a flight from DFW was due to arrive! And thanks to the fact that checked bags can’t be locked (so TSA can do their thing), I wouldn’t even have to worry about any difficulties having to do with opening the luggage!

For sure, the timing of such an operation is non-trivial. However, I’m somewhat surprised that my bag was waiting for me in Las Vegas. This is a clear example of an exploitative play that’s available. Anybody who checks bags in a situation where they won’t be at the baggage claim when their luggage arrives is exploitable. And in fact, a thief who embraces risk can attempt an early bag grab gambit at any time. The most likely worst case scenario is that the owner of the bag confronts him, and he replies with something along the lines of, “Oh, I thought this was my bag. My sincere apologies. Here you go. Have a good evening.”

Airports can once again make the baggage claim area non-exploitable: Implement a system where people with bags need to prove ownership of the bag prior to leaving the baggage claim area.

Transitioning from property rights to public safety, a checked bag really shouldn’t make it on a plane if the owner of the bag isn’t also on the plane! I really hate saying this, but what’s preventing someone with intricate knowledge of connection schedules from sneaking a bomb into a checked bag…sigh.

I think I’ve done more than enough theorizing for now. The one good thing about putting things out in the open is that those who wish to do wrong tend to rely on ignorance in order to accomplish their goals.


I’m NOT advocating that you should go out and start stealing luggage. Sure, no matter how much we lie to ourselves about caring about others, the largely capitalistic nature of our economy means that it’s every man for himself. However, the status quo isn’t necessarily the best way simply because it’s the status quo. In my humble opinion, overall quality of life is optimized if there’s at least some minimum level of cooperation between members of our own species.

May Your EV Always Be Positive!

Tony Guerrera


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