As they often say, crime happens when you least expects. This was exactly what happened onboard my Azerbaijan Airlines flight J2 11 from Baku to Dubai.
Here's my personal account of exactly what happened onboard this flight:
Azerbaijan Airlines flight J2 11 was a morning flight with a 10.00am departure and a scheduled flight time of 3 hours, arriving in Dubai at 12.55pm. I had arrived early at Heydar Aliyev International Airport and was sitting at the assigned gate admiring the beautiful deep blue Airbus 340-500 aircraft that would take me to Dubai. I surveyed the other passengers and did notice the suspected thief sitting near the gate. With an Far Eastern appearance and wearing casual clothes with a black jacket, he did stand out from the other passengers as majority of the passengers on this flight were Arab tourists returning home from a happy vacation in beautiful Azerbaijan.
When boarding commenced, I noticed he was one of the first passengers to board. I also observed he sat near the back of the cabin, and he continuously shifted his seat from one side of this widebody aircraft to the other side. Initially, I thought he probably didn't like his original assigned seat and was looking for an optimal seat (probably a fussy passenger, I thought). He was constantly moving his seat throughout the boarding process. As he shifted his seat, I noticed he took down what I presumed were his belongings from the overhead compartments, before putting them back up again. He looked somewhat grouchy and intense - probably concentrating on fellow passengers as they boarded, stowed their belongings and settled into their seats.
I didn't give it much thought initially, as with everyone else onboard - we all don't quite expect people to go around picking at other passengers' belongings.
I forgot all about him once the aircraft took off and I enjoyed the inflight entertainment and services onboard, as well as the breathtaking aerial views of Iran's mountainous landscape enroute.
He sat behind me during the meal service, and I noted the flight attendant spoke to him in Russian asking for his drink choice. He didn't understand, and eavesdropping on their conversation, he asked for water. I had a gut feeling that passengers of his nationality (you are probably thinking what I'm thinking right now, if you have read other reports about perpetrators of inflight thefts) are not common on this route and the flight attendant had assumed he was from neighbouring Central Asia and could speak Russian.
Immediately when the meal service completed, he was on the move again, and he was fast!Like during boarding, he moved from the rear cabin to the forward cabin and back to the rear cabin, and to the forward cabin again, in a seemingly random pattern, except this time, he had the additional chore of opening the overhead compartments to retrieve "his" belongings.
Alarm bells finally rang for me, when I noticed he walked up to a few rows in front of where I sat, opened the overhead compartment from behind the passenger seated there, and retrieved a laptop bag which he immediately pulled down to an empty seat by the window. He sat down to rummage through the laptop bag, before quietly putting it back up again.
"He couldn't have THAT much belongings all over the aircraft cabin, even if he had been moving his seat throughout the flight", I thought, with my heart pacing.
I decided to relay my concerns to the flight attendants. I quickly walked to the galley where they were having their meal. They asked me where he was sitting and assured me that they would monitor him throughout the flight. They also thanked me for informing them.
However, their subsequent action left me quite disappointed. One of the flight attendants actually confronted the suspect directly, asking "are you stealing things?"
Seriously? Would you directly ask a potential thief if he was stealing things?
Later, a passenger two rows in front was speaking to a flight attendant and I overheard the flight attendant telling him "It's not inside? Someone probably took it". Now that there was an actual complaint about missing belongings, I was confident that the flight attendants would handle this matter seriously. Thoughts were running through my mind: Were the crew going to get airport security to meet us at the gate? Were we going to be parked at a remote stand for airport security to board the aircraft?
In the end, nothing happened! Nothing at all!
Upon arrival, the suspect disembarked the aircraft with the other passengers and I noticed he hurried quickly pass immigration and disappeared, probably in a hurry to get away with his stash of stolen valuables. He was carrying a black bagpack and I wished someone would have asked him to open it. Thanks to the lack of action on the part of the cabin crew, he had gotten away.
I was quite disappointed by the flight attendants' inactions, and still am. I thought hard and I guess, you really can't depend on anyone to safeguard your belongings during the flight - not the other passengers, and not even the flight attendants. Ultimately, you should be responsible for your own personal belongings, even in a seemingly secure environment such as an aircraft cabin.
From my observations of this incident, I would like to share some tips on preventing theft of your personal belongings during the flight:
1. Lock your cabin bags.
- The thief on my flight took advantage of unlocked cabin bags in the overhead compartments to rummage through to pick out the items of value. Lock your cabin bags before stowing them in the overhead compartments.
2. Put your cabin bags in visible sight.
- Even though passengers were seated at their seats, the thief reached out from behind to open the overhead compartments to retrieve their belongings - out of the passengers' line of sight. As such, don't put your cabin bags in the overhead compartments directly above your seat but the in the ones across the aisle where you will have visibility of your belongings from your seat.
3. Keep valuables on your body at all times.
- If there's nothing to take from your cabin bags, there's nothing to lose. Use a money belt or waist pouch.
4. Don't leave any valuables on your seat when you go away.
- Being one of the first to board, the thief was observing every passenger who walked in and he probably had a mental picture of his potential targets - I saw that he was selective in the compartments that he opened. Even during boarding, you could be unknowingly been marked a potential victim and the thief is just waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
5. Heed the call to check for your personal belongings when disembarking.
- You may be sure you didn't leave anything in the seat pocket but someone may have taken something from you without your knowledge. Don't dismiss the flight attendant's announcement during arrival to check your personal belongings. It could mean the chance of recovering your stolen items or losing them forever.
6. Don't rely on other passengers.
- Like myself, passengers on the flight were preoccupied with their own flight experience - some dozed, others enjoyed the entertainment - no one was actively watching out for thieves rummaging through the belongings of other passengers. Also, I don't believe normal people would naturally assume someone would be fishing out a bag that is not his or hers. In fact, aside from myself, no one else on the flight even seemed to notice the suspicious behaviour of the thief.
7. Don't rely on the flight attendants.
- Even though flight attendants are responsible for passengers' safety and security, sad to say, but from what the inaction of the flight attendants on my flight, passengers should ultimately hold responsibility for their own belongings themselves. Though the flight attendant accusing the suspect of stealing probably stopped him from continuing his antics, it surely didn't recover the items he had stolen previously. Letting him go was really a bitter disservice to the passengers who had their belongings taken from them.
8. Speak out if you notice something suspicious
- Flight J2 11 was merely a short day flight that was 2 hours and 26 minutes in duration, yet the suspect was able to move freely throughout the aircraft to pick at belongings. I can only imagine thieves going on a rampage on long red-eye flights where cabin lights are dimmed and most passengers are fast asleep. If you notice something suspicious, do yourself and other passengers a favour by reporting it.
The suspect did get away on my flight but I hope that writing this article would help prevent others from losing their personal belongings that would ruin their inflight and travelling experience.
For my full flight experience of Azerbaijan Airlines flight J2 11, please see below: