Companies offer bag locks accessible by security officials

Americans are less security conscious about their luggage than travelers from Europe and Japan, but the U.S. market for baggage locks is nevertheless expanding.

New York-based Safe Skies has become the second company to offer a baggage lock designed so that airport security screeners can gain access to locked luggage without having to break off the locks.


The first company into the business was Travel Sentry of Durham, N.H., in November 2003. Travel Sentry coordinated the development of the locks with various manufacturers and provided the training and tools so Transportation Security Administration staff at all U.S. airports could inspect luggage for explosives without breaking the locks.

John W. Vermilye, chief executive of Travel Sentry, said the TSA-accepted baggage lock market is expanding in the United States, but only about half of U.S. travelers lock their luggage. The greater growth is coming in Europe and Japan, he said, where 80 percent to 90 percent of travelers routinely lock their luggage and are looking for locks that can be used safely while flying in and out of the United States.


"The demand is phenomenal," said Vermilye, who is based near Geneva.

Both Travel Sentry and Safe Skies have been approved for use by security officials in the United Kingdom.

After Sept. 11, the newly created TSA began inspecting all luggage for explosives. A small percentage of bags triggered explosive-detection machines and had to be opened and inspected by hand. The TSA urged travelers to leave bags open or run the risk of having them opened forcibly.

Vermilye, who worked at the TSA after the terrorist attacks, saw a business opportunity in the public's desire to lock luggage and the government's need to get inside it.

He formed Travel Sentry to coordinate the development of locks that would meet both needs. Travel Sentry didn't make the locks, but it licensed the design to manufacturers and paid for the cost of lock-opening tools and training that had to be provided to TSA officials at all 438 commercial U.S. airports. Travel Sentry receives a licensing fee for each lock sold.

Vermilye said 15 million locks have been sold during the past two years and about 1 million locks are being produced and shipped each month, mostly from China by lock and baggage manufacturers.

"Initially you could get the locks at only a couple retailers," Vermilye said. 'There are thousands of retail outlets now. It's grown by leaps and bounds."

Vermilye said lock prices vary depending on the retailer. He said Wal-Mart sells the cheapest Travel Sentry lock, at three for $7. There are Travel Sentry padlocks that open with keys and combinations and also luggage strap locks.


Safe Skies, which arranges for the manufacture and sale of its own locks, charges $4.95 to $15 for its locks, depending on the style and design.

"TSA is very enthusiastic about the competitive nature of the TSA lock business," said David Tropp, a spokesman for Safe Skies. "Competition ensures progress and innovation and growth."

Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman, was careful to say the agency does not endorse the locks of either Safe Skies or Travel Sentry.