United Airlines Passenger Checks A Bottle Of Whiskey, Gets It Back One-Third Gone

For anyone who ever thought, “I’d like my whiskey to smell like cake,” Glenmorangie makes a $100 single malt aged in ex-bourbon barrels and finished in a Tokaji dessert wine cask.

Christopher Ambler packed a bottle in his checked luggage and entrusted it to United. Then, he says, it was returned to him one-third empty.

When you check a bag with an airline, the airline is responsible for it though they aren’t necessarily the only one that touches it. You may have seen the slips that TSA sometimes sticks into bags saying that they’ve opened and inspected it, for instance. And when there is more than one airline on your itinerary, it’s the last airline before your destination that is responsible for it even if they aren’t the one that loses it.

There are plenty of stories I’ve seen about items being taken out of checked luggage, or entire bags being stolen (sometimes at baggage claim by another passenger – again, not the airline!). But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a claim of a baggage handler drinking on the job between the time a bag is checked and when it is loaded onto the aircraft, or between the time it is unloaded and brought to baggage claim.

I’m not even sure when they would do it? Is there someone sitting, hiding, inside the baggage conveyance system of the airport, pulling checked bags off the belt knowing there’s alcohol inside… downing one third of the bottle, zipping the bag back up and sending it on its way?

Why on earth would someone be taking one third of a bottle of scotch, instead of just taking the bottle of scotch? I have questions.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Probably got too drunk and forgot he drank part of it before checking the bag in. Also, “expensive” is pretty subjective here.

  2. This story reminds me of the tale that Ernie Pyle, the World War 2 feature reporter and chronicler of the American GI, told about a fifth of whiskey that someone mailed to a soldier. The GI opened the package to find an empty whiskey bottle. Never mind that it was illegal to mail booze, the issue was the rascal with a fifth of whiskey in him that he was not entitled to.
    Maybe we need to talk with the airline staff with whiskey in them or TSA agents.

  3. Someone beat me to the ‘angels share’ joke. For those that don’t know, when fine whiskey or spirits are aged in wood casks, the flavor mellows and concentrates and that is partly due to absorbing flavors from the wood and partly from evaporation through the wood. So they lose a quantity to evaporation so a gallon may be 3 quarts or some variation like that. They refer to the lost spirits as ‘the angels share’ ;o)

  4. Seems to me, unless someone got VERY lucky opening ramdom bags to find the bottle, that the individual doing the X-Ray scanning of the checked bags would be the “point person” to ask about how the whiskey was found…and consumed by??? LOL.

  5. There are hidden cameras in most of not all of United bag rooms where luggage is loaded into baggage containers or baggage carts. Would be very difficult to steal anything there. Now, it would be possible to in the cargo compartment on a narrow body airplane. I have never seen anyone steal anything out of luggage after working over thirty years for a major airline.

  6. Perhaps the bag was flagged by custom agents. Often checked luggage is search by custom agents who then need to test suspicious liquids. Usually it is just an ounce or so but maybe after testing it smelled so good they just couldn’t resist.

  7. Joe United, I worked in the airlines for over 20 years and never saw anyone stealing from a bag. I know it happens, though. I worked Lost Baggage claim (BSO);for at least 10 of those years,”and I can honestly say that I never saw anything in anyone’s bag with a Federal rap.

    Saw some really weird and funny ****, though.

  8. TSA has every inch covered in cameras. Baggage handles are alone with your bags a significant amount of time from when they go on the cart to when they’re loaded on the plane.

  9. Baggage handlers and TSA people are prime suspects for this. TSA has x-ray machines so they know what is in bags and they have keys to get inside them or they cut locks. TSA keys can be bought online and baggage handlers reportedly can have them. Drinking part of a bottle in a blind spot inside baggage handling is a hard to catch crime. No bottle left behind as when taking a bottle. No AirTag on the bottle giving an alert. Skeptical response when it is reported. Enough to get a bit of a buzz but not so much as to be drunk so the boss will catch the thief.

  10. Most likely nobody actually drank anything….but if there was an empty water bottle…and you wanted a taste later….

  11. Lots of more likely explanations. 1. Seal was bad and it leaked out, 2. customs or tsa tested it and didn’t screw the cap on all the way or actually dropped it and it’s spilled. 3. The passenger drank it and “forgot” and then made that posting

  12. The only airline that I’ve had sketchy issues with is United. I use hardshell cases that are commonly used for expensive equipment but just for my clothes. On a recent flight the “routing tag” was pinned through the lid inside the case which meant it had been opened and then closed, but there was no TSA inspection card in the bag.

    Clearly whomever opened it thought there might be something valuable in this fancy looking bag, sadly all they got to see was my dirty laundry.

    I have received those TSA inspection tags legitimately before because I was shipping prototype electronics in my checked bags, so I understand that. I’ve taken to adding tamper evident seals on my bags. TSA is free to cut them off, but if they’re cut off and there’s no tag in the bag I know something hinky went on.

  13. This post didn’t state specifically whether the bottle’s seal was physically broken. Even with cargo hold pressurization, pressure changes can be significant enough to force liquid right out of a bottle. The article also didn’t mention if anything else in the suitcase was damp. Nonetheless, that’s my best guess as to what happened.

  14. Things go missing from bags at every airport every day. A “reasonable amount” of stealing is simply considered a perk of the job for anyone who works in baggage handling and if it was cracked down on the labor shortage would go from bad to crisis proportions. The idea that an airline is going to investigate it, or that the people in these comments claiming to have worked in baggage for decades and never met a thief are not brazenly full of shit, is completely laughable.

  15. It’s definitely TSA or Customs. Airline workers and airline contractors aren’t going to randomly know which suitcases have whiskey

  16. Am I the only person who looks at that picture and thinks…..this picture was taken in an airport lounge!!!

  17. Doesn’t surprise me. I once flew home on a short (3 hour flight) Packed 6 pairs of shoes (slippers, sneakers, boots, 2 pairs of heels for a wedding and one pair of interview shoes) plus assorted clothing. To protect my clothes, each pair of shoes was placed in a t-shirt bag and twist tied closed. Checked luggage. Picked up in baggage claim area on arrival . Went home and unpacked. EACH pair of shoes was missing its mate!!! Luggage was locked using federal aviation approved locks. Complaints to the airline and airport got me nowhere. Did I forget to pack the 2nd shoe? Perhaps one pair, but SIX?? Called roommate to confirm that I didn’t leave any behind.

  18. It’s easy for a bottle to pop its own top due to the reduction in air pressure as a plane climbs. I have also seen a bottle pop its top because it was put on top of a refrigerator. Probably the vibration, but refrigerators have a hot coil (because they transfer the heat out of their insides) and heat can pop bottles too.

  19. In the Kuala Lumpur airport, baggage handlers were notorious for opening bags and stealing anything electronic that had showed up on the X-Ray. I had packed all my chargers, and they got stolen that way. Especially galling since I was planning to carry-on, and they insisted I check my bag. Colleagues told me that it was quite common there.

  20. If I wanted $1000 (or whatever) from an airline, I’d bring a half full bottle (or whatever) that I had, check the bottle on a flight, then open it up and blame the airline.

  21. I rather think Maryland nailed it–they took what they could transfer to another container.

  22. This story brings back fond memories for me. About 13 years ago I was flying Swiss first class, where they had Johnnie Walker Blue Label. I had a glass. While descending into Zurich the flight attendant came by and gave me the rest of the bottle. He said I could either take it with me or they had to toss it out. I took it. But I had a long layover in Zurich and was going to leave the airport. So I took my open bottle of booze to the first class check-in counter and said I’d like to check it. They taped up the cork and took out a single bottle shipping box and checked my bottle to Ljubljana. They were prepared! Then, when I arrived at my destination later that day my normal luggage appeared but no bottle. I inquired at the baggage desk, and they directed me to the odd sized baggage area. There, sitting alone in a 10’x10′ taped off area was my booze. Good times.

  23. My wife once had her bite guard stolen from her locked luggage. Who would steal a bite guard obviously customized to my wife’s teeth!

  24. Not all airline agents are looting your luggage. Don’t look past TSA. One occasion while going through security I couldn’t locate the sunglasses I thought I packed into my carry on. I then thought I left the glasses at home, having left them while packing in haste. After returning home, I went to the table at home where I kept my glasses. No glasses. The folding $120 RayBans were likely slipped into the pocket of a TSA good guy. I now watch for that one crooked agent that is a thief.

  25. Reminds me of the time I ordered a pizza at a restaurant in Chile, asked them to box up the leftovers, and discovered the next day that I was missing a slice!

    Makes a lot more sense than a third of a bottle of wiskey gone missing. I just assumed somebody was hungry in the restaurant kitchen.

  26. I highly doubt airline personnel was responsible for the disappearance of the rest of your bottle of libertations. Very well could have been the TSA but even that’s highly unlikely with all the cameras that are watching people daily. Was the cap ever open at all to your knowledge? Did your clothes smell like that alcohol? Were you buzzed when you loaded your suitcase for travel?

  27. I work for an international Airport. What I didn’t know until I started working here is that the all the people who handle luggage are contractors to the airlines. We have several on site. Delta is the only airline who employ their own people to handle baggage. As far as the “other” contractors, I wouldn’t trust any of them. I fully understand how luggage goes missing. I have personally had to stop my truck on the ramp and pick up a suitcase that has fallen off a luggage cart MANY times. These workers are low paid, over worked careless people who don’t give 2 shits about your luggage. Oh, and I can totally see them rummaging through bags! I haven’t actually seen it, per se, but these are the type of people who would, given the chance.

  28. As a former Ramp agent, here are my thoughts: Passengers lie about items being tooken. There are just too many cameras around. Also- people definitely overstuff their bags in an attempt to not pay extra fees. I don’t blame them. However, a lot of these bags are old. The handles are worn out and the zippers are holding on for dear life. So when I was in the bag room, I could pick up any one of these bags and the handle breaks off, or the zipper finally gives and now there’s sh!t every where. Which is why if you have an old bag that you check in and it returns with tape wrapped around it, that was your friendly neighborhood Bag Person rescuing your contents ( Which is extra work, BTW) from being lost. Then the ungratefuls will declare that the airline broke their bag and try to demand a new one. No, stupid, you over-packed. Which is why a heavy label was placed on your old 1979 Samsonite luggage. You will not get a replacement. Moron.

  29. Inadvertently left a Filson jacket w/ my i.d. inside on the seat of a United flight at LaGuardia. Supplied United with the description & seat number. Never found.

  30. OMG Mark I wheezed so hard! Hahahahaha! A fellow Genshin Impact player it seems, ah, for the still not initiated, Angel’s Share is the bar in Mondstadt city of the wine owner Diluc Ragnvindr, Ex Favonius member, now the Darknight Hero (kind of the city’s Batman) ah my nickname here is my Hoyolab account name if want to see what I have posted, dunny hilarious stuff game related, lots of commentscin other posts there bla bla bla.

  31. The bottle went to altitude there is a reasone you can’t ship liquids in a full container when we moved military vehicles the gas tanks could only be 2/3 full as liquids expand at altitude and we didn’t want a plane with a lot of gas or diesel running around on the deck crearing a fire hazard.

  32. Wouldn’t have to be drinking on the job. Could have been poured into a lunch thermos, coffee mug, etc, for consumption later.

  33. Pressure inside bottle vs lack of pressure in cargo hold. Bottle probably leaked during flight.

  34. Hi. I’m the guy who this happened to.

    No TSA slip.

    The bottle was sealed in the box. It arrived in the box, cap opened and seal broken. There is NO WAY it leaked. No lights in the bag and the box was dry.

    The cap was replaced.

    Why they just didn’t take the bottle astounds me too.

    We are waiting on United.

  35. Hi all. I was belatedly informed of this post. I was the one transporting the bottles (plural) for Christopher’s birthday. I work in the wine & spirits biz and was in Vegas for an industry conference. I travel with wine & spirits bottles all the time, I use a hardhsell Samsonite suitcase with combo locks, and I use specially made 2 part bottle carry bags with an inner sleeve of bubble wrap style material & an outer sleeve of heavy plastic that has 2 spaced rows of Ziploc style seals and then an additional velcro closure to contain leaks in case of breakage. The Glenmorangie comes in a box, I had to remove it from the box and pack it in the sleeve so it was visibly full and with an unbroken seal when packed. When I got to Vegas and took it out of the bag to show Christopher, it was removed from the protective sleeve and the seal was broken. There was no leakage in the luggage, and pressure couldn’t have opened it and then put the cork back in, much less removed it from the protective sleeve. Even with the carry sleeves I don’t travel with open bottles because that’s asking for trouble. The two bottles of expensive wine that were also in the bag were untouched. I commented on Gary’s FB post of this story with a link to my public post showing the 3 bottles and the obviously cut seal on the Scotch as well as a shot of the protective sleeves in my bag. I also shared the video of us pouring out the remaining portion of the bottle (we didn’t trust it for obvious reasons). I’ll admit I’m just as baffled as everyone else why someone wouldn’t have just taken the entire bottle, that would have made a LOT more sense. Frankly, it’s weirder that they just took part of it and put the partial back in my bag. I’ve never, in years of flying, had anything stolen and I routinely travel with items (such as electronic gear) worth far more than this Scotch. It’s a weird circumstance I’ve never encountered. I don’t know how the comment space works here so I’m not sharing links but if you check this post on Gary’s FB you’ll see the photos & video.

  36. Again, to be clear.

    The bottle was new and sealed. In the box which was not sealed. Then in a bubble wrap shipping sleeve.

    Nothing was wet. No leakage at all.

    The seal on the bottle was opened. As in by hand. Not pressure leakage and pressure doesn’t twist it off.

    It was packed by my companion who is a wine and spirits distributor (hence this being my birthday gift from him).

    We are quite sure it was done by a human.

    United? TSA? Valid question.

  37. @Christopher Ambler, was the checked bag locked before traveling and after arriving? I have heard that airport personnel sometimes rummage through luggage if they can. Also, what did you do with the partial bottle after finding it down a third?

  38. I had the same thing happen to me! I bought a bottle of Blantons bourbon in NJ as a gift and checked to make sure it had the seal on the bottle before putting it in my checked bag. The bottle has a distinctive shape so for sure it is recognizable by x-ray and was packed in a small bag and box (standard Blatons packaging). I hid it for a couple weeks and gave it to my wife for her birthday and when she took it out the seal was already broken and some of the liquid was gone. Either she found it and took a drink already (she said she didn’t) or someone “checked” that the liquid in the bottle was safe. The airline was either United or American as I was flying between EWR and CLT. We debated for a while whether to drink the rest, but Blantons is hard to find and so we did drink it…the alcohol would have killed off any germs anyway.

  39. @James Glendinning
    > I’ll admit I’m just as baffled as everyone else why someone wouldn’t have just taken the entire bottle, that would have made a LOT more sense. Frankly, it’s weirder that they just took part of it and put the partial back in my bag.

    It actually makes perfectly good sense if they transferred it to some other container (say, a water bottle) they already had. They didn’t want the bottle because that would be suspicious, but the container they already had wouldn’t be notable. Nobody’s going to think twice about someone with a water bottle and not all water bottles are clear. There’s a vacuum-insulated bottle sitting next to me as I write this, of course it’s totally opaque.

  40. @jns Samsonite hard side bag with combination locks that can be opened with TSA keys. We didn’t trust what was left in the bottle, we poured it down the hotel sink. Video of that posted on FB and Twitter.

  41. Because I know you all were hanging on the edges of your seats…

    United gave a $200 travel credit as compensation for the opened and sampled bottle of Scotch. Photographic evidence apparently worked, though I have to wonder if they DID find video. They’d never say and we’d never know, of course.

  42. Again Christopher it’s very simple…if any airport in the US actually sat down and reviewed a week’s worth of video and then fired anyone in the baggage handling chain who is on camera stealing, then they would lose 99% of their employees. The business calculation is that if 1 bag out of 500 gets ripped off and 1 out of 10 of those people notices and complains for compensation, then the airline loses Y dollars. If they fire all their baggage handlers who steal and can’t convince people to fly out of that airport for a year because it’s completely nonfunctional, they lose Z dollars. Z is much greater than Y, therefore here we are.

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