Brazen career criminals apparently prey on stressed out or tired passengers caught in a backlog at peak times while waiting to be screened.

A security guard, who has worked for one of London's major airports for more than a decade, told the Daily Mail items are stolen from security trays on a daily basis.

He said thieves take anything from laptops to wallets and even once managed to make off with a widow's holdall containing her husband's ashes.

The security officer, who did not want to be named, revealed in most cases, the culprits have bought a seat on a cheap flight with the sole intention of getting into the security areas.

The guard said: "They tend to be middle-aged men who work in groups. They prey on passengers in the early morning, when people are half-asleep, or at peak times when they're stressed, and target families who are likely to be distracted by children."

Despite immediately watching CCTV and contacting police after a complaint is made, he admits charges often aren't brought because passengers are in too much of a hurry to catch their flights.

He revealed that pressure on security staff to meet targets has only exacerbated the issue, as he likened conditions to a "cattle market".

Officers are told they must get each passenger through screening in under six minutes – to keep the airlines happy and also so people have more time to shop at duty-free.

He said: "Until around eight years ago, passengers would be dealt with by one officer — now officers have to deal with four passengers at a time.

"The trays often emerge quicker than the person going through the body scanner. Passengers get caught in a backlog and there's nobody to watch for thieves."

It comes after a student had her £1,000 laptop – containing important documents for her dissertation – stolen from a security tray at London City Airport, last month.

Fernanda Ardiles, who had travelled back to see her parents in the capital for Easter, had got held up in long delays while her bag went through the scanner quicker than she did.

When she eventually reached the end of the conveyor belt she was horrified to discover her MacBook Air was missing.

She was left in even more shock when she reported it to staff only to be told they would contact her once they had reviewed the CCTV.

It mean Fernanda had to return to university in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, without the computer where her vital work was stored.

She told the Guardian: "After three days of emails I finally got hold of the terminal manager who said there was nothing he could do, but pass it on for investigation.

"They have behaved as though this is a minor irritation, as though it is no big deal.”

London City Airport says it has reimbursed her for the shortfall to buy a new laptop.

A spokesperson added: "In 2017, just 3 incidents of theft at London City Airport’s security screening were reported, with 4.5 million passengers travelling over the course of the year on 80,000 flights.

“As a result of Miss Ardiles’ experience we have reviewed our procedures, and going forward, we will always contact the Metropolitan Police regardless of whether a passenger declines to report a theft.”

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