By Lesley-Anne van Wyk WINDHOEK Johannesburg International Airport is known for its size, modern design but especially notorious for the sticky fingers of its luggage handlers. It is the largest and busiest airport in Africa with fifty-eight different airlines flying to over a hundred destinations. In just a single year, the check-in counters passes sixteen million passengers and the baggage carriers handle their ten million bags. South African Airways (SAA) passengers report two hundred and eighty cases of petty theft each month. This is according to SAA's Head of Airport Operations Ian van Rooyen. "When you take the amount of bags we handle versus the complaints of theft, it works out to 0.07% on average over the last few years." A Namibian business person states that the last time she traveled from London via Johannesburg International Airport, six DVD's and jewelry worth the total value of N$4 300 were stolen out of her suitcase. She was flying with South African Airways and was greeted with a blasÃƒÆ’Ã†'Ãƒâ€ 'ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â 'ÃƒÆ’Ã†''Ã…Â¡ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â© attitude when she made the necessary claims. "The claims personnel made it seem as though this is a regular occurrence." Van Rooyen also attributes such thefts to the current construction taking place at the airport that leaves gaps in the security and allows for people to walk up to the conveyor belts and snatch bags. But the main problem lies behind the scenes of the luggage collection areas. There are certain areas, behind pillars for example, that do not have surveillance camera coverage from the airport's 1 400 cameras. The handlers have figured out where these areas are on the route the luggage takes through the airport. Kevin, an aviation security expert, has dealt with the airport for more than ten years. He estimates around 20 thefts occur each day. A Namibian athlete, Alex Ray, told New Era, "Even though I travel through the airport at least three times a year, I've been lucky enough to never have had anything stolen from my bags." But it is still not uncommon to see the occasional surveillance footage of luggage handlers sneakily maneuvered behind pillars breaking locks on bags, rummaging through them, stealing expensive items such as laptops, video cameras and binoculars and occasionally swapping their old items of clothing for a new pair of expensive pants or tackies. And all of this takes place while other handlers keep a lookout for security guards. The procedure of reporting stolen goods involves making the claims from the airline you traveled with. This can result in the airline blaming the airport which in turn will blame the company contracted to handle the luggage of that airline. Johannesburg airport is run by Airports Company South Africa (ACSA). Once a bag disappears from view it is no longer in the airline's control. First it goes through a series of rigorous security checks by an ACSA appointed company. High-powered X-ray and detection machines are monitored by staff, looking out for dangerous items you have been told not to put into your suitcase. Once your bag gets the all clear it moves into the sorting queue, where the tag is scanned. This tells the conveyor belt which flight your bag is on and the correct chute it must be delivered to. As your bag drops, just over ten minutes after you checked in, the airline's appointed baggage handling company takes over. The baggage tag is re-scanned and loaded into containers, which are then driven out to the aircraft. By the time the airline is in possession of your bag again, it has passed through at least four different companies. And it is anywhere along this elaborate path that the thieves can access your valuables. Herman Fleischmann is from Equity Aviation Services, one of the main baggage handling companies at the airport. He says, "From 2005, 31 staff of Equity were dismissed. If you are caught stealing, or a suspect involved in stealing, you are gone. We don't tolerate it. We cannot live and work with the risk. He might not be stealing now, but if he looks at what his friend is doing he might steal tomorrow." But are these people charged with the crime? Unless the owner of the bag lays charges against the thief, there will be no formal investigation and appropriate action taken. And as for compensation for stolen goods, it is not strange to get a fraction of the actual worth of your stolen goods back in claims. Van Rooyen adds that the airline cannot pay according to what people have put into their bag. "We have to meet the policies and procedures of SAA and also the world standards. Last year our national carrier forked out a hefty fifteen million rand in compensation. So, if only a small percentage of the actual claims are reimbursed, it's quite plausible that well over a hundred million rands worth of stolen goods could be walking out of our airports each year." Some of the airlines that have reported fewer thefts include Singapore Airlines, Air Malaysia and El Al, even though they also use Equity Aviation. Chris Hlekane, General Manager of Johannesburg International Airport, says: "The most important part of all of this is to establish, as a community, what is different. It goes back to where the responsibility of the airline goes and what the airline is prepared to do to be part of the solution within the baggage problem."
2006-07-05 00:00:00 12 years ago