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Durban - Twelve check-in counter officials at King Shaka International Airport – alleged to be behind a bribery and corruption racket – have been bust after a covert operation by the police crime intelligence unit.
The alleged criminal activity was discovered after a disgruntled passenger travelling to England to see her grandchild – on October 26 – was deceived into believing that her luggage was 8kg over the allowed weight.
She paid R2 000 – reduced from R4 800 – to an attendant at the check-in desk, but her husband became suspicious and had the bags weighed in England, only to find they had been duped.
The BidAir employees, who have since been fired, had been subjected to a polygraph test. Those who failed the test blew the whistle on the others allegedly involved in the bribery and corruption racket. BidAir is a passenger handling company contracted by the airlines.
The passenger’s husband, who did not want to be named, told the Daily News his wife was a diabetic and became stressed when she was told her luggage was over the weight limit and there was a prospect of her missing her flight, on Emirates via Dubai.
“I weighed her bags at home and it was about 30.8kg. At the airport, the man at the check-in counter told her the bags were over the weight by 8kg.” He said she was the last person in the check-in queue and feared she was not going to make her flight.
“I tried unsuccessfully to intervene. During this time, the check-in attendant told my wife the penalty was R4 800. He then made a call to another attendant about two counters away before disappearing for a few minutes.
“On his return, he asked my wife what she thought she should pay for the excess luggage. He asked if she could afford R2 000 and said it was better than R4 800.”
The husband then handed his wife R2 000 and told her to pay it.
“At that stage, we did not know it was a bribe. Only later did we realise we had been duped. I even asked my wife for the receipt when she paid the money and she said she was not given one.”
He said as soon as the cash was paid, his wife was handed her boarding pass and passport.
“I immediately smelled a rat and phoned my daughter in Manchester. I told her when her mother arrived, to take the bags to the airline counter and get them weighed.
“And, as I suspected, the bags only weighed 30.8kg.”
He said he immediately alerted BidAir and was told to register a case with the police.
His wife returned to South Africa a week ago and opened a case of bribery at the Umhlali police station.
Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) spokesman Colin Naidoo, confirmed the 12 BidAir employees faced criminal charges and had been subjected to internal disciplinary processes and fired.
They had their clearance certificates blacklisted and would not be allowed access to the airport, Naidoo said.
Police spokesman Colonel Vincent Mdunge, said the suspects were facing bribery and corruption charges. They were expected to appear in the Verulam Magistrate’s Court this week.
Naidoo said while this was an isolated incident, some staff had been under observation for a while.
“We are committed to rooting out any criminal activities,” he said. “It is also very encouraging to know that the passenger who felt deceived took the matter up and we applaud her.”
Another source, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the staff had been running the racket for a while.
“They tamper with the scales and lie to passengers that their luggage is over the weight [limit]. They then negotiate a bribe amount to let the excess baggage pass through without detection. Money is often exchanged in private. Police know of one incident, but if they dig deeper they will find many more.”
BidAir’s forensic investigator Connie Viljoen, refused to divulge any information but said investigations were at a sensitive stage.
BidAir spokesman Bob Gurr, did not respond to messages.
Naidoo said security at King Shaka International Airport was paramount. He said all staff were scrutinised for any criminal records before they were employed at the airport.
“We have intensified this process. There is now an increased supervision by the handling company and the airline with added monitoring by airport security agencies.”
He said Acsa viewed the alleged criminal behaviour of these employees in a very serious light.
“We believe that the pilferage committee and structures that are in place to try to eradicate elements of baggage interference and similar fraudulent activities are certainly working at the airport,” Naidoo said, explaining that the pilferage committee handled all baggage-related concerns.
“It is about the collective approach that has been adopted by the security agencies and working closely with the handling companies and airlines to ensure the safety of the passengers and their baggage.”
Naidoo said their security agencies were working hard to remove any criminal elements at the airport.
With the festive season around the corner, Naidoo appealed to all airport users to ensure that they were aware of all their personal belongings.
Commenting on incidents of baggage pilferage, he said it was not any more serious than anywhere else in the country.
“But one incident of baggage pilferage is one too many.”
Naidoo said overweight baggage also posed a problem because it affected the balance of the aircraft.
“This could have serious repercussions and staff or passengers should not let overweight baggage go through.”
Naidoo appealed to airport users to report any suspicious parcels or activity to airport security or to police at the airport. - Daily News