There is no airport in the world that can guarantee that your bag will not be pilfered, but the likelihood of it happening at OR Tambo is greater.”

This is according to Steve Chart, who released his book 89 Bags and Counting: My Long Haul to OR Tambo International and the Mystery of the Pilfered Baggage last year. The book is a dramatic account of his time spent behind the scenes of Africa’s busiest international airport.

And yet nothing has changed. To put this into perspective, in 2011 the transport minister announced that 2 999 bags had been broken into and items stolen in the first seven months of that year.

That is about 3 000 passengers affected: personal items, gifts, and other artefacts of significance taken away, highlighting the need to take proactive steps to tackle this problem.

Pilfering is one of the top operational challenges faced by any airline, but even more so at South Africa’s airports where the scourge continues unabated.

Chart tells tales of watching ground handlers swiftly and deftly remove items from passengers’ bags with precision, time and time again.

This is certainly not true of all ground handlers; it is however a stark reality that pilfering of passenger luggage, behind the scenes, happens far too often.

It is against this backdrop that baggage security remains an operational imperative at SAA and we continue to seek and implement effective programmes to address this dire situation.

Airports around the globe are looking at a variety of ways to curtail theft and damage. Some of these ways include limiting the number of bags allowed per traveller, faster conveyor belts, fast-tracking urgent bags, biometric systems to limit access of workers, and more secure areas where baggage is loaded to and from the plane.

At SAA, one such initiative is a three-month pilot project unveiled on January 22 to wrap passenger bags at check-in, the cost of which is included in our airfare.

This is against the backdrop of a successful trial undertaken by SA Express in recent months. Prior to this point, the responsibility to wrap baggage rested on the shoulders of our passengers.

The trial, however, sees the airline take ownership of this process and to this end, SAA appointed Bagport SA, an Airports Company South Africa (Acsa)-accredited service provider to wrap baggage for all passengers at a reduced fee. To date, feedback has been positive, and our on-time performance record remains intact.

While airlines are accountable for their passengers’ luggage, the responsibility of that luggage lies with the airport’s firm and ground handlers. Despite this, SAA receives claims in excess of R18 million a year for baggage damage and pilferage.

This is an enormous cost to the airline, but one that also shows the burden to our passengers; money cannot always replace the valuables and items which have sentimental value, not to mention the sheer inconvenience caused by the experience.

To effectively put a wrap on theft, all stakeholders need to make concerted efforts to prioritise baggage security.

Acsa is quoted as saying collaboration by all parties would see the number of mishandled bags cut. We are in agreement with this statement and believe that any programme put in place to address this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Zukiswa Ramasia is the general manager for operations at SAA.