Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu/African News Agency (ANA)

Johannesburg - The notorious Hong Kong in-flight “organised criminals”, who apparently rob sleeping passengers, are believed to have been behind thefts allegedly perpetrated aboard an SAA flight this week.

On Wednesday, SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali confirmed that Hong Kong police conducted an operation on flight SA 286 from Joburg on Monday, after two passengers complained that money and a watch had been taken while they were sleeping.

SA 286 is the same flight on which, according to a January 2016 report by Traveller24, a South African passenger, William Becker, said he had about R30 000 stolen from his luggage while he was sleeping.

Hong Kong police said in an August 2015 report that they could not rule out the possibility of criminals targeting flights to the China-administered region, following 93 reported robberies totalling about R10.27 million from January 2014 to August 2015.

A passenger aboard Monday’s flight said that suspects were caught red-handed stealing fellow travellers’ valuables from the aeroplane’s overhead compartments.

The source, who asked to remain anonymous as he frequently uses that route, said the suspects were isolated until the plane reached Hong Kong, at which point several people were arrested. Tlali, however, disputed assertions that passengers were arrested, but confirmed that police had gone aboard the flight once it had landed.

“One of the complainants was able to point out a few passengers who had behaved in a suspicious manner and who were seen opening some overhead compartments while other passengers were sleeping.

“Once the matter was brought to the attention of our crew, they followed the procedures in managing complaints or incidents of that nature,” Tlali pointed out.

“A call was made to have the police meet the aircraft on arrival. The rest of the passengers disembarked and the suspects were ordered to remain in the aircraft and were searched by the police in Hong Kong.

“Nothing was found (on) them during the search,” he added.

Tlali said the cleaning staff found the missing items, which were on one of the seats.

“The suspects could not be arrested as there was no evidence linking them directly to the incident,” Tlali said.

In the 2016 Traveller24 report, Becker told the publication that Hong Kong police had also found nothing on the suspects who had allegedly taken valuables from him.

Asked whether SAA was confident of the security systems aboard its flights, Tlali said: “The airline will not hesitate to impose a ban on any passengers who are reported to have breached its conditions of carriage, as they form part of the rights and responsibilities between the airline and its customers.”

How to avoid theft in the air: Hong Kong police tips

  • Do not put your items in the overhead compartments when travelling to Hong Kong
  • Travellers should ensure that all their valuables and cash are with them at all times
  • Due to supposedly ambiguous aviation laws in Hong Kong, alleged thefts on overseas-registered flights outside the territory’s airspace had not been prosecuted
  • In 2012, the Hong Kong Department of Justice advised police to pursue theft crimes as disorderly conduct, which closed the loophole, enabling a near 100% prosecution success rate for police.

Source: South China Morning Post / ANA

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