By Karyn Maughan and Kashiefa Ajam

South African Airways is battling to control a growing drug-smuggling epidemic among its own staff - with three stewards arrested on charges of cocaine and dagga smuggling in the past seven months.

The airline though is adamant that the problem is not isolated to SAA, but an international problem.

"The airline condemns the trade and most especially the use of SAA's air services for this criminal purpose," SAA head of corporate communications Jacqui O'Sullivan said yesterday.

In the latest drug-related incident involving the airline's staff, stewardess Lindiwe Harriet Luthuli, 40, pleaded guilty to smuggling 5kg of cocaine and 10kg of herbal cannabis - valued at about £325 000 (more than R3,5-million) - into the United Kingdom. She is expected to be sentenced in Isleworth Crown Court on May 25.

Heathrow Airport customs stopped Luthuli, believed to be a mother of two, in the airport's Crew Clearance Facility in the early hours of April 10, after she had arrived on SAA flight 234 from Johannesburg.

Officers discovered a package containing cannabis in her baggage.

A search of the crew bus found cocaine in two "gift" bags abandoned where Luthuli had been seated.

It is understood that the entire 16-strong crew of flight SA 234 (13 cabin staff and three pilots) were arrested after the drugs were discovered and spent some five hours in police custody, during which the entire crew's fingerprints were taken until Luthuli's were matched.

SAA corporate communications officer Sarah Uys last week confirmed that another SAA female crew member had been arrested at Heathrow in January on suspicion of importing cocaine to London, and had been fired after pleading guilty. SAA later denied that the woman had, in fact, been charged.

An investigation has also revealed that, in addition to Luthuli, at least seven other SAA employees, including a pilot, had been arrested in countries such as Brazil, Australia and the United Kingdom since 2000.