Passengers who are victims of pilfering should report it to the airline so that it can take further steps to combat theft.
Passengers who are victims of pilfering should report it to the airline so that it can take further steps to combat theft.

Baggage theft: how afraid should we be?

By WENDY KNOWLER Time of article published Aug 29, 2011

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Two weeks ago, SAA chief executive Siza Mzimela gave a presentation to the parliamentary committee on tourism, and naturally it was her comments on large-scale pilfering from baggage at OR Tambo International Airport which caught the attention of journalists.

“Baggage theft remains very high and OR Tambo International is out of control”, were the actual words in her presentation.

In the newspaper report I read the next day, the following statements were also attributed to her:

l Airlines and baggage handlers all point fingers at each other;

l Acsa shares responsibility with baggage handlers for the problem;

l The problem was temporarily “solved” during last year’s World Cup due to a high security presence, “but when this was relaxed, the problem returned”;

l Pilferage is much higher at OR Tambo than at other airports in South Africa and abroad;

l Any new methods of prevention are quickly circumvented; and

l Only about 25 percent of new baggage handlers came without any intention to steal.

I found that last statement particularly alarming. Put another way, three quarters of the people who handle our luggage are apparently out to steal from it.

Any traveller who read that no doubt resolved to pack even lighter, in order to squeeze their bags into the overhead lockers on planes, rather than release them into the hands of all those criminally minded baggage handlers.

So I asked both SAA and the Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) for more information.

Acsa’s group manager of communications, Solomon Makgale, said he didn’t know anything about the origins of that statement.

SAA ignored my question: “On what report or study did Ms Mzimela base her comment that only about a 25 percent of new baggage handlers come without any intention to steal?”

I went back to the airline’s acting head of group corporate affairs, Dileseng Koetle, three times in the course of the last week in an attempt to get an answer.

Finally, it came. “The statement in question was neither contained in the presentation, nor made by the CEO of SAA.

“The DA representative on the tourism committee initiated this comment.”

Thankfully the DA’s shadow tourism minister Greg Krumbock responds to media queries with impressive urgency.

I sent him an email at 10.30pm and he responded less than an hour and a half later to confirm that he made that statement at the August 16 committee meeting.

And here’s the background to it: “At that meeting I reminded the committee of a statement that was made leading up to the World Cup in a presentation to the tourism committee which, as I remember it, went along the lines that ‘25 percent of baggage handling staff were dishonest, 50 percent corruptible and only 25 percent honest’.

“Therefore the entire staff component was replaced every six months, because by then the 25 percent had corrupted the 50 percent.

“I remember being taken aback by the candour of the presenter, given the terrible implications, and recall the ‘corruptible’ adjective and percentages very well.

“But it was a verbal answer to a question, not part of the written presentation.”

Unfortunately, although Krumbock has a very clear memory of what was said at that meeting almost two years ago, he isn’t 100 percent sure if it came from an Acsa or SAA representative.

“It was, as you say, a rather alarming statement and I was surprised it did not make a greater impact at the time,” he said.

“I mentioned this previous testimony to the committee on August 16 to illustrate that SAA and Acsa were well aware that baggage theft levels were unacceptable then, and yet rather than improving, it is now ‘out of control’.”

Not so, says Acsa’s Makgale. Acsa does not agree with all of the statements made by Mzimela at that meeting, “in particular the view that the situation was out of control”, and he questioned where SAA obtained its statistics.

“From Acsa’s perspective, the past five years have seen a consistent improvement in the infrastructure surrounding and supporting baggage handling, including enhancing CCTV coverage.

“As a result of these initiatives and based on information received from airlines, including SAA, the average number of bags pilfered at OR Tambo has reduced steadily from 36 to 14 per day.”

Since January 2010, 18 people at OR Tambo have had their access cards blacklisted after being caught pilfering luggage.

As for how many of those were prosecuted, Makgale would only say that reports were compiled and handed over, with the evidence, to the SAPS for further investigation and prosecution.

So is it true, then, that OR Tambo has the highest baggage pilfering incidence in the world?

“There is no global benchmark for baggage pilferage,” Makgale said. There is such a benchmark for so-called mishandled bags, of which pilfered luggage was just one of four categories, the others being lost, damaged and delayed.

“Airlines are not required to reveal how many thefts they have in a month or how many bags are lost, stolen or delayed per category,” Makgale said.

“Our view is that, based on the statistics provided above, the situation at OR Tambo has improved considerably over time – however, the reputation has regrettably not.”

Acsa pays a baggage security company R7 million per year, Makgale said, but “the type of crime we are dealing with is opportunistic in nature”.

“They are looking for items which are high in value but small in size, such as jewellery, cellphones and laptops, which are easier to take out of the airport,” Makgale said.

So I asked the obvious question – are these employees searched when they leave work?

Yes, Makgale said, “they go through a screening process similar to how passengers are screened”.

Makes me wonder why I’ve had small penknives confiscated by security personnel at OR Tambo on two occasions when they were spotted as my hand luggage was being scanned, while baggage handlers are apparently able to make off with other people’s laptops and cellphones.

“Airports all over the world are grappling with the pilferage issue, but this is not to say we are complacent,” Makgale said. “We take this very seriously and are hard at work to address it so as to further reduce the incidence of pilfering.”

So how does Acsa collate baggage pilferage stats relating to OR Tambo? The stats come from two sources, Makgale said – the baggage sorting system, which Acsa has full control over, and the airlines.

“Some airlines disclose this information to us, but some, unfortunately, do not.”

Presumably that statistic of 14 pilfered bags per day would be higher if all the airlines came clean with their pilferage stats.

Unlike in the US and Europe, Makgale said, there is no law or regulation which compels airlines to disclose theft or pilferage statistics.

“Those which share that information with us, do so on a confidentiality basis.”

Well, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that needs to change, and fast. Consumers should be able to compare the baggage theft and pilferage statistics of the various competing airlines, as they do with fares.

Especially when you consider that the international formula for compensation for lost or stolen baggage sees victims being paid a fraction of the value of their losses.

So, what steps are currently taken to apprehend and prosecute baggage handlers found to have pilfered luggage?

Makgale said the thefts happen in three main areas – within the baggage sorting system, on the way to the aircraft, and in the hold of the aircraft.

“In the sortation area, Acsa has installed CCTV cameras which enable us to catch the criminals in the act,” he said. Plus the area is regularly patrolled by security personnel, and access to the area is limited to the staff members who work in that area.

“The other two areas require supervision by the airlines, including installing CCTV cameras in the hold of the aircraft.

“The airlines that do this well have minimal, if any, baggage theft.”

Ah, so perhaps that’s a question we consumers should ask of an airline before we book our tickets.

“Do you have CCTV cameras in the holds of your aircraft?”

Acsa’s anti-pilferage advice for travellers:

l Lock your baggage, secure it properly as loose straps may catch in the conveyor belts, and if possible shrink wrap it and attach identification tags.

l Do not place valuable items such as cellphones, laptops and jewellery into checked baggage.

l What the criminals need is time. A lockable, hard shell suitcase is therefore more secure.

SAA’s advice:

l Avoid packing valuables such as jewellery and electronics in your checked-in luggage.

l Locked hard case suitcases as well as plastic wrap may assist in discouraging pilferage.

l Report any pilferage so that the airline is able to take further steps. - Pretoria News

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