Johannesburg - A sewerrat, a ghost, uninterested police officials, poorly maintained buildings and lax security for people working at OR Tambo International Airport.
These were just some of the interesting and disturbing situations that Steve Chart encountered while working as a consultant to Airports Company South Africa (Acsa), to advise and assist with the ongoing and problematic issue of baggage pilferage at South Africa’s biggest airport.
In 2007 Steve Chart was appointed as consultant to the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) with the task of assisting in the reduction of baggage pilferage at OR Tambo International Airport. What Steve soon realised, however, was that in terms of security, the airport wasn’t a vessel with a small leakage problem, but a boat on the absolute verge of sinking. He encountered countless cases of corruption and poor management, and no desire to take responsibility.
In his book, 89 Bags and Counting: My long haul to OR Tambo International and the Mystery of the Pilfered Baggage, Chart describes in detail his experience of the rampant pilfering, and of his dealings with officials at, and connected to the airport.
In 1986 Chart made a life-changing decision to cut short a promising career as a detective inspector with New Scotland Yard, returning to South Africa in 1987 to start his own business – a security and investigation company.
And in 2007 he was appointed as a consultant to Acsa.
His book, described as an “outrageous story”, is a must-read for anyone who’s travelled into and out of OR Tambo International – or plans to do in the future, and for those who want to know what goes on behind the scenes.
The story details many incidents where Chart witnessed first-hand how crafty and creative thieves can get.
“He puts the iPod, camera and bottle of expensive perfume to one side, together with the very handsome designer-label shoes he has taken from another bag.
“With a deftness developed from opening and closing so many different pieces of luggage, he casually pulls the zip closed before sending the bag on its way to be loaded into the aircraft. It will be hours before the passengers discover the thefts, and by that time he will be long gone,” Chart writes.
But for the author the worst was that Acsa officials were always very slow to react, he says, as incidents tended to “go away” after a while. Police, too, were mostly not interested.
Chart is frank that responsibility, logistics and costs will always be cited as reasons for not implementing a system where airlines secure baggage with a strap, which would immediately indicate interference. He suggests that costs could be added to the price of flight tickets to cover that.
“There is no airport in the world that can guarantee that our bag will not be pilfered, but the likelihood of it happening at OR Tambo is greater… “ Chart writes.
Meanwhile, Acsa spokeswoman Unathi Batyashe-Fillis said last night that the company was not in a position to provide a meaningful response, as they had not read the book.
She was adamant, however, that Acsa was continuing to make strides in reducing theft.
“It is perhaps prudent to add that Steve Chart is one of the people Acsa employed as one of the many initiatives we undertook to work on a collaborative process with airport stakeholders in reducing a real problem in terms of mishandled bags,” she said.
Luggage that is delayed, lost, damaged or pilfered, and recorded as such by an airline, is treated as a mishandled baggage claim.
Batyashe-Fillis said that in partnership with its “stakeholder community”, Acsa continued to intensify efforts to prevent baggage theft across all its airports, in line with international benchmarks.
“In the past five years the company has seen consistent improvement in the infrastructure surrounding and supporting baggage handling.
“Acsa’s OR Tambo International Airport has over the past three years seen a more than a 49 percent reduction in the number of mishandled bags,” she explained, adding however that their stance was that one bag stolen was one too many.
The company had invested R20 million in security infrastructure to create a layered security approach, with the aim of fighting crime in general.
Some of the recent successes can be attributed to redesigning the baggage sorting area entrance to accommodate fully automated screening and reverse screening, she said.