Baggage theft: book reveals shocking truth

2013-07-29 00:00

STEVE Chart was hired by the Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) in 2007 to help solve the problem of baggage theft at O.R. Tambo — he had an impressive background in security systems and had trained in London as a policeman with experience at Scotland Yard.

His recent time at O.R. Tambo Airport as a security consultant makes for shocking reading and it is perhaps a microcosm of why we just cannot get things running smoothly in South Africa. His book, 89 Bags & Counting, published by Jacana, is an unusual tale.

Chart, who was given the task of solving the problem of stolen baggage, was often more worried that the security gaps in the system would give opportunities to terrorists who wanted to make an explosive statement.

He reasoned that if it was easy enough to steal something out of someone’s bag then it would be just as easy to put something inside someone’s bag. His urgency was often dismissed as over-rated by lazy executives and it was only as the World Cup approached that his concerns were taken more seriously.

Chart’s book is an indictment on the power struggles, apathy and idiocy that governed his time on the job. Perhaps now from the relative safety of overseas retirement he feels safe to tell all but, then again Steve Chart has not been in the security business for nothing. My questions were fielded through his publisher who said she would forward them to him.

I asked quite seriously if he was worried if the book would make some people very angry — would someone take a hit on his life? This is South Africa after all!

But perhaps after face-offs with gunmen and years of verbal fencing with powerful bureaucrats he just does not worry any longer. His answer is simple: “I’ve had a positive response to my book from most quarters. I’m not important or enough of a threat to anyone, to have anyone take me out. But Acsa, I’m sure, won’t be happy.”

Chart’s book outlines the steps he took to investigate the serious problem of baggage theft at the O.R. Tambo airport from 2007 to 2011. During his tenure he was constantly thwarted by individuals who did not want him to actually do his job.

“In May 2007, I found a chaotic situation at O.R. Tambo International with as many as 40 pilferage reports each day. Over the following four years, with the co-operation of the airlines, the ground handlers and Acsa’s investment in the establishment of the Baggage Protection Unit, we managed to reduce the pilferage reports to around 10 per day,” he says.

“But despite the reduction, however, we still had security breaches where people were intent on getting at bags, this continued on a regular basis. In October 2010, after the Fifa World Cup, there was a security breach where suspects were able to gain access from the public area to baggage after it had been cleared by the x-ray machines for loading. This incident really depressed me and my question with regard to the effectiveness of security when it came to baggage was reinforced.

“All the security precautions we see and experience at every airport throughout the world have been put in place to protect the travelling public, airline crew and aircraft. I’m not an aviation security expert but, even as a layman, I would not question any ICAO [International Civil Aviation Authority] instruction with regard to aviation security. But I do question how it is for someone to gain access to screened baggage which has passed through the x-ray machines, from the public area.”

Chart explains one of the final straws that made him angry. “ A couple of months before I left the airport, we introduced ‘reverse screening’ — the searching of staff passing from airside to landside, this is an essential element in the prevention of theft from baggage. It was removed without explanation. Then I started to question Acsa’s commitment to the prevention of baggage pilferage.”

On the whole there were many incidents of petty bureaucracy that made doing his job a nightmare because of the inefficiency of many of the sub-agencies working at the airport. When he managed to find a security area of concern, he would lodge a complaint to have a certain group of workers fired. Later he would find out they had been re-hired by a different baggage handling company.

Chart would also find the attitude of the airport police extremely irritating. When airport security managed to catch a culprit in the act, SAPS airport officers were called and they were not really interested in opening a case. Often the culprits disappeared and were never seen in court because the policemen disliked going to court and the lengthy court delays.

Chart was horrified by the frequent violence meted out by certain policemen who seemed to think this was the only way to deal with criminals.

“It was among certain individuals — for instance on the cargo side of the airport the police were doing an excellent job and there was a different motivation.”

Chart found the discipline among security officers at the airport a concern and he introduced a Baggage Protection Unit where he trained the officers.

Too many security officers were getting bribed to pass workers through without checking them and on some occasions security officers themselves were becoming smugglers and carrying out stolen goods.

On one occasion they spent days looking for a thief who became known as “the sewer rat”. This criminal seemed to escape through small holes in the roof and leave only evidence of where he had been hiding. On another occasion they found mounds of stolen bags hidden in an electrical server room that had not been regularly inspected.

Chart says: “I believe on some levels the airport is a microcosm of South African society where there seems to be a general acceptance of crime up to a certain level. My perception with regard to baggage pilferage is that it is considered a nuisance, rather like shoplifting. If the levels are within reasonable proportions, it becomes acceptable. People have become acclimatised to this instead of adopting a zero-tolerance approach.”

Chart says while he found the whole experience demoralising, he does not think the whole of Acsa is dysfunctional.

“My experience at the airport left me feeling frustrated, a little depressed and very negative about the situation there and some of the individuals with whom I came into contact. But I would not say that there is apathy among staff at the airport. Many work very hard at finding solutions to the baggage pilferage problem. But with regards to baggage security, it lends itself to perpetuating the blame game.”

He also says the low salaries paid to workers at the airport contribute to the problem and that the poverty in the country causes people to take risks.

While the effect of the book might be to temporarily scare anyone off air travel, that would be unrealistic. Chart’s intention was to inform and educate about baggage pilferage.

“I wanted to inform anyone who has been a victim of baggage pilferage at O.R. Tambo International about the system their bags passed through. Also, there are many who have misconceptions about baggage handling and who is responsible for stealing from baggage.

“I wanted to dispel these misconceptions and give people a better understanding about what happens to their baggage once it is checked in.

“When I returned to the UK, I felt a responsibility to the travelling public and decided to write an article about my time at the airport. This then became a book. If I’d sat back and done nothing and something happened, it would be of no help to anyone if I then piped up and said, ‘I could have told you that would happen.’ ”

Luckily Chart has never been the victim of baggage pilferage but he says he knows the pitfalls and he has included a list of tips in the back of the book for regular travellers on how to avoid being targeted.

“The last chapter in my book … is intended to give advice to passengers on how to protect their baggage against theft. I also hope that those who work at the airport [if they read my book] accept it in the spirit it was written and that it helps to end the scourge of baggage pilferage.”

89 Bags & Counting is available at most book shops.

• trish.beaver@witness.co.za

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