By Graham Marshall

South African Airports have had a bad reputation for stolen baggage for years. SAA chief executive Siza Mzimela even referred to it at a meeting between some airlines and the parliamentary committee on tourism in August when she said pilfering was “out of control”.

I have seen plenty of evidence of it over the years when friends or fellow passengers have complained of missing items. And although I am careful not to put anything likely to disappear into my own checked in luggage I have several times found the locks broken – even when I have not locked my case – and the contents disturbed, obviously by someone searching through it in a hurry.

Gidon Novick, Comair’s joint chief executive, told us it is carrying out a successful campaign against it, with the help of its baggage handling company, Bidair, and G4S Contract Security and has brought the rate of pilferage down to less than one in 5 000 bags.

Precautions include a watch on baggage handlers while the luggage is loaded and unloaded, and making them leave the hold as soon as they have unloaded their trolleys.

They have to wear thick gloves that make it difficult to identify small valuable articles while feeling through the contents of a bag.

Solomon Makgale, head of communications for Airports Company, South Africa, also claims that it has already succeeded in steadily reducing pilferage over the past five years. He said it had been brought down to 14 bags a day from 36.

British Airways staff at Oliver Tambo airport on Johannesburg confirmed that the rate of theft from baggage had dropped but they carry out some precautions, which they would not disclose for fear of making them less effective.

In the past I have been told that the pilferage at OR Tambo was the work of organised crime syndicates and that the thieves always find some way to get around precautions.

Theft at airports is not peculiar to this country. It is, unfortunately, an international problem and at one time plagued London’s Heathrow Airport although the rate there was reduced years ago. The best way to avoid it is to carry valuable and saleable articles in your cabin luggage, or wear them, and avoid checking in designer clothes, electronic articles, expensive toiletries and – of course – jewellery. And obviously expensive suitcases are likely to be targeted.

I once went on a press trip which included two recently appointed editors, each of whom had a magnificent, new, leather suitcase that looked likely to be stuffed with designer clothes and other desireable items. The rest of us had rather well-used suitcases. We went from OR Tambo to Heathrow and then to Vancouver and there are no prizes for guessing which two suitcases were missing when we arrived. I heard later that they were never recovered.

* Airlines worldwide have been hit badly by rising costs, including taxes at a time when leisure travel has fallen off because money is tight in many countries. So this is a time to look out for bargain fares. British Airways has announced a big seat sale this month with reductions on fares to eight UK destinations by way of Heathrow, 31 European cities in 15 countries and 15 North American cities. The fares to London start from R7 312, to Europe from R7 252 and to North America from R11 233, Booking is until September 22 for travel between now and June 14 next year. The fares include taxes, fees and surcharges.

While high departure or arrival taxes have hit tourism to several countries, the Netherlands and Ireland have benefited by changing their minds about introducing them. Unfortunately there are no direct flights between this country and Ireland and the usual way to get there was by way of London/Heathrow. But the high UK taxes have encouraged more people to go to Ireland by way of either Amsterdam with KLM or Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates with Etihad. Both KLM and Etihad fly from Cape Town.

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