Task team formed to tackle airport trafficking

South African Airways (SAA), the Airports Company SA (Acsa), customs and the police have formed a special task team to end drug trafficking at local airports.

The development follows the arrest of a second SAA flight crew in London in a month after 5kg of cocaine with a “street value” of about £250 000 (R3 580 000), was found in their luggage.    

Last month British authorities arrested a crew after finding 50kg of dagga and 4kg of cocaine in their luggage. The crew was subsequently repatriated and on arrival an air hostess was arrested by SA police. An airport security guard charged with checking crew luggage was subsequently arrested. Both have appeared in court.
SAA, Acsa, customs and the police say in a joint statement the special task team “will review the additional interventions implemented by SAA since the first incident” and “manage the urgent implementation of additional security measures. The team will also identify potential risk areas involving the trafficking of contraband across airport operations.”
The authorities say security was stepped up by SAA following last month`s incident. “The measures introduced by SAA included changing security systems, physical searches of bags and using dogs airside”. These and other measures will now be extended across all SAA international flights.
SAA spokeswoman Robyn Chalmers added that the three cockpit and 12 cabin crew detained by British customs authorities in the latest incident have already been released.
“The group, who operated flight SA234 from Johannesburg to London yesterday morning, were detained by authorities in London on Monday after contraband was found in an item of hand luggage on the crew bus at Heathrow Airport,” she said.
The crew members have been released on their own cognisance, and will be required to appear back in London on 6 April. “Arrangements for their return to South Africa are currently being made.”
The airline is co-operating fully with British authorities in an investigation which is currently under way, the joint statement adds.  An investigation in Johannesburg, involving SAA Aviation Security and the SAPS Crime Intelligence Unit, is also under way.
“SAA remains committed to a zero tolerance approach towards the use of the airline`s services for any criminal activity and will continue to closely monitor the situation going forward”.
The incident also comes a week after SAA`s board placed CEO Khaya Ngqula on special leave to facilitate an investigation into trade union-raised allegations regarding retention premiums, conflict of interest and procurement.
SAA has meanwhile named general manager of operations Chris Smyth as acting chief executive.
Democratic Alliance Public Enterprises spokesman Manie van Dyk says the three incidents shows that after “years of mismanagement, a once proud national carrier is in a state of decay.”
Regarding the cocaine bust the MP notes this “is the second incident of this kind within a month and bears testament to the lack of adequate management capacity within the national airline and Acsa.”
“After last month`s security breach SAA and ACSA were adamant that there would be a full restructuring of their security procedures. Clearly, the crew member(s) involved in this crime still did not see that as a sufficient deterrent to their actions. The UK authorities also held little faith in these promises and were ready to arrest the criminals concerned on their arrival overseas”.    
Van Dyk adds that the DA has “long held the view that our government should not be operating airports or running airlines.
“In the past five years, SAA has accumulated losses of R16.6 billion and has cost the South African taxpayer R8.9 billion in handouts. In 2008 it posted a further R1.3 billion loss due to poor fuel price hedging strategies and other restructuring costs.
“For years we have been told that SAA is a strategic state asset that acts as a well respected and broadly followed marketing tool for the South African brand. Today, newspapers across the world view that very South African brand as one of ineptitude, broken promises and criminality.
“The future of SAA is both a cost and reputation issue; money wasted on the national airline should be better spent elsewhere within government on uplifting the poor rather than subsidising the flights of corporate clients, whilst the continuation of incidences like those experienced at Heathrow International Airport over the past month does irreparable damage to how we are perceived abroad.”