South African Airways pilots and air stewardesses are wary of their colleagues. They don't know who to trust and are well aware they could be part of the next crew bust with drugs at Heathrow airport in the UK.
SAA acting CEO Chris Smyth, briefing a parliamentary committee this week, said: " international drug smugglers had targeted SAA to move their products into the United Kingdom and Europe." He said this "drug smuggling plague" SAA was experiencing was a movement of drugs in a supply chain from South-east Asia and South America into Africa, as a hub or transit point into Europe.see
Kenya Airways had a similar problem with drug smuggling some time ago, and when they tightened it up, Kenya became unattractive to the trade. The UK police also commented that to see two entire airline crews arrested within just a month of each other, was 'highly unusual'. see
We cannot fight crime alone
The CEO told the parliamentary committe that after Kenya became unattractive to drug-smugglers, it was the turn of SAA to be targetted.
"We have asked for help. SAA can't do this alone. It is not SAA's sole responsibility to fight crime. It is something that needs the collective effort of all players at the airport," Smyth said.
And crew members who are interviewed are too terrified to talk. "We don't know who to talk to, who to trust. We don't know who else is involved. There is so much animosity and uncertainty at the moment. We are all afraid to go to London now," said an air stewardess, who did not want to be named. They are also terrified to reveal their names and would only speak if their names weren't quoted.see
The crew nembers tell a harrowing tale: of airline crews being forced by armed gangsters to smuggle drugs, of a culture of bribery of officials, and the fact that there have been no increased security measures at Johannesburg airport, even though two aircrews were arrested over the past four weeks and the airline claimed that it had tightened up security.
Fifteen crew members - six women and nine men - were arrested at London's Heathrow Airport on Monday after 2kg of cocaine was allegedly found in their luggage. They were released on bail after questioning and are expected to return to the UK for further action on April 7 and 8. This follows the arrest of 15 crew in January on their arrival at Heathrow after the discovery of three crew bags packed with 50kg of dagga and 4kg of cocaine.
All were released on bail and warned to appear in court in London in March after their DNA and fingerprints were taken. Two days later, airport security officer Pulane Hlahane, 43, and SAA employee Mmatshuma Matlhara, 35, were arrested.
Hlahane is accused of providing Matlhara with extra security clearance tags so that she could travel with extra luggage, allegedly containing drugs. SAA has said the airline had not yet decided whether it would pay for its crew members to return to the UK to appear in court there.
"A decision will be made in due course on whether SAA will assist in returning crew to Heathrow," said spokeswoman Robyn Chalmers. This week the airline claimed that they had tightened up security after the first arrest: "security systems were changed, bags were searched and dogs used on the airside."
However, a stewardess who was interviewed said she "hadn't noticed any such measures.
"Yes, we had to write our names on our clearance tags. But I was never searched and there were no dogs," she said. Another crew member, speaking to Eyewitness News on Radio 702 talk-radio station in Johannesburg, said it was relatively easy to smuggle illegal goods on an international SAA flight.
"There's no machine that can detect the drugs. If there are no sniffer dogs, it is easy."
The SAA staff member also confirmed that the only new measure put in place was the labelling of the crew members' bags.
An Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) employee, who also didn't want to be named, told the Saturday Star newspaper this week that SAA crew members involved in the drug incidents had been threatened by the people they were supplying that they would be exposed if they didn't co-operate.
"Most of them wanted out (of the drug-running) but they had been threatened. They must do it - or be exposed.
"It isn't just one air hostess - there are several involved. SAA has become a halfway point for the drugs."
He reiterated what two SAA crew members said earlier: "Although there was an incident three weeks ago, crew are still not being searched. And there is a lot of bribery."
Earlier this week, an SAA staff member contacted the Democratic Alliance oposition party on condition of anonymity and outlined a "total collapse of security procedures" in the SAA crew centre at Johannesburg International Airport.
Terrified crew members say that lax security at the crew centre led to its use as a transit point for between 600 and 700 SAA international and domestic flight staff each day.
"These lax security processes allow unhindered entry through the checkpoints into the crew centre and onto SAA flights," the staff member said.
As a result of the revelations, the DA called on the minister of safety and security to report to the parliamentary committee on safety and security on the state of South Africa's airport security within four weeks. see