Airlines bemoan wooden wildlife

South Africa’s favourite tourist souvenirs are proving a nightmare for airlines.

Every evening, when holidaymakers gather at Johannesburg International airport to check in for the night flights home, the struggle begins anew.

With dogged determination passengers try to bring wooden giraffes on board, that are almost six-foot tall; or bulky, massive wooden hippopotamuses—as hand luggage, off course!

Such exotic objects are considered an absolute must-have back at home, but prompt pangs of doubt when it comes to the flight check-in. The check-in staff roll their eyes and the passengers cross their fingers, threatening or imploring.

Heated arguments continually flare up as tourists refuse to give up their street market bargains. “We experience this day-in, day-out with monotonous regularity”, sighs Lufthansa’s station manager Rolf Pilgram.

A proud owner of the outsize wooden giraffe will point out that the animal is below the weight limit, without realising that it might be a little bit too long for the cabin.

Meanwhile the burdensome wooden hippopotamus, which can weigh as much as 20kg, are often checked in as light hand luggage—well within the regulation dimensions, but by far outside the weight restrictions.

The worst thing is that the items can also be bought in the duty-free shops directly behind the check-in desks, something the airlines don’t reckon with.

The airport personnel often have to intervene before passengers board the flight, diverting the statues into the hold.
But here arises another problem: the fragile legs and ears of the giraffes risk getting broken.

Thomas Grunwald has a thing or two to say on the subject. The South African Airways (SAA) complaints manager based in Frankfurt regularly receives recriminations about such damage.

Grunwald: “There are bitter complaints and we have the disagreeable duty of explaining to the proud owners the sad reality: Unless they hold special insurance for the long-legged carvings, they have no right to any compensation”.

And an extra insurance hardly makes sense in view of the modest value of the figures, for which—to the distress of environmentalists—a great number of high quality trees are felled between the Congo or Zambezi rivers.

Mainly immigrants from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon or the Democratic Republic of Congo sell the masks and statues which fall into the category of so-called airport art, that is mass produced for souvenir trade.

The smooth-talking traders generally have no problem allaying the buyers transport doubts which often only recur at check-in counters.

But many airlines try to be accommodating. Many souvenirs travel—often with woodworm included—as bulky baggage to Europe.

“When the airport workers see a dozen giraffes pile up on the baggage reclaim at Frankfurt, they know that the SAA flight from Johannesburg has landed”, laughs manager Anke Jobs, who admits to having herself once got a wooden giraffe into the flight cabin.

That, however, was in the days when flights to South Africa were often half-empty—and such times are long past. The load factor of the planes en route to and from Johannesburg or Cape Town is one of the highest in the world. As a result nearly all flights are fully booked.

“We find it already tiresome if we fly at just 90% of our capacity”, jokes a smiling Pilgram. - Sapa-DPA

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