/ 12 December 2006

Case closed: The ins and outs of airport baggage security

A gust of wind blows through the drop-off zone outside OR Tambo International Airport, carrying the bustling sounds of holidaymakers trying to catch their flights.

Few of the almost 17-million people who pass through the airport’s doors each year are as anxious as a friend of mine. She fears baggage pilferage — and the possibility of her luggage travelling to Trinidad while she holidays in Mykonos.

Her anxiety reaches such distressing levels that she names her suitcase — Carlos, if it’s going to Spain, or Charles, if she’s travelling to England — and blesses it with a prayer before saying goodbye to it at the check-in counter.

What then leaves her sleepless is that she has no control over what happens to Carlos (we’ll use this name as an example) as he journeys through security checks, past baggage handlers, over bumps and under X-rays, all via conveyor belt.

So, to ease my friend’s pain and that of others like her, I went behind the scenes of airport security to find out exactly where Carlos — as well as the almost one million other suitcases the airport will dispense into their respective planes this month — ends up.

Because of the influx of travellers at the airport during peak holiday season, which started last week, Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) head of security Jason Tshabalala has reinforced the more than 800 current security staff with about 70 new staff members. ”It’s to deal with the influx of people. We don’t want big queues, for example,” he says.

He says Carlos will go through ”a system of systems”, including up to three levels of security checks.

If Carlos doesn’t have ”Fragile” stickers plastered all over his body, he will travel along a bumpy conveyor belt through the first security level where staffers use laser guns to record the flight tag attached to his handle. This keeps record of Carlos’s travels, should he disappear or be cut open.

Sensors along the conveyor belt detect anything suspicious inside luggage — they are programmed to pick up traces of chemicals and components that make up bombs, or drugs. If Carlos were suspect, he would be automatically elevated to a second security level for further examination while his fellow bags continue along the conveyor belt to the baggage-handling area.

Carlos would then be subjected to X-rays that detect anything that is considered ”dangerous or destructive to aircraft”, including firearms and explosive devices, explains Jacques Antoine, an Acsa security manager.

If anything harmful is found, Carlos would be moved to the third security level to be ”reconciled” with my friend. She would then be interrogated about the dangerous item. ”In other countries they just take [the item] out and put a letter there, but because of our laws we have to reconcile the bag with the passenger before we remove it,” says Tshabalala.

If he contained a bomb, Carlos would be taken to a chamber at a ”remote site” of the airport and the airport police would take over the case.

But if Carlos did not have any harmful substances in his belly, he would travel on a gauge belt that sorts each bag according to its flight number and then deposits it into the hands of luggage handlers.

From here, Carlos is the responsibility of the airline and is no longer under Acsa’s care. Because he may now fall prey to sticky fingers, closed-circuit television cameras monitor airline baggage handlers’ actions.

The airport has about 1 400 such surveillance cameras, which monitor as much of the facility as possible — from the parking lot (which houses about 11 000 cars each day) to the terminals, watching over travellers and the airport’s 17 000 employees.

”When you’ve got a system in place, you wouldn’t say it’s a bulletproof system,” says Tshabalala. ”There’s always a human element … when you’re dealing with a human element, you’ve got a criminal element.” This is why surveillance cameras keep watch over baggage sorting, he says.

A few metres away from the gauge belt and baggage handlers stands a giant cage with suitcases stacked on wire shelves and on the ground. ”This is for the bags that missed their flights,” says the man who is sitting inside the cage, watching over the bags before the airlines collect them and return them to the passengers. It is exactly where Carlos should not end up.

The handlers load Carlos into a dolly — a vehicle that transports luggage to an aircraft. Handlers pack the luggage into the hold of the plane, and this is where most pilfering takes place, says Tshabalala. Because there are no surveillance cameras in the dark hold, pilfering could take place while handlers are stacking the luggage.

But some airlines, such as Israel’s El Al, hire extra security to monitor the transfer of suitcases into planes. ”Once we have checked the bags [inside the airport], there’s nothing to stop airlines from having additional security,” says Tshabalala.

After viewing this baggage safety process, I can reassure my friend that her luggage is in safe hands — and if she is the earliest to check in, she will be the last to receive her luggage on the other side.

Such reassurance will prevent her from nervously piercing my skin with her nails while waiting for Carlos. But I suspect her suitcase’s name will be Jacob this holiday — she’s going to Durban.