Many years ago, I was tuned into a London radio station. The presenter, whose specialty was goading and irritating his listeners, said two things I have never forgotten, simply because they are true: “Figures lie and liars figure” and “Never believe a rumour unless it is officially denied”.
Bongani had suggested that I have regular meetings with Chris Hlekane, OR Tambo’s general manager, presumably to keep him up to speed on progress. I assumed that Chris would provide his own input and treat the pilferage problem as a priority. After all, success or failure could affect his future employment.
We had met only once before at my presentation where I formed the opinion that he was not especially interested in what I had to say. Our second meeting in his office about two weeks after I started my assignment at the airport confirmed my initial thoughts.
There was no greeting, no handshake and no niceties. We sat looking at each other for a few minutes in silence. It wasn’t an interrogation (it might have been more interesting if it was) so I didn’t mind breaking the silence. I asked, “Is there anything in particular you want me to look at or do?”
“Nothing comes to mind,” was his reply. After a moment he continued, “You could start by getting stats from the airlines so we can see how big the problem is.”
It was a very good point. I thought I was getting somewhere and said, “I’m not a statistician but I’ll see what I can do. I’d first like to spend some time getting to know the airline people and to form a good relationship with them.”
I might as well have said that I wanted to run off with his wife. “I’m not interested in relationships with the airlines. I am a statistician. I just want their figures.”
His response explained a lot and at least I knew where I stood with him. We were never going to be friends and I was never going to have his full support.
I gave the statistics idea a lot of thought. While there was no doubting that pilferage was a huge problem, no one could actually quantify the numbers. Accurate statistics in the form of pilferage figures from all the airlines, as well as the number of complaints received by ACSA, would help to give some perspective to the problem. The airlines, however, were reluctant to hand over details of pilferage reports. Presumably they did not have a problem, feared adverse publicity, or did not trust ACSA to keep the details confidential. Only after I offered assurances that the figures would remain confidential and that only the combined total number of pilferage reports from all airlines would be used to compile the statistics did reports start to trickle in.
Compiling statistics in relation to baggage pilferage is not an exact science for a number of reasons. Incoming bags cannot be quantified because they are not scanned on arrival. If an incoming bag is found to have been pilfered, the offence could have taken place at the airport of departure. Pilferage is, after all, not the sole preserve of OR Tambo International, although the problem is arguably greater there. Many passengers do not bother to report pilferage if something of little value or, indeed, nothing is taken. There are also many who are “serial claimers” and are regularly compensated by the airlines.
An accurate number can be obtained, however, by using the number of departing bags as each one is screened or X-rayed. The X-ray machines record the number of bags that pass through them. The figure has to be accurate because the ground handlers are required to reconcile each bag checked in against those loaded. Also, if a passenger does not present him- or herself at the boarding gate, their baggage has to be offloaded for obvious security reasons.
I therefore used the number of bags scanned by the X-ray machines, together with the number of pilferage reports received, to obtain a percentage. And after a few months of meticulous calculations, a picture started to emerge that indicated that pilferage at the airport was running at around 40 reports each day. This equated to 0.16%, or one bag per 500 checked in. A lot of people believe that hundreds of bags are pilfered each day but whichever way I looked at the figures my number is fairly accurate. Of far greater concern, though, is that it also means that there were around 40 opportunities each day to plant a bomb in a bag destined be loaded on board a flight. And that’s a scary thought.
Worldwide there are no actual pilferage statistics, simply a figure for mishandled bags, which includes lost, damaged, late and pilfered bags. The ICAO figure is 0.04%, or around one bag per 2000 checked in. The portion of the 0.04% relating to pilferage would be much lower. These figures help put the pilferage problem at OR Tambo into perspective. We were dealing with the tip of the iceberg. There was clearly a lot of work to be done if we were to at least match the ICAO figure.