Derek Daly
Derek Daly

OR Tambo Airport: A claim to shame

For a country that is expecting to host the football World Cup in less than 900 days, here’s how the International Arrivals section at OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg is currently going about its business. I arrived at the dire baggage claim area just after 17:00 on Tuesday 4 March after a flight that had taken more than 20 hours door-to-door from Las Vegas.

Technical difficulties had been present on the long Delta flight from Atlanta. Many of the entertainment system monitors, a “brand-new Panasonic system” in the words of a flight attendant, had not worked at all. If you didn’t have a book with you, you were at the mercy of the flimsy in-flight magazine, which would provide 20 minutes of entertainment at best.

An inexplicable and lengthy security check inside the plane at the Dakar stopover in Senegal was the only other source of in-flight entertainment. Security people came in and lifted each seat to check for dangerous items and went through all the bags individually.

This check happens in both the US and SA directions and assumes that the numerous security checks on both sides have been ineffective. If anything, it surely makes it more possible for terrorist activity to happen by the possibility of a corrupt security official placing something on board in the middle of the night.

But let’s leave that aside and return to the passengers of the Delta flight, who were drained as they made their way to collect their baggage in the International Arrivals section at OR Tambo airport. In a grey and lifeless room devoid of any music or entertainment screens, three conveyer belts stood ready for service. It was announced that the baggage of the Atlanta flight would be appearing in the middle one.

The belt did not start moving as expected. We waited. Nothing happened for a further ten minutes. The crowds gathered, everyone having made it through immigration by now. An official came toward the lifeless apparatus and started pressing what looked like “reset” buttons at the bottom of the machine.

This did not have any effect. After five minutes another official shouted out that the baggage would now be arriving on the conveyer belt to the left. All the passengers moved over, clogging the corner of the small grey room.

This time the conveyer belt did actually start moving. You couldn’t miss it, as it was loudly screeching as if inflicted by some weird disease. Its speed was ponderous and it was suffering along with us.

At last some bags started appearing, but in a very sparse formation — only four suitcases on the first three revolutions. With a total of about seven suitcases on the belt after ten minutes, no new bags appeared. The hall was full of waiting passengers staring at various areas of the conveyer belt in expectancy. They looked like hostages.

After half an hour, less than a quarter of the bags had appeared. People were starting to get anxious. Some of us had a connecting flight to Cape Town which was departing at 19:00. It was now almost 18:00 and the conveyer belt had again run dry, a solitary suitcase revolving like a forgotten Valentine’s Day surprise.

At 6pm something was announced in a struggling voice on an intercom that could barely be heard — it sounded like it was coming out in a sort of sub-shortwave frequency. Passengers with a connecting flight to Cape Town should come to the baggage claim area, we heard after the third repetition.

I made my way to a long desk but there was nobody there. I’d gone to the wrong desk, apparently. There was another desk on the other side of the room.

At this desk three women were handling the process. We were given forms to fill out. They impatiently asked for boarding cards from point of departure and other details of the flight. They would “rush” (this was the term they used) the bags to us once they had found them.

The woman opened up a flip-file and asked me to identify my suitcase by looking at which item it most closely resembled. This was, she said, so she could find it easier. None of the templates resembled my item, my grandmother’s old blue suitcase that had stickers on it from her times abroad. I tried to describe it to the impatient woman, telling her about the stickers. She didn’t smile.

Looking behind me, I noticed that bags were appearing from all sorts of places in the room now, including one spot at hand-fed pace through a gap at the side of the room. Piles were becoming thick in a dogged but persistent momentum.

At 18:25, I finally gave up and sprinted to the domestic terminal, making my way through people shouting “taxi” at me and asking for tips for giving me directions. I got to the top floor of Domestic Departures and found out I had missed my flight. The gates were closed.

Luckily there was one further flight an hour later and I was put on it by attentive BA staff.

Many others on the Delta flight would not be as lucky. One man I spoke to was having to stay near the airport that night because there were no further flights to George.

I had just about enough time at 18:55 to rush back to the International Arrivals section to check whether my suitcase had surfaced since.

In the hall the people had thinned out, but the bags had grown. Someone said the third conveyer belt, which had since kicked into action for reasons only known to itself, had some Atlanta bags on it.

There it was. My grandmother’s blue suitcase stood in a pile next to the third conveyer belt. It had taken more than two hours for it to get there from the plane. No other international flights had appeared in the Arrival section since then. About twenty angry passengers stood crowding around the baggage claim area, filling out forms.

A large sign outside the terminal announced that it was less than 900 days to go to the World Cup kick-off. Someone ought to mention that to the people in charge of the International baggage claim area.

On the CT flight, I was informed that a new company have just taken over at the baggage claim area at Oliver Tambo. There had been rumours that the previous company, whose contract expired on Feb 29, were unhappy with their dismissal and would attempt sabotage.

This might explain why the middle conveyer belt wasn’t working. But it certainly wouldn’t explain why it still took more than two hours for the bags from the Atlanta flight to appear. As much as 40 percent of the passengers were affected. It was disgraceful and a very poor first impression of how things run in this country, particularly after having just come from the ultra-efficiency of the USA, where service is done with a smile and the taps work at airports (one of the taps was decidedly wobbly in the male bathroom at International arrivals).

Another rumour I heard was that there were only three people offloading the entire luggage of the Delta flight.

Be afraid.

  • Chilu

    It’s very disheartening to read every other day that a country that is meant to be a trend setter on our beloved continent can’t get the basics right. I’ve been around the world and I’ve finally convinced myself that the western world will always be ahead of us no matter how fast we run to catch up with them simply because we have shown time and again that we lack efficiency! I really can’t imagine the trauma and distress that the panic caused after a 20 hour flight just to get YOUR luggage. Someone somewhere needs to get fired instead of keeping us so worried. I currently live and work in England and have a great professional job that any sane minded person would crave for. The system (just about everything) is so efficient here (certainly not the best in the world) that one cannot keep wondering where we have it wrong. I have been offered a job in Gauteng area and, having lived in South Africa for 5 years earlier I
    have decided to take up the challenge and help my beloved continent move forward by making positive contributions. The situation described in this article at OR Tambo leaves me even more worried than before. The issue of losing the contents of my luggage to theft by airport staff made me sick to the stomach and now this! I hope it’s a once-off otherwise the continent will be embarrassed come 2010!
    For these reasons I have booked a flight to Cape Town International then take a domestic flight to Jozi, only hoping I don’t lose my luggage (or contents) in the process.


  • Gus

    Derek- Let me tell you my sob story too.I was watching Colombo the other day while in middle earth australia . Lights flickered off for a full 20 minutes and I missed a whole 20 minutes of Colombo. is australia becoming a third world country for Gods sake?(this is tongue in chick by the way but it did happen)- cut a long story short-you whinge a lot Derek- last time I was at ORTambo airport I had no problems at seem to have had bad luck all the way from origin to destination.
    You admit possibilty of sabotage, why not go through the said airport again then tell us how it goes this time. Maybe someone can tell us how they got through on a different day. Does it take 2 hours to get luggage on a different day.

    My mother used to tie red and yellow ribbons on the handle of her suitcase. Now had your grandmoter done the same your suitcase would have been picked out in 10 seconds. To ask someone to distinguish NZ Australian and UK flag on a suitcase is asking for too much.

    I sympathise with your plight all through your flight and connections but this does not define OR Tambo airport. You my friend were just having a VERY BAD DAY –

  • hlakile

    Who Wants To Live Forever? ( In South Africa )
    Who Lives Forever Anyway? ( In South Africa )

  • Tom

    Yup. The international arrivals section of OR Tambo is bad. REALLY bad. And it’s not just the shoddy and slow service, or the very laissez-faire attitude of Customs, but the entire entrance hall that is a state of complete disrepair. Wires hang from open ceilings, and it just doesn’t look very professional at all.

    And it’s sad because the rest of OR Tambo isn’t that bad. The domestic terminal works really well, and the new international pier looks surpasses international standards. Surely international arrivals should receive the same makeover given that it is THE first impression of SA that foreigners get?

  • Robin Grant

    2 family members of mine both travelled overseas from OR Tambo on different occasions during February. On both occasions their luggage was lost (different airlines and destinations). The first time took almost a week to get luggage back, and the second, three days.

    I know there could be many reasons why this happened, and the reasons could be totally unrelated, but I somehow doubt it… OR Tambo has developed a terrible reputation for luggage handling.

    Our luggage claims to the airlines totalled about R 3000. How many times will this have to happen before the international airlines begin to turn the screws in?

  • JMC

    I think the new operators were still struggling to figure out how to steal from baggage in the shortest possible time.

  • Alan

    Gus, I beg to differ. I think it is you who is having the good day. I cannot recall when I last went through OR Tambo without some serious hitch. Bags are lost routinely and theft is rampant. I have postulated before that I believe there is a cartel with a contract which allows them to rifle through peoples bags (assisted by x-ray machines) and to take whatever loot they can find. I imagine it to be a franchise operation where bidders compete for contracts to steal. the police, immigration and customs officials are all in on it and each gets their cut of the proceeds. It is naive to think that it is one or two wayward individuals doing the pilfering. Botswana bound flights are a particularly bad problem. We like the author always stand around baggage carousels wondering when or if our bags will appear. The delay is caused by the franchisee being overloaded and over worked. Imagine having to extract all that booty in such a limited time. The pressure on these pirates is incredible and at times they probably just switch the conveyors off to get a bit of rest.
    A recent article in the Star stated that 40% of all bags are tampered with at OR Tambo. It certainly would not be difficult to get a bomb on board if you needed to. I suspect the figure for Botswana bound flights is much higher than 40%.
    Anyway, sorry to hear about your problems.

  • Derek Daly

    Dear Gus, much as I’d like to believe that I was only having a bad day, it’s starting to become quite apparent that my experiences at OR Tambo’s International arrivals section are not an isolated instance of incompetence at all. To add to the comment by Robin Grant, here’s an email that’s just come in from a reader called David:
    “Sounds familiar. Arrived back on Sunday and stood for over an hour with rest of flight from Frankfurt waiting for bags. And there was only one other flight waiting during that period. They claimed ‘Technical Difficulties. And this after the signs directing passengers to the area where their baggage would be, clearly indicating that we should go to ‘A2′. Luckily I understood the woman speaking barely audible English telling nobody in particular that the sign was wrong and we should go to ‘A1′. Half our flight went in the ‘wrong’ direction for their bags. Probably mostly foreigners, who couldn’t make out a word the woman was saying.”
    Sounds almost like a carbon copy of my experience, doesn’t it? Also, the screeching conveyer belt is not suddenly going to have a good day. Neither is the drab-looking baggage claim room suddenly going to get a feel-good make-over by the flick of a wand. I’ve seen better baggage claim areas at Seychelles airport.
    I agree with Tom in that the domestic section of OR Tambo airport is indeed looking impressive and has professional and friendly staff.
    It is as he says, the airport’s International Arrivals section is in urgent need of improvement as it is a foreigner’s first impression of the country. The way it is currently operating simply won’t do.
    If the baggage claim area is still a work-in-progress, as I hope it is, there should be large signs up saying that, apologising for any temporary inconvenience caused etc.

  • Mary Hammond-Tooke

    It was sad that Derek should have this bad experience at ORT but at least the changeover in baggage handling companies is an attempt to improve a situation and maybe we need to give the new people a little time to get things running smoothly.
    He was obviously lucky in the USA.
    The only theft I have ever had from my luggage has been on an internal flight in the USA.
    He should try waiting for luggage at Dulles International in Washington. I have waited 2 hours there and could get very descriptive about it as I was also trying to make a connection.
    Amusing to see how quickly all and sundry climb on the ‘bandwagon’ with negative comments.

  • Nokuzola

    “particularly after having just come from the ultra-efficiency of the USA, where service is done with a smile and the taps work at airports”
    I burst out laughing when i read this. After having travelled between Jo’burg and New York, Boston, and LA over an uncountable number of times I can say quite confidently that there is nothing “ultra-efficient” about American airports.

  • One Way Ticket

    Having one’s luggage delayed, lost, stolen, tampered with or the contents pilfered is actually a win these days in Sunny South Africa. Currently, the really big worry should be that they, having gained inside knowledge (which the SAPS flatly deny is happening – see today’s news reports) are going to be waiting for you at your final destination …

  • Mike

    I’ve just arrived in Buenos Aires, and after a breezy 5 minute queue at immigration (thanks to 12 or 15 immigration desks manned and “womaned” by efficient and courteous Argentine officials), my suitcase was already on the conveyer belt in the baggage claim area when I got through 5 minutes later!

    And being a frequent traveller, I can confidently be assured of what I face when I return to SA in a month. Not three, no – two immigration desks manned by sour-faced, dour bureaucrats on a go-slow. This will be followed by a 30-minute wait for my baggage, minimum.

  • ALX

    I agree that OR Tambo is in dire need for some management that understands the basic concept of customer service. However, declaring the USA as the home of “ultra-efficiency” is such a good joke (I try to remember it to tell my children). Never in my life I’ve been confronted with such rude and inefficient personal as at JFK and Dulles International as well as the crews of Delta. You clearly speak from a third world perspective when a working conveyor belt creates a illusion of “ultra-efficiency”.

  • Derek Daly

    Dear Mary, I agree, there is at least the promise of improvement with a new baggage handling company on board. I do hope they succeed where the previous company failed.
    Dear Nokuzola, seems I was lucky in my experiences at US airports. Atlanta and Las Vegas had a very orderly and attractive system in place, but I shouldn’t have assumed that the rest of the US automatically meets that standard. Thanks for correcting me on that impression.

  • Michael Kramer

    Question does this blog belong on or on thought leader.

    This problem occured as a result of trying to correct a luggage theft problem that is not unique to South Africa, the first world countries are struggling as well

    The fact that there has been action taken to try to a resolve a problem should be taken into account. Let me ask you a question would you prefer your luggage to be stolen or would you rather wait 2 hours for it. We shouldn’t be so quick to get our backs up at such things.

    It could be multiple things, the airline was understaffed, the luggage companies incompetence or a number of other problems not controlled by OR Tambo yet you find it appropriate to give your article the name OR Tambo Airport a clame to shame.

  • greg swarthout

    What I dislike most about this airport is that the money exchange office is out in the unscreened area where anyone can watch your transaction. In a country where you can be killed for a cell phone it is uncomfortable to exchange money and then walk a good way to the rent a car agency with your family and luggage.

  • Terry

    how sad that the name Oliver Tambo is beginning to be associated with incompetence and inefficiency

  • shocked and amazed

    last time I came in at ORT the computer systen at the emigration control desks were down – spend about 3 hours in the que waiting for names, passport numbers and flight details to be written on scraps of paper. Coming through again in 2 weeks – can’t wait to see what happens

  • Ann Tennant

    As the old saying goes – the more things change, the more they stay the same. I remember going on my first overseas holiday in 1978. Was only away for 2 weeks but returned to the then “Jan Smuts” aiport, feeling quite emotional with the joy of returning home to AFRICA. But once landed we were faced with rude passport control officials who refused to speak English and treated all of us returning passenges as traitors to the volk for daring to leave the country even for a holiday. Once they had reduced a number of us to tears we then had to face the same sort of wait you describe for the baggage. After 2 hours of frustration I eventually stumbled upon an airport staff member who for no apparent reason had taken at least a third of the baggage off the conveyor belts and stacked it in a remote corner of the arrival lounge. The whole experience was deeply unpleasant – but fortunately it didn’t take me long to realise that an aiport is never a true reflection of a country.

  • Mamokete

    Sorry to hear about your troubles and am very sympathetic to what you have written.

    Re. lagguage theft. That is a problem at ORT, and promises to be with us for a long time.

    Re. the looks of the airport. The International terminal is currently being built somewhere between the current one and the new Domestic terminal. It does resemble a dogs breakfast in every concievable way. I’m surprised you didn’t see the “Airport under construction” signs all over the international terminal, which would, to my mind, explain the bulk of why it currently looks the way it does.

    Re. Immigration. The last time I went through ORT, the departure part of immigration was manned by about 8 tellers if not more. Arrivals was manned by the same or slightly fewer tellers. The immigration service was friendly enough, but I know that if one is on an afternoon flight out of ORT, when most of the long haul flights leave, immigration is painful (to say the least). My solution, get there early!!! PS. I think the immigration area will be hugely expanded in the new terminal!!!

    My verdict:

    1. The international terminal will be a dog’s breakfast for a while longer, atleast until the new terminal is up and running. This is supposed to happen well before the 2010 world cup, so don’t worry.
    3. Immigration will continue to suck, because SA immigration people suck, period. You will therefore continue to dislike the experience, but deployment of extra stuff in the new expansed terminal will mean yu get through faster. Therefore, by 2010, the people will still suck, but you’ll see less of them so they will affect you less.
    3. Lagguage theft…Keep wrapping your stuff in plastic people. I personally never bother, but you know theft is a problem at ORT. For 2010, security will probably be jerked up some, so the lovely tourists wont have to deal with what we have to on a daily basis. After the tournament, go back to the nasty cellophane wrapper. The country has a crime problem.

    I left this one for last. After travelling through Europe and the states, I have this to say. JFK sucks. Big time. And it was ugly going in, and ugly leaving. Yuck yuck. ORT domestic looks far nicer and hopefully the new international terminal will live up to the promise of the domestic terminal. Charles de Gulle sucks big time. Crowded, nasty unfriendly people at customs, nasty unfriendly people on the que, this after nasty unfriendly air hostess on Air France. just icky. ORT is only slightly worse. Zurich airport is a heaven. You float in to this really effecient space and the customs officials were the friendliest I have ever met. No dirt anywhere. Beatiful experience!!! Only the Swiss get it right…

    So do I think the airport will be ready for 2010? YES. Ask about the stadia, the Gautrain and the other paraphenelia, and my answer will be: I HOPE SA.

  • jpd

    I see all responses here have failed to mention that the current arrivals hall at ORT is a temporary structure – did you fail to notice the vast construction site which once complete will make a huge difference – personally i think the worse airport in the world for delays, waiting for luggage, luggage not turning up is Heathrow.

  • firephish

    of course it takes long, need to give the baggage handlers enough time to rummage though your things & decide what they want!

    Its not that bad though … ever passed though Lagos International Airport?

  • informed

    Gees can the white people stop whinging and do something…….take to the streets/go on strike/pick it. just please stop whinging on the internet. It is not making any difference!!!!!!

  • Kirsten

    I am a South African living in the USA and it has dawned on me recently (also from posts such as this) that South AFricans LOVE to think that their country is SO hard done by, SO inefficient and can’t get ANYTHING right. Well here in the so called first world, baggage disasters happen all the time. In December, I was flying from LA to Johannesburg via Washington DC with United Airlines and SAA. When I arrived in Johannesburg, my bags were nowhere to be seen – they’d never been put on the plane in DC. So in that case, the mighty US of A was totally to blame, and not bad old inefficient South Africa. This kind of stuff happens all over the world – I promise!

  • Mac

    Get over it, incompetence happens the world over. What doesn’t happen the world over is passengers can seemingly rush from an open to all domestic terminal environment to a secure international arrivals baggage area. Maybe more concerned by how illustravite this is of systemic incompetence and ultimately, corruption.

  • O Still Small Voice Of Calm

    Last time I went through ORT I was besieged by a pack of strange men who jostled to “help” and shoved their faces into mine, shouting “are you from London? Yes?” which was a bit obvious since they could see the international arrival gate noticeboard behind me.

    I tried “NO! NO! I DO NOT WANT ANY HELP! Thank you”, repeated loudly over and over but strangely enough this did not work, a hard core remained, following me like unwanted sheep as I wandered in the direction of the domestic departures.

    On the long road between international arrivals and domestic, we met a policeman. Me and my unwelcome guides.

    Yippee! I thought, now I can get shot of these hangers-on, but instead they had a great chat with the policemen in a language I could not understand, and then followed on, all the way up to my check-in desk, where they had the cheek to demand money – for what? Harrassing me?

    I think as a first step to improving things, these unofficial hangers-on should be removed. Really. Slow luggage is one thing, but I have never met a pack of vultures like that, not in Berlin, Italy, France, Croatia or the UK. Nor would they be tolerated if they were there.

    Perhaps a few licensed porters with recognisable uniform might be good, but greeting tourists with this aggresive begging is not good.


    Well you missed one major aspect, Gangs operating in the OR Tambo airpot… the police deny it but the US Department of State warns American visitors:

    “Visitors and residents are advised of ongoing criminal activity involving organized crime gangs targeting individuals at shopping centers and in particular at the OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg. Once a victim has been identified, he/she is followed back to his/her residence and robbed, usually at gunpoint….

    …It appears some airport personnel may be involved in the activity, apparently tipping off criminals waiting outside the airport”

    and this article from The Mercury:

    Your luggage is the least of your concerns

  • bagless

    Last December after flying Vancouver to London to Jo’burg we walked from international to domestic with our bags. When checking in we were told the conveyor belt was not working. We arrived in P.E. and after some delay found that 1 out of 4 bags had arrived. The others arrived the next day and we weren’t called as promised about their arrival and couldn’t get through to the enquiry number but when we went to the airport they had arrived. In January we flew P.E. to Jo’burg to Dar es Salaam. 2 out of 3 bags made it to Dar and the 3rd got stuck in Jo’burg. It had to be sent on the next flight. Bags don’t get delivered from Dar airport so we had to go and fetch it.

  • Pathetic

    I’m so sick of the expected excuses and justifications we have to find for anything African. The 1st-world airport taxes we pay which are often higher than the actual (internal flight) airfares should be guaranteeing good service with a smile and the assurance that you and your luggage are safe in the hands that are “carrying” you! Yes, other airports all over the world experience theft and “bad days” but are they, like here, a rule or just an exception?

  • Gerald Friedman

    If the arrivals is bad then departures is beyond a joke .The lines at international check in stretch outside the door .I was there last Sunday and the wait to get to the ticket counter was in excess of two hours .It was boiling hot ,understaffed and chaos .SAA have retrenched so half the ticket counters were empty .
    Best advice is to pay the extra and start journey in Durban or Port Elizabeth .Book luggage straight through ,get boarding pass at departure and bypass the chaos .

    Its actually a sidgraceful situation .The logistics of moving pasengers has been successfully managed at huge airports loke New York ,Heathrow ,Chicago etc .

    The traffic at O.R Tambo is less than one of any five terminals at these international airports.There is no excuse besides gross incompetence and management that couldnt care less .
    Training of airport staff is not an overnight job .Given the current state of affairs all round at Johannesburg airport and the fact that no serious effort is being made to remedy it a visitor here for world cup would do better by flying to Harare and driving down .Even the Beit Bridge border post looks like a better option

  • David

    Having just tried to help a foreign colleague through the system, I can confirm that Jhb International is an absolute chaotic disaster w.r.t. baggage, he arrived a few weeks ago, also lost his luggage, but the sheer scale of the chaos and mess and the hell he has gone through unsuccessfully trying to even find out what happened is just beyond description. It’s truly a disaster, this is NOT your run-of-the-mill bad-luggage-incident that happens everywhere else in the world. This is complete collapse of the system with thousands of bags “disappearing”.

  • Richard Mungwara

    Count youself luck to reunite with your luggage.Some of us were not luck enough.