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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.