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Coen van Wyk


During July last year I attended a media visit at Johannesburg International Airport (“JIA”), that was arranged by the Safety and Security Department of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). As was stated in the CAA’s invitation to attend the media briefing, the purpose of the briefing was “to illustrate the levels of security attained through a combination of technology, infrastructure and global excellence”.

I subsequently wrote my article titled, “From Mike and Jan Smuts Airport to Johannesburg International Airport”, and the article was published in the August 2000 edition of this magazine. I indicated in the article that I would do an article, in a future edition of this magazine, in which the effectiveness of the security systems at JIA would be examined.

An article by Sylvia Magid titled, “Fly with peace of mind”, recently appeared in the Travel section of the Saturday Star of 13 January 2001. After reading the article I realized that the time had come (and gone) to inform the members of the reading, flying, thinking public of the facts that they need to enable them to gain perspective regarding the level of safety involved in hurtling through the air, while sharing a capsule;

·        With a number of strangers;

·        the cabin luggage and hold luggage of the mentioned strangers; and

·        cargo that has been arbitrarily classified as “known” or “unknown” cargo, a classification that has far-reaching consequences as regards security issues pertaining to the cargo.

Therefore, while the article of Ms. Magid;

·      deals at length with issues that has nothing to do with the “Fly” in “Fly with peace of mind”;

·      deals, in one paragraph only, with baggage monitoring; and

·      had nothing whatsoever to say about passenger and cargo screening;

this article deals with all the facts that needs to be considered in deciding whether “peace of mind” is achievable on an airline flight.

At this point I need to make two things clear:

1.      Although I am not examining the facts supporting the belief that flying is still streaks ahead, of other modes of transport, in the realm of safety, I am of the opinion that flying is still one of the safest forms of commuting.

2.      Although their endeavours are limit by factors over which they have no control, nothing in this article must be seen as to detract from the commitment of the CAA and the people responsible for safety at Johannesburg International Airport.

I will now describe the pre-flight security checks that are done on the passengers, baggage and cargo that will journey on a particular aircraft.

The security checks on passengers and baggage

Pre-flight security checks are performed;

·        on passengers and the baggage that they carry to the aircraft; and

·        baggage that are loaded into the hold of the aircraft.

The screening process to which passengers and their cabin baggage are subjected, does not appear to identify explosives or other hazardous materials on their person, or in the baggage that accompanies them onto the aircraft

The baggage that is loaded into the hold of the aircraft is monitored on its way to the aircraft and that screening process also does not appear to identify explosives or other hazardous materials in the baggage.

Assuming for the moment that all the security personnel involved in security screening of passengers and baggage, have concentrated on their tasks pertaining to the security screening and that, where applicable, they were glued to their monitors, without their attention being diverted by a conversation with a colleague regarding a private, or work-related matter; and assuming that the system with which the passengers and their baggage had been screened, would have uncovered firearms, ammunition, ammunition magazines, explosives and any other hazardous materials, then all would be well as regards the security integrity of the passengers and their baggage.

But what about the cargo? The truth is that the cargo constitutes a security risk that the security system of JIA cannot identify, eliminate or contain, for reasons that I will now explain.

The security checks on cargo – the “KNOWN CARGO” fiction

As regards pre-flight security checks on cargo that is loaded into the aircraft, the following are the facts:

The cargo that is received by several air freight operators based at JIA emanates from sources that are classified in terms of legislation as;

·        “UNKNOWN SHIPPERS”;  or

·        “KNOWN SHIPPERS”; and

consequently the cargo is classified as “UNKNOWN CARGO” and “KNOWN CARGO” respectively . As will appear from what follows later in this article, the term ”KNOWN CARGO“, is actually a fiction, since less is known about “KNOWN CARGO” than is known about “UNKNOWN CARGO”.

“UNKNOWN CARGO” is cargo that emanates from a party (an individual, business concern, shipper etc.) that does not have the status of “KNOWN SHIPPER”. UNKNOWN CARGO is screened by the air freight operator before it is loaded onto the aircraft.

“KNOWN CARGO” is cargo that emanates from a shipper that has been granted the status of “KNOWN SHIPPER” by the CAA. To qualify as a KNOWN SHIPPER, the shipper needs to comply with certain criteria. The startling consequences of being a KNOWN SHIPPER is that any cargo that emanates from a KNOWN SHIPPER is automatically classified as “KNOWN CARGO” (a fiction created by legislation) and no security screening is done on such cargo.

The following therefore provides food for thought:

·        We know the following regarding the security issues pertaining to “UNKNOWN CARGO”: It has been subjected to, and passed security screening.

·        We know the following regarding the security issues pertaining to “KNOWN CARGO”: NOTHING! We know nothing regarding the security issues pertaining to KNOWN CARGO.

The consequences of the KNOWN SHIPPER - KNOWN CARGO fiction

As mentioned before, a shipper needs to comply with certain criteria to qualify for the status of KNOWN SHIPPER and, once so qualified, all cargo that emanates from the KNOWN SHIPPER, becomes KNOWN CARGO and such cargo is automatically regarded as cargo that does not pose any security risk.

Apart from the fact that a shipper needs to comply with certain criteria to acquire the status of KNOWN SHIPPER, it furthermore has to endure regular scrutiny by the CAA in order tot retain its status of KNOWN SHIPPER. The purpose of the scrutiny by the CAA is to ensure that the KNOWN SHIPPER continues to comply with the set criteria, and the scrutiny consists of the following:

·        A comprehensive annual audit.

·        Random surprise inspections that are conducted without any prior warning.

The fatal flaw in the security system

The crisp question is: What could possible be the purpose of subjecting passengers and their baggage to stringent security screening procedures when, at the same time a vast amount of cargo, that will accompany the passengers on the flight, as KNOWN CARGO, is not screened, due to the fact that it has superficially been classified as KNOWN CARGO, and the clasification is not based on any facts pertaining to the question as to whether the particular cargo contains explosives, hazardous materials or any other material that may pose a safety risk to the aircraft and its contents.

Furthermore, the “criteria” applicable to KNOWN SHIPPERS, the “annual audits” and “surprise inspections” by the CAA does also not expose any hazardous objects, or devices, or substances in the fictitious “KNOWN CARGO”. After all, the real issue is whether the cargo is devoid of danger and the only way in which that can be established, is by a factual examination.

There is therefore no reason for “peace of mind” when you embark on a flight that departs from JIA, or for that matter, any other airport in the world. The airline traveller needs to appreciate that he shares the aircraft with cargo that has not only, not been subjected to the same security screening as the passengers and their luggage, it has in fact not been subjected to any security screening, whatsoever.


The public has a right to know the true facts in order to make an informed decision about the risk involved in travelling on an aircraft that contains cargo that has not been subjected to any security screening. To mislead the public, by superficial and flippant reporting, constitutes a serious breach of trust and that is why this magazine has commissioned this article in the interest of aviation and aviation safety. The present system is fatally flawed and that fact needs to be stated pertinently and courageously to ensure that it is critically revisited and improved.

A final personal comment

I wish to make it clear that I came away  from the media briefing during July last year, with the realization that I have always been under a complete misapprehension as regards the screening that is done on the cargo that accompanies me on my travels on airline aircraft. I was blissfully unaware of the fact that the major portion of the cargo, and a major portion of the total content of the aircraft, is not subjected to any security screening and is in fact loaded on the aircraft without any further ado.

However, whilst I no longer have the (security) peace of mind regarding travelling on an airliner, that I had before I attended the media briefing, I look at the situation from a statisical perspective and realize that I have to make a decision regarding the risk involved, given the total lack of meaningful control over the “KNOWN FREIGHT”. I have made that decision and have decided to continue making use of airlines in my travels. However, it should be noted that;

1.                  in the light of the information that I procured during the media briefing, the decision that I made, to continue flying on airline aircraft, was an informed decision; and

2.                  the fact that I came away from the media briefing with the realization that the security arrangements regarding airline flights are serious flawed, has lead to a resolve to contribute to the improvement of the present state of affairs.


I have been informed by my editorial masters at this magazine that they associate themselves with the sentiments expressed in this paragraph.