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Sunday Times STLive By Megan Power, 2012-03-11

Teen bullied by airline security

Megan Power
Image: Sunday Times

No reasons given for youth being harassed, delayed and booted off KLM flight

Overzealous airline security. My first taste of it was two decades ago, when leaving Israel for London. I was interrogated, my diary read, camera opened, bag unpacked - and finally treated to a full-body search.

Escorted onto the aircraft by humourless officers, I was thanked for my co-operation and given a branded pen as a parting gift. You've got to love El Al.

To the airline's credit, its security officers were neither intimidating nor discourteous. And considering I was a reporter and had visited Gaza, the extra attention probably wasn't all that surprising.

But what happened recently to teenager Bregen Hartig at OR Tambo International Airport most certainly was. In fact, the airport fiasco - which saw him booted off his Joburg-Ecuador flight twice and banned from the airline - is so extraordinary that KLM and contracted security company G4S have been unable to fully explain it.

This despite Hartig's mother, Nicole, lodging complaints with KLM, G4S and the Airports Company of SA, enlisting the help of the Sunday Times and consequently meeting with a KLM representative.

KLM has since apologised, refunded Hartig for the ticket cost, rebooking fees and visa expenses, plus an extra R2500 as a goodwill gesture.

But questions on why the 19-year-old was subjected to such abuse have been dodged.

Hartig's nightmare began when he tried to board a flight to Quito (via Amsterdam) last November to visit an Ecuadorian exchange student friend.

Stopped at the G4S checkpoint, Hartig was asked for a letter of invitation - and a transit visa for the Amsterdam stopover.

Hartig explained that a transit visa was not required, but immediately arranged to have the student's family fax a letter to the officer.

"I told him that the letter had been faxed ... he made absolutely no effort to go and check ... and then proceeded to joke with his colleagues about my highly anxious and stressed state," said Hartig.

Still denied boarding, Hartig missed the flight.

The next day, the Dutch embassy confirmed no transit visa existed but issued an emergency multiple entry visa (R666) to cover him. Hartig rebooked the flight (he was charged another R1370) for two days later.

This time another G4S officer questioned him, wanting to know his occupation, source of income, and that of his friend. The staffer allegedly became aggressive, saying he could not allow "a student to visit a student".

Hartig begged him to explain but to no avail. Left waiting, the exasperated teen got back into line and boarded the aircraft. Minutes later, the officer ordered him off.

He asked a KLM staffer for help but she couldn't override the decision. She told Hartig that he would never again be able to fly KLM or any of its alliance partners, and refunded him R6740 of his R16600 ticket.

Nine days later, Hartig flew Iberia Airlines (costing another R17000) without incident.

"This is a bizarre case of harassment and misplaced power," said Nicole, who tried for months to get answers.

When I contacted KLM regional manager Max Smits, he said Hartig had breached security by boarding the plane.

He said a meeting had been set up the next day between Hartig's parents and Fred van Engelen, KLM's deputy airport station manager, and that KLM would "handle this matter with the passenger".

When I mentioned I needed feedback from KLM after the meeting, he told me to get it from the passenger.

Hartig claimed Van Engelen admitted fault "on all accounts". So apart from a full refund, she asked for a return ticket to Ecuador for her son to compensate for the nine lost days.

Smits responded only with the refund and extra R2500.

"I do realise that this [R2500] in no way will compensate for the inconvenience caused but is meant purely as a gesture of our goodwill. I would again like to apologise," wrote Smits, adding that Hartig had not been blacklisted.

He said if KLM did not comply with worldwide regulations a passenger could be sent back to South Africa causing a heavy fine for the airline.

But he said service was of the utmost importance.

"We would like to advise you that due to this incident the G4S agent involved no longer works on any of the Air France KLM flights.

When Nicole told Smits that his explanation and compensation were inadequate, he said Hartig's documents had not been in order at the first boarding, and he'd breached security on the second.

An incensed Nicole then asked Smits for a meeting. He declined.

Meanwhile, G4S sales and marketing director Janet Bredell-Nyschens said the officer's removal was in "no way whatsoever" related to the incident. The officer had acted in accordance with his duties as prescribed by the airline, she said.

Said Nicole: "I am frustrated and outraged by such an arrogant and defensive attitude ... and the powerlessness to hold someone accountable.

"That Smits hides behind an e-mail address, unwilling to come out and face the music is unbelievable. But if I was trying to cover up a fiasco of this magnitude I'd possibly do the same."

Sunday Smile

At Checkers Ladysmith for good service to Alan Gounder during its Hey Days sale. Out of stock of an item, the manager kept Gounder's filled basket until she could locate more stock and then called him back in so he could pay for his shopping with vouchers in one go.

Sunday Snarl

At Trojan's service agents M5 Sports Group in Pinetown for taking weeks to collect my treadmill for repair and then still expecting me to pay the full R450 call-out fee. I objected and got it reduced to R175. No full service, no full pay.