Traveler’s assistants

Traveler’s assistants

There are many people who require assisted travelling, but do they get the kind of help they expect from this service? Terence Pillay chats to a woman who says “absolutely not!”


On 31 March Lili Samsonova dropped off her 77-year-old mother, Mrs. Kostova, a Bulgarian national who is also unable to speak or understand English, at the airport to travel as an assisted passenger, back to Sofia, Bulgaria.

She checked her in with SAA at King Shaka International Airport and they were handed all boarding passes she needed for the rest of her journey.

According to Samsonova, Kostova was assisted in a wheelchair by SAA staff. They chose this route for a number of reasons: Kostova was ill and elderly, she didn’t speak a word of English and was travelling from a foreign country on her own.  

At the security check Kostova’s passport get left behind in one of the scan boxes.

The SAA assistant picks her up on the other side and pushes her off to the boarding gate without checking if all her documentation was with her. Without any further ID checks, she’s put on to the flight and flown to Johannesburg to connect to Germany and then off to Bulgaria.

Samsonova then receives a phone call six hours later from someone at O.R. Tambo Airport, informing her that her mother was not able to board her Lufthansa flight to Europe because she didn’t have a passport and because there were no other flights that day, she missed the flight altogether.

Samsonova then went to KIA and found her mother’s passport sitting on a counter, where she says it was left after being found. She then had to pay for her mother to overnight in Johannesburg and fly back to Durban as Lufthansa went on a week-long strike and was not flying out of Joburg.

The Samsonovas wrote to SAA about this issue as they believed they were responsible for her mother’s travel well-being because she was an assisted passenger. SAA took 28 days to respond to the letter with the following statement:

Dear Mrs Samsonova,

We are in receipt of your complaint regarding Mrs Kostova's travel experience.

Note has been taken of your concerns relating to the incident that resulted in Mrs Kostova missing her flight to Frankfurt. We regret any inconvenience caused to our valued customers and we would like to assure you that we would never intentionally inconvenience our valued customers.

A thorough investigation was made regarding this matter and our staff members in Durban confirmed the following:


Mrs Kostova was checked in by an SAA staff member from the morning shift and then handed back her passport. She was thereafter sent to the waiting area with a Swissport wheelchair assistant (SAA Wheelchair Service Provider). At the time of departure the Swissport wheelchair assistant assisted the passenger through to the gate where SA558 was boarding via security check point. Passenger Kostova was in possession of her passport at the time. Hand baggage and any metal items are to be placed through the x ray machine, however in this case the passport was also placed in the container provided at the x ray machine. It was left behind and the passenger proceeded with the assistant to the gate where her flight was boarding. An ID check was not done at the gate, as this was an assisted passenger. ID checks are known procedure to positively identify the person boarding the aircraft. If a passenger has been positively identified like in this instant and then sent through to the boarding gate with a staff member from Swissport whom the passenger was handed over to by an SAA staff member who checked and positively identified him/her, there is no need for a further check. Also we try not to inconvenience and cause discomfort for a passenger that is seated on a wheelchair. Passenger Kostova boarded SA558 which left Durban at approximately 13:55. At 20:00 in the evening, Terence the acting Team Leader on duty was approached by an ACSA Duty Manager with the passengers daughter saying that the passport was in his possession from the afternoon and announcements were made but nobody responded. This announcement was also made using the passengers name and was done by ACSA and would have filtered clearly through the entire airport. Terence got the passport on SA578 which was delayed on that evening till 20:00. The doors of the aircraft were closed and the aircraft was ready to push back and he quickly got Departure Control to advise the Captain about the situation. The crew obliged and took the passport to Johannesburg.


Staff members from SAA and Swissport did what was required to get the passenger checked in and escorted to her flight. Once the passenger was checked in her passport was handed back to her, which would make it solely her responsibility unless otherwise specified for example if it was a child travelling unaccompanied or if the passenger's mental age is that of a child we would take responsibility for travel documents. The passenger landed in Johannesburg at approximately 15:05. The Lufthansa flight that she was booked on was scheduled to leave at 19:15 and was further delayed to 19:42. The passport not being in her possession was only brought to our attention at 20:00.

Due to the above investigation and the fact that nobody intentionally held back the Mrs Kostova's passport, South African Airways cannot be held responsible for this incident. Once a passport is handed back to an adult passenger, it totally becomes the passport holders responsibility.

Thank You for taking the time to bring this matter to our attention.

With kind regards,

Mpumelelo Ngcaku | Customer Services Agent | Customer Services

I tried contacting SAA for a comment but was also given the run-around before getting this response:

Dear Mr Pillay,

I refer to your email dated 17 June 2014.  I also refer to our telephone conversation of this morning, where you narrated Mrs Samsonova recent flights with our airline.

Mr Pillay, I require feedback from our Operations team in order to provide you with an adequate response.   I can certainly understand that this is delaying at the moment, and you wanted to discuss the matter with your listeners tomorrow morning on radio, however rest assured that I will ensure that feedback is provided to you as soon as possible.

I will keep you posted with regards to the progress,  and  keep this on top of my priority list.


Edwin Marsh | Assistant Manager | Customer Service

What is your opinion of the above issue? Have you had an experience with the  “assisted passenger” service offered by airlines?

You can write to Terence Pillay at [email protected] or Follow him on Twitter at @terencepillay1 

Show's Stories