Rampant smuggling prompts the airline to issue a regulation that critics say will be ineffective and make scapegoats of honest flight crews
A stewardess onboard a Vietnam Airlines flight. The national air carrier has banned flight crew from carrying big suitcases in a controversial move to prevent smuggling. Photo: Dao Ngoc Thach
Ngoc said she is well aware that some crew members have been able to earn a lot of money smuggling on international flights.
“The salary the company pays is good enough for a living but some employees may have thought about earning more through smuggling,” the Vietnam Airlines (VNA) stewardess told Vietweek, refusing to reveal her real name in fear of losing her job.
“It depends on the willingness of each person to follow regulations.”
In an effort to cope with rampant smuggling by flight crews, the national carrier VNA has made a controversial move – banning them from carrying large suitcases.
According to an instruction from the airline’s general director Pham Ngoc Minh, flight crews on all short and middle-range flights are only allowed to bring small suitcases.
Any handbags for coats have to be put inside the suitcase for scanning purposes, according to the new rule.
Flight crew’s illegal carrying of commodities across borders on international flights has adversly affected the image and reputation of VNA, said the instruction.
Minh instructed flight crew to strictly follow the laws and regulations of destination countries about the purchase and transport of commodities, especially on flights to Japan, Russia and Europe.
Le Truong Giang, VNA spokesman, said the company issued the new regulation after many flight attendants were caught smuggling products into Vietnam.
Earlier, a flight crew member was allowed to carry a handbag and a checked bag of up to 32 kilograms. They conduct migration procedures in a separate area but their baggage is scanned like regular passengers.
Company regulations also require each flight attendant to sign a commitment to not smuggle or collude with smugglers.
However, according to news website VietNamNet, all flight attendants’ checked baggage is screened but customs officials only randomly inspect their hand baggage.
A flight attendant who wanted to remain anonymous told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that the ban will be ineffective because a dishonest flight attendant can still smuggle with smaller baggage.
Ngoc, the VNA stewardess, said the most commonly smuggled items were small and easy to get away with.
“Flight attendants can earn good profits reselling smuggled cellphones... they smuggle cosmetics, alcohols and cell phones. Cellphones are the most common products.”
She said that while she herself brought back two cellphones twice a year, for personal use, “others” in her crew brought them back to sell.
“Each cellphone brings profit of around VND2 million (US$95) and some expensive phones can bring profit of up to VND4 million. Normally, I buy only for my brothers and sisters in my family one or two. But if I was detected, I would be rebuked.”
Nguyen Phi Hung, director of the Anti-smuggling Investigation Department at Vietnam Customs, said commodities with high values but small sizes like medicine, clothes, cellphones and other luxury products are often found smuggled by air.
“Smugglers often hide products in their pockets or hand baggage without declaring them with customs when entering Vietnam,” he told the media at a recent conference on anti-smuggling.
“Smugglers are mostly pilots, flight attendants and passengers who often take the same flight many times,” he said.
A VNA representative told Thanh Nien that smuggling among flight crews still happens despite the company’s enforcement of several regulations and the dismissal or transfer of several staff members caught in the act.
In a recent case, a VNA crew member is currently under suspicion of buying goods stolen by a Vietnamese ring in Tokyo.
The case was reported by the Japanese-owned Sankei Shimbun newspaper on February 27, but Le Truong Giang, the VNA spokesman, said the company has yet to receive any official request for an investigation from Japanese law enforcement agencies.
According to Sankei Shimbun, local police arrested four Vietnamese people for allegedly stealing cosmetics and clothes at supermarkets in December last year.
They then sent the goods, most of which were popular brands like Uniqlo and Shiseido, to a 30-year-old Vietnamese woman by post.
The goods would then be forwarded, also by post, to a hotel near Narita International Airport, where a member of VNA’s flight crew would buy them and transfer money to the woman via banks.
In 2009, Japanese police arrested Dang Xuan Hop, a VNA pilot, on suspicion of smuggling.
He was kept in custody for a few months in Japan before local police dropped charges against him. But VNA still suspended him from flying for one year.
In another case, VNA steward Bui Ngoc Tuan was arrested after he was suspected of smuggling 50 iPhone 5s on a flight from Paris to Hanoi on September 22, 2013, two days after the product was launched.
He had just gotten off the plane at Noi Bai International Airport at 6:25 a.m. when custom officers found the 50 brand new phones in his suitcase.
The officers said Tuan had not declared the batch with customs. They handed over the phones and Tuan to Hanoi police for investigation.