The sight of a prim, uniformed German flight attendant struggling to lug her impossibly heavy hand luggage through the "nothing to declare" channel at Frankfurt airport finally convinced customs officials that something was up.
For the officers who ordered the luckless cabin crew member to open up her valise, it felt like stumbling upon Treasure Island. The flight attendant's luggage was groaning with thousands of gold- and silver-coloured one- and two-euro coins.
"Pulling open the zip on the case was like winning the jackpot on a fruit machine," is how one of the officials remembered the find at the airport last summer. Yet they also noticed that many of the euro coins in the luggage were oddly shaped, defaced or even bent. Questioned, the flight attendant nevertheless protested her innocence: "It's money a friend of mine in China gave me to trade in. No bank there will accept this sort of cash," she insisted.
Yesterday, the curtain was lifted on the origins of the mysterious haul of bent euros after state prosecutors announced the arrest of six people. Among them were four ethnic Chinese and flight attendants employed by the airline Lufthansa. They are suspected of involvement in one of the biggest professionally organised euro scams since the single currency's introduction.
"The six are being investigated on suspicion of importing forged coins," Frankfurt state prosecutor Doris Möller-Scheu said. She said a total of 25 people were thought to have belonged to the forgery ring. "Lufthansa has been informed that some of its employees are being investigated," she added.
Those in police custody in Frankfurt are accused of exploiting the Bundesbank's standard procedure for removing damaged or defaced euro coins from circulation and reissuing those who bring them to the bank with legitimate coinage or notes.
The six stand accused of re-importing €20m-worth of damaged and defaced coins which the Bundesbank believed it had sold off to China to be melted down as scrap metal. To minimise the risk of foul play, the Bundesbank deliberately dismantles damaged coins prior to their disposal. Little did its staff know that until earlier this year, the coins were being intercepted by a gang of forgers who arranged for them to be carefully reassembled by a team of accomplices in China.
The gang used airline cabin crew, especially those employed by Germany's normally reputable national carrier, Lufthansa, to act as "mules" and take the reassembled coins back to Germany. In return for sizeable payments, they dragged the coins in their hand luggage past what was assumed would be unsuspecting customs staff at Frankfurt international airport.
Once in Germany, other gang members took the reassembled euros back to the Bundesbank, where they were swapped for legitimate notes. The Bundesbank said that as it carries out random tests only on defaced coins returned to the bank, it had failed to notice that a scam was under way.
2. Ask the traveller: cabin crew strike
Wednesday, 30 March 2011SHARE PRINTEMAIL
Q: My wife and I are booked to go to the UAE at the start of the Easter holidays on British Airways. I have just learnt that cabin crew may strike over this period. BA is saying it plans to run 100 per cent of the long-haul flights from Heathrow. Is this likely? Could it lead to delays at the airport? Should I cancel? Carl Rees
The latest British Airways cabin crew ballot saw union members vote 5-1 in favour of more strikes. The union, Unite, has not yet announced any strike dates; it must give at least one week's notice of action, and any stoppage must begin no later than 25 April. Talks are continuing.
In the event of another strike, the airline aims to fly all long-haul services, including yours. A spokesman for BA says there are "robust and well-rehearsed contingency plans".
BA is relying on the 57 per cent of cabin crew who did not vote in favour of a strike, augmented by more than 1,000 volunteers from elsewhere in the airline, to cover for strikers.
Delays to your trip are unlikely. Indeed, during last year's strikes, by taking out a proportion of flights, industrial action actually accelerated other services by reducing aircraft queues on the ground and in the air.
Cancellation without penalty is not an option at this stage, and – if the airline's confidence is justified – will not be offered. In common with a couple of million other BA passengers holding bookings for April, all you can do is wait and hope. The union has warned opaquely of "weird and wondrous initiatives" that could thwart the airline's plans. But the worst you are likely to experience is a reduced inflight offering, and a gruff old captain spilling coffee in your lap.
BA also says it will operate a normal schedule at Gatwick and London City, and "the majority" of its short-haul, flights from Heathrow.
3. Southwest grounds 80 737s after jet holed in flight
US low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines is to ground over 80 Boeing 737 aircraft pending immediate inspections after a fuselage hole was discovered in a jet that depressurised on a service to California.
Southwest says that it has "decided to keep a subset of its Boeing 737 fleet out of the flying schedule" to commence an "aggressive inspection effort".
It says 81 aircraft are affected by the checks and that these will be examined over the next few days. The jets are covered by US FAA airworthiness directives detailing checks for skin fatigue.
Southwest has taken the action after one of its 737-300s, operating flight WN812 between Phoenix and Sacramento, diverted to Yuma yesterday after a loss of cabin pressure and deployment of oxygen masks.
"Upon landing safely in Yuma the flight crew discovered a hole in the top of the aircraft," says the carrier, adding that it was located about mid-cabin. It has not indicated the size of the rupture.
One of the 118 passengers and one of the five cabin crew members were treated for minor injuries.
The aircraft involved, identified by the US National Transportation Safety Board as bearing registration N632SW, carries serial number 27707 and is a 15-year old airframe.
"We have launched personnel to Yuma to begin the investigation process with the NTSB, FAA and appropriate parties to determine the cause of the depressurisation," says Southwest chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven.
It says it is working with Boeing on the details of the inspections for the aircraft.
Southwest suffered a similar incident two years ago when a Nashville-Baltimore service - also operated by a 737-300 - diverted to Yeager after being holed in its upper fuselage in July 2009.
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