Stowaway: Exposing insecurity in Nigerian aviation industry

The recent stowaway incident recorded on Arik Air flight at the Benin Airport once again brought to the fore the issue of inadequate security within the nation’s airports which is giving stakeholders and professionals sleepless nights. OLUSEGUN KOIKI writes.

A stowaway aboard an aircraft is a serious security breach in the global aviation industry especially the United States of America, USA, United Kingdom, UK, and other developed industries where security of aircraft and users of the airports are taken with utmost seriousness it deserves.

It is a challenge aviation security managers despite the installation of state-of-the-art gadgets at various strategic and hidden places have not been able to curb.

Stowaways beat security arrangements to get on board to the aircraft, hide uncomfortably in the undercarriage of the aircraft with only one mission – to enter foreign countries at all cost and illegally with no fee.

Although, most get to their preferred destinations, but unfortunately, they don’t get there alive. They are mostly found stone dead on arrival. The issue of stowaway was novel to the Nigerian aviation industry or so it seemed until some few years back when some Nigerians in their desperate move to get out of the perceived harsh economy threw caution into the winds and attempted a suicide mission – hiding in the wheel wells of European or American bound aircraft.

For instance, in October 2012, an individual got on the undercarriage of Arik Air aircraft to New York from the Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos with the alleged help of some security personnel and ground handling companies at the airport.

The unidentified stowaway was discovered when the airline returned to Nigeria from New York by its personnel on routine checks in Lagos. Local medicine and a Bible were found on him. He was quite dead.

The image maker of the airline, Mr. Ola Adebanji then said proper identification of the deceased would be almost impossible as he had nothing that he could be identified with on him, adding that his age range could equally not be ascertained by the airline. Again, on the same airline on Saturday, August 24, 2013 at Benin Airport, a 13-year stowaway boy identified as Daniel Oikhena hid under the undercarriage of the aircraft from Benin to Lagos.

Information gathered revealed that the boy thought the plane was on its way to the USA, but fortunately for him, the aircraft landed in Lagos and he was immediately apprehended at the airside of the airport by security personnel.

However, rather than tackle the serious security breach, both the managements of the airline, Arik Air and Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, are busy trading blame. While Arik Air management blamed FAAN for its inability to provide adequate airside security to personnel and aircraft, FAAN on the other hand accused the pilot of unprofessionalism especially when he was informed of a strange element within the belly of the aircraft by the passengers.

But, commenting on the incident, a security expert and the Chairman of Scope Centre Limited, a security firm, Mr. Adebayo Babatunde, said that the recent incident has put aviation security on the front burner and insisted security is porous in the country’s aviation sector.

Babatunde also revealed that as at September 2012, there were no fewer than 96 stowaway incidents on aircraft worldwide in 65 years, just as he attributed the urge for greener pastures in developed world as a major factor for the ignorant act. According to him, the 96 stowaway incidents occurred between 1947 to 2012 in 85 separate flights, who hid in the wheel well of airplanes. Of these numbers, there were 73 fatalities with only 23 survivors.

Babatunde however explained that stowaways are mostly common in third world countries and South America, maintaining that most of those who embark on the journey did so as a result of ignorance. He added that stowaway incidents could be possible if the perimeter fencing are inadequate and urged the Federal Government to ensure adequate erection of perimeter fences as stipulated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO.

He said, “Majority of the situations that allow stowaways to happen are within the third world countries and some parts of South America and Asia where the perimeter security is not adequate. If the perimeter security is inadequate, not only will unauthorized persons have access to the airside, if there is a forceful breakage to enter the airside, there will also be a technology to alert the system that an unauthorized activity is taking place within the perimeter.

“I will like to say it here that it is ignorance that makes people to embark on such journey because the health risk of that height is high. The tyres come with a lot of heat. That heat alone can cause fatality. Secondly, at a particular height, there is little or no oxygen and therefore, the stowaway will lose his breath and can die. Thirdly, don’t forget that at a crossing height, the temperature runs at minus zero degrees.”

“The youngest ever recorded stowaway was nine years old boy and the motivation is usually the same the search for greener pastures. It’s usually not political; it’s the desire to leave an economic disadvantage environment to look for greener pastures elsewhere.”

He described stowaway as a serious security breach, which ought not to happen if all the security checks were adequately carried out especially background checks on security personnel by their employers. He particularly blamed FAAN and the management of the airline for the breach and wondered how Daniel was able to beat the security networks of both organisations.

He explained that if the boy was a terrorist, the incident would have caused another calamity for the country’s aviation sector while the probable cause of the crash would be unknown as usual. He advised the Federal Government through FAAN to beef up security within and around airport, saying that airport is more than terminal beautification.

Also commenting, a pilot with the defunct Nigeria Airways, Capt. Tito Omaghomi advised FAAN to be more vigilant in checking encroachments within the airport environment.

He also blamed the pilot of the aircraft for unprofessional conduct, saying that as a professional, he ought to have aborted the flight when his attention was drawn to the security breach. He however, described the survival of the boy as a miracle, saying, which would not have been possible if the aircraft was flying at a very high altitude. But the General Manager, Corporate Communications, FAAN, Mr. Yakubu Dati, attributed the several years of neglect to airport infrastructure and equipment to the sordid state of the nation’s airports.

On the lack of perimeter fencing in most parts of the country’s airport, which would have curbed encroachments Dati recalled that until the present administration came onboard in 2011, the sector had been on a decline.

He said that in a bid to address the situation, the Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah drew up a master plan, which will ensure systematic intervention without shutting down the system, adding that the government began with the areas of safety and infrastructure developments.

He said, “The perimeter fencing is part of the interventions we have for the sector too, but it is not possible for us to embark on everything at the same time, but already, it’s on our radar and we will focus in that area very soon.

“But in the interim, we are strengthening the security apparatus. We have Aviation Security, AVSEC, which conducts surveillance around the airport 24 hours daily. Apart from that, we have the joint security made up of police, civil defence and other agencies. At the international airport, we also have the sniffer dogs and anti-terrorist squad. So much is being done to improve security.

“The fact that there was an infraction does not mean there is a breakdown of security. So, it is very important to know also that security is not a destination, but a journey. As you move, you improve, as you discover infractions, you improve on it and that is exactly what we are doing.”

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