STELLA ODUAH, AVIATION MINISTER
Since 2010, three Nigerians have died in the undercarriages of aircraft, in their failed attempts to be taken out of the country. Their ability to illegally access the tarmac raises the question of how secure are the nation’s airports, Chinedu Eze writes
The security at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos (MMIA) has variously been described as porous.
This is because, while passengers who follow the right access to the airside are vigorously searched, it is easier to follow the wrong side and find oneself on the apron and/or at the aircraft scheduled to airlift passengers.
This has happened many times and while the passengers’ side of the apron could be said to be more restricted, the cargo side is not only porous but a wide-open door for anyone who knew how to contact “the right people.”
So when the dead body of a young Nigerian was discovered last Friday in the wheel well of the undercarriage compartment of Arik Air aircraft, Airbus A340-500 when it was being prepared for a flight to London from Lagos, not a few people were shocked.
In March 2010, a Nigerian, Okechukwu Okeke, was found dead in the nose wheel compartment of the United States carrier, Delta Air Lines, Boeing B777 aircraft parked on the tarmac of the Lagos airport.
Also on September 19, 2010 another Nigerian man was discovered crushed dead in the wheel well of Arik Air flight, which arrived from Johannesburg, South Africa.
Since 2010 till today there has not been any security report made available to explain how the deceased came to the airport and how they were able to access the undercarriage of the aircraft which, for large body aircraft like the Airbus A340 and Boeing B777, are very high from the ground.
Although Arik Air, in a statement, confirmed that the deceased might likely be a Nigerian, but a source from the security operatives revealed that the undercarriage man did not have much to identify him with, except a Bible, which bore the name Jack Snook, his cap, which was written God Save America and $3.00.
This brings up the question: is the deceased really a Nigerian citizen? An expatriate conversant with the aircraft and who examined it said the temperature of the undercarriage was minus 56 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that a dead body could be there for weeks.
“When the dead body was brought out it looked fresh so nobody could say how long it has been there because the temperature there can preserve the body,” said the security operative.
But Arik Air, in a statement, signed by Adebanji Ola, head of PR and Communications, said, “The management of Arik Air is still investigating the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the body of a young man in the wheel well of its Airbus A340-500 on Friday, October 26, 2012. The body was discovered when engineers were conducting a routine check on the aircraft that Friday morning.
“The identity of the man is not known as there was no form of identification on him when the body was discovered. However, we are able to establish that the body has been in the wheel well for more than a day suggesting that the stowaway originated from Lagos.
“Curiously, a bottle of medicine produced by a local pharmaceutical company was found on the body laying credence to the suggestion that the stowaway may have boarded the flight from Lagos. Also found on the body was a Bible, which has an American flag drawn on the back cover.”
The statement also noted that the body of the stowaway, which had since been deposited in the morgue, was awaiting autopsy.
A source told THISDAY that it is out of ignorance that people enter the wheel well and plan to stowaway because the compartment is not pressurised like the cabin of an aircraft and it is not heated so survival is rare even if the person is not crushed by the wheels.
The source attributed the incident to porous security at the airport, noting that if having access to the airside is stringently prohibited, anybody that is not an official of airlines, handling companies and Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) would not gain access to the tarmac.
“The security at the airport is very bad and that explains why somebody can gain access to the airside and inside the aircraft and no one will know. Security around the cargo area is even worse and from there anybody can take anything into the tarmac. Now, it is a human being that is smuggled in; one day a dangerous object will be smuggled in,” the source said.
Pilots and aeronautical engineers familiar with the wheel-well compartment said it is roomy enough to contain a human being, but it is highly unlikely that anyone who hid there would come out alive after a flight that took several hours due to lack of oxygen.
Few months before the 2011 election, the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) lost some of its Direct Data Capture (DDC) machines at the cargo section of the Lagos airport, and investigations revealed that there was easy access through the broken-down perimeter fencing at the Akowonjo area of the airport.
It was also revealed that some people pay their way into the airport airside at some gates of the airport that lack efficient surveillance. But how can somebody enter the undercarriage without the security operatives seeing that person climbing up to the place?
A former top official of the biggest ground handling company at the Lagos airport told THISDAY that it would be difficult for anybody to access the foot of the aircraft through the conventional access gate to the apron.
On the suggestion that the person might have been moved to the aircraft with pallet, the sources, who have spent many years working at the airport, said for somebody to be in the pallet, the person must go to the baggage hall where baggage is screened, and this is not possible.
“Somebody that works in the airport must have facilitated it. Everybody knows that the perimeter fencing is porous and that there are many areas people can gain access to the airside and consequently to the apron; they may not go through the conventional gates,” the source asserted.
The source also said for somebody to climb the undercarriage it must be in connivance with the security operative guarding the aircraft, the workers of a handling company or those in catering, noting that the handling people might be busy loading bags and the security guiding the aircraft can sneak somebody into the undercarriage.
THISDAY learnt on Wednesday that Aviation Security of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) made it compulsory that every airline must have security guards for its aircraft and these security firms must register with Aviation Security of FAAN.
The former top official of the handling company said, “Oftentimes the airlines employed the services of third party security. These are the security operatives that go under the aircraft. FAAN security, that is Aviation Security (AVSEC) oversee the security at the airport and carry out general surveillance, but those who have direct access to the aircraft are catering, ground handling, fuellers but all these people don’t provide security.
“But any airport staff who has access to the airside and want to stowaway can do it. They can bring somebody from outside and help him to stowaway so the airport has responsibility,” he added.
THISDAY investigation revealed that there are a lot of sharp practices carried out by the ground-handling companies which sometimes conspire with security operatives, including Aviation Security officials.
Due to the urgency of their work, ground handlers have easy access to the apron but it would be difficult for them to put an individual into the pallet at the baggage screening hall.
THISDAY learnt that the man that died in the undercarriage of Delta Air Lines aircraft was conveyed to the apron with a vehicle by officials of a handling company and then he joined those loading the pallet into the aircraft. Perhaps from there he later made his way into the undercarriage as planned, and he died there.
The General Manager, Corporate Communications of FAAN, Yakubu Dati, said that security at the airports has been intensified and a joint team of other Federal Security Organisations was being explored to forestall access at prohibited areas of the airport.
The agency said it is complementing security at the four operational international airports in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt with the introduction of sniffer dogs and anti-terrorism squads, in order to enhance safety and security at these airports, as contained in the aviation road map of the Ministry of Aviation.
“A comprehensive audit of security and surveillance has been conducted on aircraft, terminals and security personnel to align them to standards in the industry. The airport security personnel have been trained in crowd control, body search and other specialised areas, while undercover surveillance is conducted by plainclothes crack team.”