Despite the seemingly tight security at the nation’s airports, incidents of stowaways and other illegal infiltrations to supposedly secure areas of the airports are on the rise, writes Chinedu Eze
The report last Wednesday of a dead body found in the wheel-well of Arik Air aircraft on arrival in Johannesburg at the South Africa Airways Technical maintenance at the O R Tambo International Airport jolted the Nigerian aviation industry.
The incident among others in the recent past, brought to the fore the cry over the years of the inefficient security system at the airports, especially the gateway airports to international destinations.
The report of the incident attracted discussions by aviation security experts and other aviators who reviewed the security status of the airports and also the weaknesses of existing security apparatus at most of the nation’s airports.
In addition to rising incidents of stowaways at the airports, with more of such incidents recorded at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, there were other threatening incidents that had happened, which brought to question the much publicised security beef up at the airports.
Few years ago, there was an incident where the crew for the first flight of Aero Contractors from Lagos to Abuja arrived to ready the aircraft for the flight at about 6:00 am and they saw a woman in the aircraft cabin. No security personnel could explain how the woman accessed the aircraft cabin. The airline might have carried out investigation into the matter, but the question remained, how did she pass through the security barriers to the airport’s tarmac?
There was another incident last year where a man believed to be mentally ill was seen walking towards Arik Air aircraft that was poised to take off at the holding point of the Runway 18L at the Lagos airport. As he walked towards the aircraft the pilot quickly switched off the engine so that it would not suck him in and alerted air traffic control.
Aviation Security officials later came to the runway with a pick-up van and took him away. But the question was, how did he get to the runway, the most sensitive part of the airport and strictly restricted area?
Last year also, there were about three incidents of stowaways. Aviation security experts blamed the airport security system. Security personnel at the airports are drawn from all the military and paramilitary institutions in Nigeria, including the Nigeria Air Force, the Police, the Nigeria Immigration Service, the Nigerian Customs Service, Aviation Security (AVSEC) of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), who are the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recongised security operatives. There is also the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), which tackles narcotics issues at the airport.
The major challenge at these airports is that it has been confirmed by incidents, investigations and observations that almost all these personnel at the airports come to make money for their private use every day. It has also been confirmed that some of these officials bribe their way to be posted at the Lagos airport and investigations indicate that all these security officials belong to syndicates and they have a way of watching their back, except the Nigerian police personnel who bring in the street attitude to the airports and unflinchingly extort money from the passengers at the gates during peak hours.
One of the speakers at the Aviation Round Table Safety Initiative (ARTSI) in a breakfast meeting held a day after the stowaway incident was reported, a US Transport Security Administration (TSA) attaché at the American Embassy, Gary Pleus said insecurity at the airport could lead to tragic consequences and loss of economic opportunities, including tourism.
Speakers at the event argued that if a stowaway could access the tarmac and a man deemed to have mental issues accessed the airside, it means that the airport is porous and terrorists and their sympathizers can use an insider who shares the same belief to gain access to the airport. Security experts also agreed that in any airport security system where the operatives solicit for money or accept bribes that system is already compromised.
Aviation security expert, Ayo Obilana at the ART breakfast meeting explained why there is laxity of security at the Nigerian airports and said that most of the security operatives extort money from passengers and other airport users and as long as security personnel ask for gratification, security would be impeded.
“An average traveller at the Nigerian airport goes through 15 checks. We are the only country that still operate “dash” table (security operatives use to open and check passengers’ luggage), which is table of extortion. The tables have no reason to be there. These 15 checks can be reduced to three. The tables are a big disgrace to the country. When the security personnel there are told to remove that section of checks they blackmail government officers by bringing prohibited goods they claim were discovered on that table,” Obilana said.
He suggested that there should be legislation on how to strengthen security at the airports, and then there should be procedures on how security operatives should work at the airports. He also emphasised on training of personnel and putting the necessary equipment in place.
“They should rebuild intelligence gathering system. We have to also look at insider threat. There is also cyber threat. We must have well-structured programme to counter terrorist measures,” Obilana also said.
There are many reasons adduced to the poor security at the airports. Aviation security experts have warned that inadequate manpower in the AVSEC department of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria would create gaps that could threaten the total security apparatus of all the major airports in Nigeria.
For instance, one of those who were caught last year making his way to enter the wheel-well of Medview Airline aircraft scheduled to fly to Accra, Ghana when it was still at the domestic terminal of the MAA2 said he scaled the VIP fence into the tarmac of the domestic terminal and entered the wheel-well of Medview Airline aircraft that planned to taxi to the international terminal where it would take off to Ghana.
Industry observers noted that it was surprising that no one saw the 25-year old man, Festus Chikeluba when he scaled the fence in such a highly sensitive area of the airport. The VIP lounge located between MMA2 and the Air Force Base is under watch 24 hours, but he was able to scale the fence unnoticed. And the MMA2 tarmac, which ought to be under surveillance by both CCTV and AVSEC officials were not watchful and as such did not notice when he scaled the fence and entered the wheel-well of the aircraft.
Over the years, there has been stoppage of recruitment of security personnel in FAAN. This has led to inadequate number of personnel manning the screening machines and conducting the profiling of passengers being checked to travel, a situation that gives rise to delays in processing passengers.
THISDAY learnt that many of the security officials work over time and those who monitor the x-ray screen spend hours on the screen against the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recommended 20 minutes per officer.
It is believed that when an official spends more hours monitoring the content of passengers’ luggage he would lose concentration and inadvertently allow prohibited objects, including, possibly well concealed bombs, guns, knives and other dangerous goods and drugs to pass through.
Informed source disclosed to THISDAY that the number of AVSEC officers working at the nation’s airports with current recruitment earlier this year could be over 2,200, and that the department needs additional 2800 to make up the total of 5000 needed to effectively man the security posts at the airports.
Many airports in the country today don’t have comprehensive security fencing; the same with perimeter fencing, which barricades the airside of the airport from encroachers and other unwanted persons. They are known as inner and outer perimeter fencing.
In 2013, a 13-year old boy then, Daniel Oikhena sneaked into the airside of the Benin airport and entered the wheel well of Arik aircraft, which brought him to Lagos. Also few years ago people gained access to the Lagos airport and stole INEC computers imported for the 2011 elections. They gained access through the broken fence along the Akowonjo area of the city. About two months ago, Arik Air flight hit an antelope at the runway of the Port Harcourt airport.
AVSEC officials are recongnised by ICAO as responsible for managing airport security. The experts said the support AVSEC is getting from the Nigerian police and Nigerian Air Force for the landside of the airports can only go to the extent that it controls the entry and exit of passengers and other airports users but it cannot help in the profiling of air travellers, which is the sole responsibility of AVSEC personnel, who are trained in accordance to aviation standards to do so.
They also warned that insider threat becomes high when operatives who are not trained in aviation are made to take significant roles in aviation security management, noting that either government makes it a permanent policy that the other paramilitary operatives would now work permanently with AVSEC officials which now requires they must go for aviation security training. In addition for the training, AVSEC officials should be profiled at regularly interval.
The story of stowaways is rife in the world. Besides the stowaway incidents in Nigeria, about a year ago another teenager in the US survived over an hour flight in the wheel well of a flight in freezing weather and the boy was described as being lucky to have survived and was unharmed after flying from California to Hawaii while he stowed away in a plane’s wheel well, surviving cold temperature at 38,000 feet and a lack of oxygen.
He was reported to have jumped a fence to gain access to the airport and that he ran away from his family after an argument. Reports said when he was rescued; he could not even recall what happened.
Two factors made it possible. He escaped the scrutiny of the airport security, including that of Transport Security Administration (TSA) and the security around the airplane. The airport is also porous to have made it possible for him to gain entry without notice.
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 to death in the wheel well of Arik Air flight, which arrived from Johannesburg, South Africa. Prior to Daniel’s incident, another Nigerian was discovered in the undercarriage compartment of Arik Air aircraft, after it returned from a flight to New York.
Industry security experts said anyone, who undertook the risk of stowing away is looking for greener pastures. Chikeluba said the same when he was caught last year. He said he was frustrated with living in Nigeria and wanted to escape. Chikeluba who was charged to court for attempted suicide did not show contrition for his action; rather, he was disappointed he was not allowed to escape, an attempt that might have consumed his life.