Nigeria’s status in global aviation may be downgraded if it is confirmed that bandits access the runway of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, and burgle taxiing airplanes, and the government is doing little to permanently stop the breach. First, the U.S. Transport Security Administration will review its certification of the airport, which if withdrawn would make it unsafe for Delta Air Lines to fly to the Lagos airport. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will review its audit of the Nigeria’s aviation sector. If the FAA certification is withdrawn, Nigeria would lose Category 1 Safety Status, which means no U.S. airline would fly to Nigeria and Nigerian airlines would not be allowed to fly to the U.S.
Besides, the International Civil Aviation Organisation would review Nigeria’s safety and security status and may downgrade the country, too.
For now, however, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, which is in charge of the 22 airports in the country owned by the federal government, has expressed doubt about the occurrence of the reported thefts. FAAN said it had set a committee to investigate whether the incidents actually happened.
In early December 2017, there were reports that a private jet was attacked on the runway18R of the airport by unknown bandits when taxiing to the hangar of Evergreen Apple Nigeria (EAN) Ltd. The jet was said to be arriving from Istanbul between 2110 and 2130hrs after landing in Lagos.
The pilot of the flight was Captain Emma Heering, who reportedly discovered that the rear door of the aircraft was opened while taxiing to the hangar of EAN.
After this first incident, many in the industry, including operators of the private terminals, doubted whether such incident actually happened. An operator of the major private terminal facility told THISDAY that he doubted the possibility of such theft and noted that when the aircraft landed, the engine was still running and it was still moving fast on ground. At that point, he said it would be very unlikely that anyone could burgle the aircraft on the taxiway. The operator queried the motivation of the pilot, who claimed that the aircraft was burgled. He concluded that, possibly, the pilot might be trying to make insurance claims, insisting, however, that the government must investigate the report.
About two weeks later, another theft was reported on the airport’s runway, and this time, it involved two known Nigerian musicians, Tiwa Savage and Wizkid. A private jet conveying the two artists, Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun aka Wizkid and Tiwa Savage, from Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, was allegedly robbed while taxiing on the runway. Sources at the airport informed THISDAY that the aircraft, a Bombardier Challenger 605 jet with registration number T7-A00, arrived Lagos about 8:33pm on December 26 and was slowly taxiing to the arrival hangar when the cargo compartment was burgled. Reports said the jet had slowed to allow an Ethiopia Airlines cargo plane with registration number ET-ARH to push back for takeoff.
“The pilot of the business jet, Captain Cloud Cote, noticed the cargo door had been opened by burglars and promptly notified the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria security. But the burglars had disappeared before FAAN officials could make it to where the attack took place,” a source said.
It was reported that upon arrival, the pilot discovered that two of the music artists’ bags had been stolen by the airport bandits.
FAAN management, in reaction, issued a statement signed by its spokesman, Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu, denying the possibility of such theft and said that it was not possible for anyone to burgle an aircraft in motion. It said because aircraft are highly technical machines, it was practically impossible for anyone without the requisite training and competence to operate or tamper with the baggage compartment.
“It would be recalled that two incidents of alleged poaching were recently reported, the latest being that which occurred on a chartered flight from Uyo to Lagos on December 26, 2017,” FAAN said in the statement.
But the doubt as to whether the thefts happened was deflated by past experiences by pilots who operated through the Lagos airport. A seasoned pilot, aeronautical engineer, and senior official of one of the aviation agencies, who preferred anonymity, confirmed to THISDAY that similar incidents had happened to him in the aircraft he operated as he was about to fly from Lagos to Abuja some years ago.
Also the CEO of Aero Contractors and seasoned pilot, Captain Ado Sanusi, who spoke to THISDAY in his personal capacity said so many thefts were recorded in the 1990s, which prompted the federal government then to issue a shoot on sight order. The order helped to end the nefarious activity. Sanusi said at that time Lagos airport was categorised as one of the most dangerous airports in the world and the U.S. notified its citizens that travelling to Lagos was dangerous and they might lose their belongings on such trips.
According to Sanusi, “The problem is that we forget a lot in this country. This was happening regularly in the 90s. There were a lot of times in the international runway at Lagos airport when airplanes were opened and bags were thrown out from the luggage hull. This was in the 90s. I could remember Air Gabon. That was a very classical case. The cargo compartment was opened and bags were thrown out.
“I will tell you my personal experience, still in the 1990s. I was a flight engineer on a Kabo flight, going from Lagos to Kano. It was the last flight going around 7pm. During that time, because of our poor banking system then, people carried money in bags. We usually brought people from the North-east part of the country, Maiduguri, to Lagos. They came and changed money in the morning so we carried them back. So there were bags of money in the cargo compartment. That time, hoodlums will stay at the end of the runway; when the airplane taxied and while they waited for takeoff clearance, they would open the cargo compartment and take the bags. This was happening in the 90s. I remember I had to go down one day to close the cargo compartment because somebody had opened it.”
Despite the confirmations, some aviation insiders have continued to doubt the veracity of the claims of theft on the runways. They say the reports are an attempt to sabotage the federal government’s decision to certify Quits Aviation Nigeria as the only business jet terminal designated for Customs, Immigration and security processes, where every business jet on arrival or take off must go through for security checks.
A source told THISDAY, “The reports are aimed at tarnishing the image of the airport to mar business aviation services at the Lagos airport. We do not believe that people can steal from a moving aircraft and why is it that these reports started coming out after government accredited Quits Aviation as official business jet terminal?”
Sanusi told THISDAY that those who stole from taxiing airplanes were people familiar with the operational system of the airports and warned against indiscriminate issuance of On Duty Card by FAAN. He also said that the airports were very porous.
Sanusi stated, “You can secure your airport with criminals inside. You can secure your airport but you can give your ODC to criminals to have access to the airport. If this allegation is true, I appeal to the federal government not to take it lightly because this is a serious security breach. Today we learnt they are removing bags but tomorrow we don’t know what they will be putting into the aircraft. This will go a long way to destroy everything the federal government is fighting against.
“I don’t think we should sweep this case under the carpet. The international community will be looking up to what we have done or we are going to do. If we are saying that it is not possible for that to happen, they will know that we are talking rubbish. This is because they know that it is possible to do it. It has been done in other countries where taxiing airplanes’ cargo compartments were opened and drugs taken and thrown out before the airplanes got to Customs.”
For aviation security expert and CEO of Centurion Securities, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd), the runway burglaries constitute an aviation/airport security breach, which should not involve the police. Ojikutu said the incidents should be investigated only by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, stressing that the police have no role in aviation security defence layers.
“The airport operators – FAAN – and the aircraft operator are not ready to expose their security lapses and negligence, hence, the denials both ways to cover it further. They are bringing in the police in a matter of aviation regulation violation, not civil offense violation,” Ojikutu said.
Sanusi said the solution to the runway theft problem was a holistic review of FAAN’s ODC issuance procedure, noting that the agency must vet the ODC it issues to people.
Sanusi said, “They should have a very powerful control of ODC. They have to know the people they are giving the card. That is number one. Number two, they should have CCTV all over the airport. FAAN should have personnel on ground looking at all these things. That is the way it is done. They should be able to see the aircraft from everywhere and they should be ready with their strike team. The strike team can be directed to take action once the security system has been compromised.
“They should do shoot on sight and the whole thing will just stop. But now, more than half of the airport is not monitored. CCTV is now very cheap, so it can easily be procured. Three, there should be a comprehensive look at the procedure followed to allow people enter the airport. You have to know from where they access the airport.
Some people are allowed to go to the tarmac and wander around and nobody checks such people because even with ODC there are still places people should not be allowed to enter. So we are looking at a holistic approach.”