Cargo being loaded into an aircraft

Although concerned authorities continue to deny the poaching that is going on at the runway of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, the nefarious activities of daring thieves have drawn attention to the consequences of security breaches at the nation’s busiest airport, Chinedu Eze writes

 

Recent incidents of attempted robbery of taxiing aircraft have left no one in doubt that unauthorised individuals have been accessing the airside of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos.

This is usually a highly restricted area, where airlines board passengers and take off and land. It is the area that is equipped with navigational aids and other sensitive facilities and it is an area that is very dangerous for unscrupulous people to roam. This is dangerous in many ways. When urchins and other dangerous characters are allowed to access such sensitive places, the belly of an airport is exposed to danger. But the most dangerous thing is that accessing such sensitive area of the airport could expose aircraft to terrorist activities.

 

Incidents

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.

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 artistes 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.

On Thursday, February 8, 2018, the pilot in command of Air Peace Flight 7138 noticed that the cargo hold door light of the aircraft showed for 15 minutes in the cockpit, which indicated that somebody might have tampered with the door and the pilot decided to investigate and sent his crew members to do so. The aircraft was at the holding point of Runway 18R of the Lagos airport, waiting for signal from the control tower to take off.

Also, on Tuesday, February 13, 2018 pilot of African World Airlines (AWA) scared away suspected bandits, who opened the cargo hold of his aircraft at about 6:45 pm, Nigerian time. The aircraft was on holding point of Runway 18R, waiting for signals to take off, on its way to Accra, Ghana. Although THISDAY learnt about the incident from an insider, who works at the airside of the Lagos airport, but the incident was given credence by report from The Ghana Guardian,  a major Ghanaian newspaper. According to ghanaguardian.com, a Ghanaian pilot of Africa World Airlines unleashed hot gas to foil an armed robbery attempt by thieves in Nigeria as they attempted to burglarise the Accra-bound CRJ jet.

“Robbers operating within the perimeter fence of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos on Tuesday evening sought to break into the aircraft and steal the luggage of passengers.

“The brazen attack and attempt to burglarise a Ghana-bound CRJ jet was the latest attack upon an aircraft preparing for take-off from Nigeria’s biggest city. The burglars opened a cargo door of the CRJ aircraft, tore up the cargo hold bag holders and tried to steal passenger bags.

“But the experienced Ghanaian pilot, recognising what was happening, unleashed hot gas on the thieves, scaring them away.”

 

Denial

Since the incidents were first reported, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) has doubted the possibility of such happening. But records indicate that over the years, similar incidents have been happening, coming to a climax in the 1990s, which prompted the then Head of State, the late General Sani Abacha, to give a shoot at sight order on anyone seen on the runway of the Lagos airport.

But the denial that caught the attention of the public was the recent one given by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which pooh-poohed Air Peace report, alleging that somebody might have opened the cargo hold of its aircraft. That report was dismissed by NCAA as raising a false alarm.

“The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority has declared the alleged and reported Runway 18R burglary attempt on the Cargo Hold of Air Peace as unfounded.

“This conclusion was arrived at after the Regulatory Authority reviewed all the reports from the relevant agencies concerning the incident and it was unproven.” NCAA said in a statement.

But despite the denial, FAAN has fortified security at the Lagos airport airside and deployed more vehicles to escort departing and landing aircraft, but from all indications, the alleged theft has continued.

On Thursday, FAAN announced that it had deployed 10 additional Toyota Hilux patrol vehicles to the Lagos airport and explained that the deployment of these vehicles was one of the measures being adopted by the authority to enhance operational efficiency and also boost security procedures at the airport. 

“The authority will like to assure airport users and the general public that we will continue to upgrade our facilities, processes and procedures, in consonance with our core values of security, safety and comfort,” the General Manager, Public Affairs, FAAN, Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu, said in a statement.

 

Implications

The CEO of Centurion Securities Group, aviation security company, and Secretary of Aviation Round Table (ART), Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), told THISDAY that poaching at the airside of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport has been an old story and that when it was rife in the 1990s drastic action was taken to stop it.

Ojikutu alleged that security breach at the airports must be the handiwork of insiders, which is known as insider threat.

“Poaching in the aircraft baggage hold compartment at MMIA should not be new happening to older FAAN and other airport staff. What is probably new is the poaching of general aviation aircraft. In all the cases however, it always had the hands of insiders, which FAAN and NCAA should investigate within the airport and airlines security programmes.

“Secondly, NCAA should review or survey the security programmes of the aircraft operators and FAAN. FAAN and NCAA should begin the review of the background checks on all airport staff working in the airport restricted security-controlled areas. Audit all operators’ staff to determine those that have been disengaged or retired, but still with on duty cards or companies IDs that still give them access into the airside and the security controlled areas.

“Lastly, the concept of follow-me vehicle is to guide aircraft to its parking bay or guide visiting irregular flight through unfamiliar airport maneuvering areas. In this case, a vehicle not two is provided in front not behind the aircraft. When poaching started in early 90s at MMIA, the concept of the follow-me vehicle was to have a vehicle to follow the aircraft behind not as a guide or pilot, but as a security and surveillance vehicle. Unfortunately, emphasis has since shifted the vehicle more as a pilot vehicle than a surveillance/security vehicle,” Ojikutu said.

 

Drastic Measures

Reacting to the spate of recent attempted thefts and the incident concerning Air Peace flight, a seasoned pilot and a senior official of a major airline told THISDAY that what NCAA should have done was to demand for the flight recorder of the aircraft involved and from the flight recorder, the authority would get the details of what really transpired.

“The truth is that the cargo compartment of an aircraft can be opened and the issue of dismissing it as false alarm does not indicate that it has not happened because efforts were not exhausted to ensure that bandits were not lurking somewhere at the airside of the airport. NCAA can ask for the flight recorder. Covering it will allow the criminal act to continue and this could be dangerous because somebody can put a very dangerous object into an aircraft and it would lead to tragic consequences. NCAA can withdraw the certification it gave to MMIA in order to make FAAN sit up. We don’t want the Lagos airport to be closed but we want to operate safely,” he said.

The official noted that when there was continuous security breach, which remains unchecked, it would lead to security threat.

There are indications that the authorities would no more play the ostrich with the latest evidence of alleged poaching at the Lagos airport runway. They are expected to come out and admit the reality and then take drastic action to end what could become a disaster, if the authorities continue to live in denial.