BY YAKUBU DATI
THE stowaway simply known as Daniel recently hit the touch button for a media frenzy when he quietly slipped into the landing gear compartment of an Arik Air aircraft on the runway of the Benin Airport on August 24, 2013. The aircraft was on its way to Lagos.
It has been a long time that the country has witnessed a stowaway incident, and it seemed almost inevitable that the media would be unable to resist the feast of sensation presented by Daniel. Yet, just as the of stealing of cars is always a risk that car owners have at the back of their minds most of the time, airline operators and pilots are also conscious that stowaways are always a possibility.
And perhaps, unsurprisingly, another stowaway attempt was made at the same airport on Tuesday, September 3, 2013 but the culprit was promptly arrested by a joint patrol of FAAN’s Aviation Security Services and the Nigerian Air Force. The trespasser, Mr Leroy Ugaga, aged about 25, wanted to gain access to the airside (runway) of the Benin Airport.
Copycat attempts are well known in such cases.
Predictably, the Daniel escapade has generated a lot of public commentary accompanied by finger pointing and blame apportioning. Some Nigerians have put the blame at the door step of FAAN, being the managers of the airport where the incident occurred. FAAN, through one or two of its concessionaires, also provides security services at the airport terminals— although it is well understood that security is everyone’s responsibility.
Then, if that is the case, all stakeholders are and should be involved in security. These include FAAN, private airport terminal operators (for example, MMA 2), airlines, airport police, Customs, Immigration, Quarantine Section, cargo freight operators, pilots, cabin crew and even passengers!
Indeed, according to an account of the Benin incident, Daniel had been spotted by some passengers aboard the Arik aircraft who quickly alerted the cabin crew who, in turn, alerted the pilot. Howbeit, according to that account, the pilot in his judgement decided to continue with take off without asking for a check of the aircraft undercarriage.
In December of 2010, a young Nigerian, Umaru AbdulMutallab Jnr., was a passenger on a US-bound flight from Ghana. He was duly cleared at the Accra airport before boarding the aircraft which was en route Amsterdam to Detriot, US. Despite a barrage of security checks both at the terminal and at the point of boarding the aircraft, AbdulMutallab managed to evade all these checks and actually ignited a plastic bomb hidden in his underwear ,which luckily did not engulf the aircraft—as it was swiftly put off.
AbdulMutallab could have killed over 200 innocent passengers on the North West Airline flight 253 of Christmas Day, 2009. AbdulMutallab was not a stowaway. And he had been duly checked and passed on to board by security officials in Ghana and Amsterdam Airport, considered one of the best and busiest in the world. These airport security systems were not down. These were all in good working order.
Yet, AbdulMutallab was not caught until his ill-fated attempt to detonate the plastic bomb close to landing in Detroit in the US on Christmas Day, December 25, 2009.
Who was to blame? Airport authorities, flight control officials, Homeland Security, pilot, airline operator, immigration officials? A few days later, US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano acknowledged that the aviation security system had indeed failed, according to Wikipedia.
Indeed, the Daniel Stowaway episode would yet have been averted if the crew of the Arik Air aircraft had taken seriously the information freely offered by passengers on board the aircraft and had acted accordingly, by alerting the security agencies at the airport through the control tower.
It is well known that our various airport perimeters cover hundreds of square kilometres of land area which ordinarily, makes it difficult to police effectively. And given the country’s physical terrain, even at airports where adequate perimeter fences are in place, these have to be constantly maintained or repaired due to environmental factors such as heavy rains and erosion which impact the land area. Therefore, there is a constant need to maintain and monitor these perimeters.
Poor or broken down perimeter fences at some of our airports are some of the legacy issues which the current FAAN management inherited from previous ones. And I daresay that the current administration, under the supervision of the Aviation Minister, Princess Stella Oduah, is determined to address all these issues. Nonetheless, it may appear unreasonable to expect that all these problems can all be fixed at once.
Following the Daniel incident, FAAN acted promptly to put in place fresh security measures at the various airports in the country. These include deploying a FAAN security vehicle to a point within full view of the aircraft as it taxies out to take off and maintain visual scrutiny until every departing aircraft is safely airborne.
The arrest of another likely stowaway, Leroy Ugaga at the Benin Airport on Tuesday perhaps provides proof of the effectiveness of the new security measures put in place by FAAN.
Clearly, apart from addressing the apparent infrastructural deficiencies at our airports which the Jonathan administration is already tackling, security is all about constantly adapting to current situations and trends in the society. What the AbdulMatallab case in the US clearly shows, is that no security system is foolproof the world over. And that there is the need for constant vigilance on the part of all stakeholders in order for us to achieve the goal of a more secure and safe aviation industry in the country.
*Mr. Dati, General Manager Corporate Communications & Information, FAAN, wrote from Lagos.