The Sun News

Robbers on the runway

Security lapses at Lagos airport trigger anxiety in passengers, others

Job Osazuwa

These days, news emanating from Nigeria’s busiest airport, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, is hardly cheery.

Like the days of wharf rats, a phrase used to describe bandits who unleashed hell on importers and exporters at the Apapa Wharf in Lagos, many are beginning to express the fear that the airport is fast sliding into a chaotic condition.   

Penultimate Thursday, at about 7.35pm, suspected burglars allegedly attacked an aircraft belonging to Air Peace at the international airport in Lagos as it was about to take off. The attackers reportedly opened the cargo section of the Flight 7138 taxiing for departure on runway 18R (A1) of the airport.

Passengers on board the flight disembarked while the explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) squad, Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Aviation Security (AVSEC) and the airline’s security team carried out checks.

Concerned Nigerians have expressed worries, calling on the regulatory body to put its house in order to forestall a recurrence. According to them, the aviation sector was too critical and sensitive for criminal activities to be allowed to thrive.  

A security expert, who specialises in transportation safety, Oke Michael Adebisi, reminded airline operators of the stowaway boy who flew from Benin, Edo State, to Lagos five years ago. He said it was a security lapse that allowed the ugly incident to happen. Adebisi tasked airline managers to always take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of passengers, crew and equipment.

“Security of life and property onboard should not be negotiable. We as a nation fail to learn from past mistakes. This is not the first time such an incident is happening. I expect the various safety and regulatory agencies to thoroughly evaluate all the allegations and come out with a report. Passengers need to be assured that they could fly with maximum security guaranteed,” Adebisi said.

On  Saturday, August 24,  2013, 13-year-old  Daniel Ohikhena, from Owan area of Edo State, stowed from Benin Airport to Lagos in the wheel well of Arik flight W3 544. When the flight landed at the Lagos airport, security agents and passengers aboard the flight were dazed to see the boy creeping out of one of the wheels of the aircraft.

Daniel told journalists that he thought the flight was going to the United States of America, as he was desperate and ready to take the risk to travel outside Nigeria.

The Air Peace incident prompted a prolonged security check on the aircraft, even as it has been causing ripples in many quarters.

This occurred just as many people were still trying to come to terms with how the door of an aircraft belonging to Dana Air fell off while taxiing at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.

The airline management had also raised the alarm, alleging that the incident could not have happened without some persons with evil intention tampering with the door.

Dousing tension generated by the incident, the management of Dana Air, last Wednesday, through its media and communications manager, Kingsley Ezenwa, said the incident could not have happened if no one had tried to open the door.

“We wish to state categorically that this could never have happened without a conscious effort by a passenger to open it (exit door),” he said.

A regular traveller, Mr. Daniel Ademuyiwa, who works with one of the major telecommunication companies in the country, told the reporter that though he was not on board the affected Dana flight, he become frightened as he was to fly from Lagos to Abuja the next morning.

“Government should sanitise the entire sector. Sometimes, when you see what we experience at the airports, you begin to wonder how long we will continue to live centuries backward. Customer relationship is nothing to talk about. There are so many people at the airports who clearly have no business being there. I am sure there are many thieves among them,” he said.

The communications manager of Air Peace, Chris Iwarah, in a statement confirming the incident, said that the cargo bay was opened for about 15 seconds and was immediately shut down. He added that, after learning of the incident, the pilot in command of the aircraft alerted the control tower.

Said he: “Pilot-in-command, Capt. Adesola Arasi, had to contact control tower when he was alerted by the light that came on in the cockpit suggesting that the cargo hold was opened for about 15 seconds and immediately shut.

“In line with our high-security standards and the huge value we place on the lives of our guests and crew, Capt. Arasi insisted on having EOD squad check Flight APK 7138 before takeoff to be doubly sure that nothing was deposited in the cargo hold by the suspected thieves to endanger the lives of our guests and crew.

“Our guests, who were fully briefed of the development by the pilot-in-command, were advised to disembark from the aircraft and board an Air Peace bus while the joint security operation by EOD, FAAN AVSEC and our security team lasted. The Lagos-Abuja flight was cleared by the security experts after an exhaustive screening of the aircraft lasting about 30 minutes. The flight eventually took off at 9.30pm and safely landed in Abuja at about 10.23pm.” 

But the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and Air Peace have engaged in a war of words over the alleged security breach. The aviation regulatory body had, in a statement by its spokesman, Sam Adurogboye, described the airline’s allegation as “unfounded.” The NCAA stated that its investigation proved that the burglary incident never occurred after it reviewed all the reports from the relevant agencies concerning the incident.

Also, FAAN said that the alleged robbery could not have taken place, pointing out that it was not possible for anyone to burgle an aircraft in motion. FAAN maintained that, because airplanes are highly technical machines, it is practically impossible for anyone who does not have the requisite training and competence to operate or tamper with the baggage compartment.

“Against this background, the NCAA came to the conclusion that the Runway 18R burglary report is unproven, largely unsubstantiated and, therefore, should be discountenanced,” Adurogboye said.

But Air Peace swiftly fired back, stating that the NCAA’s position lacks basis. It said it remains unwilling to be drawn into unnecessary controversy with agencies that ought to have been jolted into action from their slumber by patriotic information as they did on the incident. Air Peace described the NCAA’s report on the alleged burglary as “both a lazy and shoddy job at cover-up.”

The airline’s spokesman said: “The conclusion by NCAA suggesting that “our information on the incident was a false alarm absolutely lacks a basis.

“From the report, it is clear that the only reason for NCAA’s dismissal of the very serious security breach was the claim that, when an aircraft of another airline beamed its lights after our pilot alerted the control tower to the incident, the suspected thieves were not seen.

“We need to reiterate that our pilot’s call to control tower was made after the rear cargo hold of our aircraft was opened and shut after 15 seconds. We, therefore, begin to wonder whether NCAA expected the suspected thieves to be there waiting after opening and shutting the cargo hold within a space of 15 seconds.”

Iwarah advised NCAA and other agencies to treat complaints of security breach at airports with the seriousness they deserved rather than “the culture of baseless denial and attempt at cover-up.”

“As members of the public may recall, similar incidents reported recently were also dismissed without a basis,” the airline said.

On December 12, 2017, a Vistajet plane, with registration number 9H-VFA, operated by Evergreen Apple Nigeria (EAN) Limited, was robbed on Runway 18R of the same airport by bandits when taxiing to the hangar of EAN.

“The jet was arriving from Istanbul between 2110 and 2130hrs when the robbery took place after landing in Lagos. The pilot of the jet, Captain Emma Heering, discovered that the rear door of the aircraft was opened while taxiing to the hangar of EAN after which it was discovered that a big black bag belonging to the air hostess, Francesca Louis, was missing from the jet,” he said.

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