By Louis Ibah
“The rise in aircraft break-in at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, may be a dress rehearsal by terrorists for plane hijack or blow-up. In this age, a wanderer who gains access into the airside of the airport and burgles moving aircraft, or who gets into baggage compartments while an aircraft is taxiing or at the holding point, is dangerous as he can be a home-grown terrorist.”
This was a warning by a concerned stakeholder recently as the heist of passengers’ belongings and plane parts at the Nigerian premier airport continues unabated.
Apart from this, experts have also expressed fears that the security lapses could mar efforts to attract investments into the aviation sector.
These stemmed from the complaints by pilots flying into the airport on these incidences of break-in while taxiing their aircraft along the runway.
Ruminating over this, some stakeholders have described the trend as a “ticking time-bomb.”
Daily Sun learnt that the presence of a specialised set of burglars who successfully break into the baggage compartment of a moving aircraft from outside undetected by the various security establishments at the MMIA has fueled fears of a possible terrorist attack or hijack of aircraft in Nigeria.
In the last three weeks, two chartered aircraft (a Visat Jet 584 arriving from Turkey and a Bombardier Challenger 605 Jet from Uyo) were reported to have been attacked at MMIA while slowly taxiing to their arrival hangar with valuable items belonging to passengers stolen.
Both the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the Lagos Airport Police Command have come out to debunk the two incidences as “impossible”.
“It is practically impossible for an aircraft to be burgled within our runway and aprons,” said FAAN spokeswoman, Henriata Yakubu. “In fact, it is impossible for anyone to burgle an aircraft in motion,” she added.
Similarly, the spokesman for the MMIA Command, DSP Joseph Alabi, said investigations conducted revealed that the allegations could not be substantiated by those making them. He said the purported victims had failed to appear before an inter-agency committee set up by the airport management and that it was also curious that the victims had failed to lodge a complaint with the police.
“We have our officers who patrol the airside with FAAN security operatives and it is practically impossible for anyone to burgle an aircraft in motion as being alleged,” Alabi said.
But industry sources told Daily Sun that FAAN and the police “were simply covering up the two incidences, given the embarrassment it caused them in the eyes of the public.”
The source revealed that there had been other incidences, which were publicly unreported by the victims but noted that the affected pilots that manned the aircraft had lodged complaints with relevant regulatory authorities.
“The two incidences that occurred in December were not the first. There have been unreported cases of unauthorised persons gaining access into the airside of the Lagos airport and burgled moving aircraft,” said a top airport official who spoke to Daily Sun.
“The Lagos airport has become notorious for this kind of ugly incidences. Some pilots and airline owners have reported these incidences to concerned authorities who ordered for investigations to be carried out quietly,” said the source who preferred to remain anonymous.
He explained that the cover up by FAAN and the police had become necessary in order not to send the wrong signals to passengers as well as the international regulatory organisations like the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) that recently certified the MMIA; the United States Federal Civil Aviation Authority (USFAA) that had also granted the airport a Category-1 status that allowed direct flight between Nigeria and the US. It has also been alleged that the cover-up by officials of FAAN and the police was also done to save the jobs of top officials whose negligence could have led to the security breaches at the airport.
Stakeholders in Nigeria’s aviation industry have reportedly bemoaned the security lapses at the airside of the Lagos international airport where planes land and take off as well as where they are parked. In recent years, the airport has recorded incidences of stowaways who have latched onto the porous security at the airport to gain access into the trye compartment of aircraft to stow away to Europe, USA and South Africa.
Daily Sun learnt that just like stowaways who work in collaboration with airport and airline staff, persons who poach on moving aircraft also find collaborators among disgruntled airport and airline workers who also share in the loot. Once the aircraft door is locked, it is only a craftman or someone who has worked on an aircraft that can effortlessly open the door from outside.
And that’s where the snag lies; any unauthorised person who successfully gains access to an aircraft for whatever purpose can also opt to harm the aircraft and its passengers.
Renowned aviation analyst and top executive of the Aviation Round Table (ART), Mr. John Ojikutu, said the rise in incidences of aircraft burgling in Nigeria “was a rehearsal for copycat-terrorists.” Nigeria could simply be days away from recording a case of an aircraft hijack or blow up by terrorists.
“The airport operator, which is FAAN, and the aircraft owners are not ready to expose their security lapses and negligence and are rather engaging in denials,” said Ojikutu.
“To cover it further, they are bringing in the police in a matter of civil aviation regulation violation and not a civil offence violation. But in this age, a wanderer who gets into an aircraft baggage compartment, while it is taxiing or at the holding point, is dangerous as he can be a home grown terrorist,” Ojikutu warned.
Another analyst, Utibe Uko, said the Nigerian government had been alerted by the United States to be extra vigilant as the Lagos international airport was a potential target of terrorist groups. With Boko Haram having successfully tried to bomb the Abuja airport, there is nothing stopping them from attacking the Lagos airport if an opening is created for them. But there are also fears that the security lapses at the MMIA could affect the re-certification of the airport by ICAO and USFAA. It could also mar efforts to attract investments into the Lagos airport that has already been slated by the Federal Government to serve as a hub within the West African sub-region once the country is able to bring on board its national carrier.
“We should also look at insider threat among airport staff. We should access the records of airport and more of the private airlines to check for the list of disengaged staff,” said Ojikutu. Such disengaged staff who could be unhappy, and with their acquired knowledge on aircraft parts, could come back to perpetrate criminal activities like the ongoing poaching of baggage compartment. Nigeria needs to attract investments to unlock its potential in the sector (aviation), which at present contributes a meager 0.4 per cent to national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is not the time to send wrong signals to the international community.
This is one issue that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) should step in and unravel the cause of the security lapses at MMIA. This is not a police matter. The various international organisations including ICAO, IATA, USFAA, among others, are watching how the matter is handled by NCAA.
An aeronautical engineer, Olayiwola Fatimilehin, suggests that FAAN should re-introduce patrol vehicles to follow aircraft after it has landed along the runway to the allotted parking bay, especially for night flights. FAAN should also increase security around its perimeter fences of the Lagos airport to ward off unwanted or unauthorised persons. The whole of the Lagos airport should be properly lit and under CCTV cameras as obtainable in other airports around the world. If the CCTV cameras are obsolete, not working or not properly positioned, they should be reviewed, while those in charge of the CCTV, especially those handling the observation feeds from those points, should be probed in case they are collaborating with the burglars.