Captain Adesola Arasi was set for takeoff on Runway 18R (A1) of the Muritala Muhammed Airport, Lagos. One more word from the traffic controller and the Air Peace Boeing 737 plane would begin a 55-minute flight to Abuja.
As signal came from the control tower, some warning lights flashed on the control board. Arasi and his first officer were awestruck.
They exchanged bewildered glances. “We are aborting flight 7138 immediately!” the captain spoke into the microphone. There was urgency in his tone.
The passengers were surprised. They disembarked, met by officers of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) squad, Aviation Security (AVSEC) and others. A thorough screening of the entire aircraft and luggage compartment began.
“Suspected thieves opened the cargo hold of Flight 7138 holding for departure at about 7:35 p.m. The Pilot-in-Command, Capt. Arasi, contacted control tower after he was alerted by the light that came on in the cockpit, suggesting the cargo hold was opened for about 15 seconds and immediately shut.”
Although regulatory authorities disputed the veracity of the incident, the allegation came just weeks after two other cases of alleged robberies on taxiing private jets were reported at the same Lagos airport.
It will be recalled that in December, last year, bandits allegedly attacked a private jet owned by Vistajet (registration number 9H-VFA). This happened right on Runway 18R, as the aircraft taxied to the hangar of Evergreen Apple Nigeria (EAN) Limited.
It was gathered that the incident took place around 9:30 p.m., following arrival at Lagos from Istanbul, Turkey. Unlike the Air Peace scenario where nothing was found to have been lost after a two-hour search, a black bag belonging to airhostess Francesca Louis was allegedly missing.
Similarly, another private jet conveying two Nigerian musicians, Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun (aka Wizkid) and Tiwa Savage, from Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, was robbed on December 26, 2017, as it taxied on Murtala Muhammed airport’s Runway 18L.
The pilot, Captain Cloud Cote, reportedly noticed the opening of the cargo door by intruders and promptly notified the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).
But for the Vistajet incident under investigation, as at the last check, all other cases have been denied or dismissed by FAAN and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).
The implication of the trend, however, is not lost on stakeholders, who question the security architecture of the nation’s airports and the quality of coordination between airlines and regulatory agencies. For some, the situation, particularly in Lagos, is reminiscent of the late 1980s and early 1990s when aviation security was almost non-existent.
Aviation security is a combination of human and material resources deployed to safeguard civil aviation against unlawful interference.
Unlawful interference could be acts of terrorism, sabotage, threat to life and property, communication of false threats, bombings, and others.
Airport security attempts to prevent any of such threats from arising or entering the country.
The rationale, globally, is that if airport security is effective, then the chances of any dangerous situation, illegal items or threats entering an aircraft, country or airport are greatly reduced.
Speaking at the Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit (SAALS), recently, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) President, Alexandre de Juniac, said infrastructure and security are keys to the industry’s bright future.
Specifically, IATA has projected that the global passenger traffic would rise from 2.4 billion to 16 billion, with revenue in trillions of dollars for Gross Domestic Product of countries by 2050.
The body, in a 2014 commissioned study of 12 strategic African countries, revealed that the total air traffic flow in Africa would increase by 81 per cent, if the affected countries, including Nigeria, fully liberalise their skies.
This would represent, at least, an increase of 5 million passengers for Nigeria. But though traffic is already waiting and Nigeria is at a vantage position, no airline would go to an airport where security is not guaranteed, de Juniac noted.
Nigeria parades a retinue of 26 airports – the highest of any African country. At least, two-third of the 36 states, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, have an airport.
Regrettably, however, about 80 per cent of flight activities are confined to only four airports – Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano.
The 2017 full-year report of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that Lagos airport remains the busiest in terms of flight number, cargo, and passenger traffic facilitation. It also appears to be one of the least secure.
Captain Ado Sanusi, Managing Director of Aero Contractors, the oldest surviving airline in the country, noted that an act of intrusion and actual burglary at the highly revered airside of an airport is not new to the industry.
“The problem is that we forget a lot. This was happening regularly in the 90s. There were a lot of times on the international runway at Lagos airport when airplanes were opened and bags were thrown out from the luggage hull. I could remember Air Gabon.
That was a very classical case; the cargo compartment was opened and bags were thrown out.”
The international terminal was, in fact, tagged “dangerous” in the 90s. The United States Federal Aviation Administration in 1992 posted warning signs at all U.S. international airports, advising travellers that security conditions at the Lagos airport did not meet the International Civil Aviation’s (ICAO) minimum standards.
Criminals attacked several airplanes; they stopped planes taxiing to and from the terminal and robbed their cargo holds.
Sanusi shared a personal experience: “I was a flight engineer on a Kabo plane going from Lagos to Kano. It was the last flight leaving around 7:00 p.m.
That time, because of our poor banking system, people carried money in bags. We usually brought people from the northeast of the country, Maiduguri to Lagos. They came, changed money, and in the morning we carried them back.
“So, there were bags of money in the cargo compartment. That time, hoodlums would stay at the end of the runway when the airplane taxied and while it 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!”
Three decades later, very little has changed.
A drawback at most of the airports is the use of perimeter fencing instead of real security fence, as mandated by ICAO standard regulations. While a perimeter fence merely demarcates the land, a security fence protects the territory from intruders.
According to Aviation Security Consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), fences must protect operations. He said: “It falls under Annex 17 of the ICAO’s standard procedure.
A perimeter fence is only to tell you the extent of your land; like a survey plan. What ICAO said is that if what you have is a perimeter fence, you must enhance it to a security fence.
And if we cannot do it to ICAO standard, we should provide a secondary fence, to serve as security fence. That is what ICAO said.
One of the things you need to enhance the security level is make sure public buildings and roads are six metres away from the perimeter fence. But how many of them have met these basic requirements?”
Besides Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt that have perimeter fences, other airports are unshielded, leaving animals and other intruders to stray across the runways.
The international terminal of the Lagos airport dates back to 1979 when the state had a population of about 5 million people. The commercial nerve-centre of the nation has since quadrupled in size, with urbanisation closing in on the airport land.
Residential buildings, allegedly owned by former and current staff, are close to the fence at places like Ile Zik, Shasha, Ejigbo, Mafoluku and Ajao Estate. Some structures even sit right on the land or are built into the fence.
Sources at FAAN confirmed that Lagos is not alone in the illegal encroachment. Spokesperson Henrietta Yakubu said FAAN is aware of the development.
“People that live behind the fence have done a lot of illegal things. But our surveillance is working to correct that. Just recently, we got a report that an abandoned vehicle was parked very close to the fence at the Egbeda axis.
We immediately swung into action. And within few hours, our security officers had made the owner remove the truck. It is not proper to have houses close to the perimeter fences and we will have the houses relocated very soon,” said Yakubu.
Part 17 of the Civil Aviation (Aviation Security) Regulations, 2006, saddles the NCAA with the design of all aviation related security programmes.
Part II, section 3(1) states: “The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority is designated as the appropriate authority for aviation security within Nigeria, and shall specify this to the International Civil Aviation Organisation ICAO, and is hereby responsible for the development, and maintenance of the national civil aviation security programme.”
The apex regulator, in the wake of the alleged “act of unlawful interference” on the Air Peace plane, had dismissed the claim, much to the displeasure of the airline, which is responsible for about 40 per cent of domestic traffic. The unwholesome episode seems to highlight disharmony and mistrust between the regulators and operators.
An average airport requires a huge workforce for its different sections. These include ramp agents, customer service agents, flight dispatchers, light crew; air traffic controllers; aeronautical station operators; maintenance technicians; personnel of aircraft design and manufacturing organisations; cabin crew; apron and ground handling personnel.
In some airports around the world, staff strength is about 80,000. And by international standards, access is restricted to critical areas, especially the airside.
“One of the greatest vulnerabilities for these airports and probably any other major airport like Miami International Airport (MIA) is the insider threat,” Lauren Stover, the airport’s security director recently told the Cable News Network (CNN).
Also, where airlines and airport workers are either not paid or are paid poorly, there could be risk of sabotage.
For instance, three weeks ago, two officers of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) were arrested and suspended for allegedly attempting to traffic six underage girls to Omar and Kuwait aboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight.
The officers were nabbed just days after the new Area Comptroller of the Nigerian Customs Service, Lagos Airport Command, Jayne Shoboiki, accused cargo agents, ground handlers and officers of pilfering.
It will also be recalled that the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) in 2016 accused staff of the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO) of conniving with drug traffickers in a botched attempt to export 144kgs of ephedrine to Maputo in Mozambique.
According to Sanusi, it is almost impossible for people unfamiliar with operations in an airport or aircraft to break in and steal. “You can secure your airport if the criminals are outside. But you can’t secure it once you give your On Duty Card (ODC) to criminals to have access to the airport,” he said.
He stressed it behooves the Federal Government not to overlook the “serious security breach” implied in the allegations. “Today, we learnt they are removing bags. Tomorrow, we don’t know what they will be putting in the aircraft. This will destroy everything the Federal Government stands for.
“I don’t think we should sweep these cases under the carpet. The international community will be looking up to what we have done or what 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 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 planes got to customs,” Sanusi said.
While FAAN may have denied alleged robbery and attempted burglary on taxiing aircraft, there is no denying the infrastructural challenges at the airports.
FAAN owns and manages all airports on behalf of the Federal Government, except four that are state owned. The agency collects the mandatory Passenger Service Charge (PSC) of N1000 and $50 per local and international ticket.
FAAN’s PSC and other multiple streams of income from assets around the airports were designed to cater for it’s about 6000 workers and maintain the airports. An average 15 million passengers are expected to travel the sector yearly. This suggests a fat capital base for FAAN and airports maintenance.
But a top official said in response to The Guardian’s question: “The airlines are still heavily indebted, and most of these are often bad debt. So, where will the money come from? Ask yourself, why is it the business of the Federal Government to always cough out money to do critical work at the airports?
“There were Abuja and Enugu airport runway repairs. Why didn’t FAAN fix it, instead of government always bailing us out? The airlines are just not paying. Period. It’s not only FAAN; it’s a general problem.
It is not that FAAN doesn’t know or does not want to do the right things, like deploy personnel, install perimeter fences and surveillance cameras everywhere, but we are also constrained.”
FAAN MD, Saleh Dunoma, said the challenges, notwithstanding, the authority is unrelenting in “investing”, to create an enabling environment that would encourage efficiency in tackling emerging security threats to civil aviation.
Dunoma said FAAN recently procured 10 additional patrol vehicles, to boost its current fleet, and that additional screening machines were being procured and old ones replaced. He disclosed that AVSEC, an initiative of FAAN, recently recruited and trained over 230 officers.
FAAN spokesperson Yakubu also stressed that safety, security and comfort remain the authority’s core values and that facility upgrades at the airports were being undertaken.
She said: “You will recall that we recently got the MMIA and NAIA fully certified by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
After the incident of the supposed poaching of aircraft at Lagos airport, FAAN swung into action.
And today, our Director of Operations has been able to make arrangement for closed-circuit television cameras to be mounted at the airside of our airport. We are also beginning to fix floodlights on the airside for proper illumination.
“Again, security has improved a lot on our airside, with more operatives and night guards deployed, coupled with ‘follow-me’ vehicles that now trail aircraft from behind, to prevent any unauthorised entry during taxiing at the Lagos airport.”
The Federal Government, this week, supported the bearing of arms by Aviation Security (AVSEC) corps members at airports nationwide. This is similar to the “shoot at sight” directive against airside intruders by the Federal Government in 2002.
Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, who disclosed this at a retreat in Kastina, said AVSEC personnel would soon be given licenses to carry arms, to complement other agencies in combating security threats.
Sirika noted that the pre-implementation discussion has reached a final stage. He added that rebranding and equipping AVSEC were needed to make the officers more “professional and customer-friendly”.
Industry watchers have, however, called for caution. Secretary General of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Olayinka Abioye, noted: “We must not forget that before security agents bear arms, they must undergo prerequisite training and medical, mental and psychological tests and so forth. So that those who pass such test can be licensed to carry arms.”
He added: “At the moment, some of our AVSEC personnel are wickedness personified. They need re-orientation in this regard and our support. But their duties as arms bearing security personnel should be curtailed, so that they do not equate themselves with soldiers whose fundamental training is to kill enemies at war.”
Former Managing Director of The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Capt. Roland Iyayi, said AVSEC ought to be excised from FAAN and moved to the Office of the National Security Adviser.
“All over the world, today, intelligence is primary and it is key to the safety and security of any country. It is important that AVSEC should not be under a civil but a paramilitary structure,” he said.