The nation’s airports could do with better security
Daniel Ohikhena, the 13-year-old boy who last Saturday hid himself in the wheel well of Arik Air Flight WS 544 at the Benin airport and flew from the historical city to Lagos, was the fourth person in the last few years to risk his life that way. The only difference is that while Daniel survived, the others were not so lucky.
In March 2010, a Nigerian, Okechukwu Okeke was found dead in the nose wheel compartment of the United States carrier, Delta Air Lines, Boeing B777 aircraft, parked on the tarmac of the Lagos airport. Also in September of the same year, another Nigerian man was discovered crushed dead in the wheel well of Arik Air flight which arrived from Johannesburg, South Africa, and before Daniel’s incident another Nigerian was discovered in the undercarriage compartment of Arik Air aircraft, after it returned from a flight to New York. Earlier this year, a man described by airport security officials as “mad” was found along the runway at the threshold of the domestic Runway 18L and nearly walked into Arik Air flight that was about to take off.
What all these incidents signify is that the nation’s airports are not effectively manned. The explanation given by the aviation security of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) about the “mad” man incident was that he might have gained access to the airport when the security officials patrolling the perimeter fence had ended their duty and the next group was yet to take over. In the case of Daniel, both FAAN and Arik are still trading blame. Yet it is the duty of FAAN to provide security to protect these airports. The security for the protection of the airside of the airports begins with perimeter fencing; then the construction of perimeter road, which is regularly patrolled by AVSEC officials.
Most of Nigeria’s airports do not have perimeter fence. Some of them lack perimeter road and although government owns the airports, the host communities where the airports are located still see the areas as theirs. That is why they still use the facilities to sun their grains in some states; some graze their cattle and others cultivate farms around the airport runways.
Yet except when it met with the people of Omagwa, where the Port Harcourt International Airport is located, there is no record that FAAN has a policy to interact with host communities and seek their support in protecting the airports. In many of the airside of these airports, there are paths through which the villagers go about their daily activities. Yet, these are areas that should be restricted, except for those certified to be there.
In 2009, the World Bank started an initiative to help provide safety critical equipment at the airports and earmarked $49 million for the projects, one of which was to provide perimeter fencing at the four major airports in Kano, Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt. The contract that was awarded was not completed and the contractors aborted the projects, claiming that they were not paid by FAAN. Meanwhile, the World Bank not satisfied with the procedure with which FAAN advertised and awarded the contracts, withdrew its support and was only able to procure fire fighting vehicles, which were distributed to different airports in the country.
It is then no surprise that our airports have become rather porous. Meanwhile, industry experts believe Daniel survived the flight because he was small; so he could fit into the little space that remained after the tyres had gone in and the fact that the flight duration was short. Because of that, the aircraft did not fly in high altitude and so it did not go above the area where lack of oxygen and cold weather would have combined to kill the boy who mistakenly thought he was flying to America.