In Nigeria, drug trafficking among crew members both cabin and cockpit have become the rave of the day and is fast wrecking the credibility of this profession with watchers wondering who next would be caught in this drug smuggling/trafficking web.
Right now it is certain that because of the number of arrest among passengers by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) with their meager resources, the masterminds behind the business have infiltrated the cockpit and cabin crew because there is a misconception that airlines’ crew all over the world are treated specially and accorded some modicum of trust by security officials when passing through the screening areas.
These set of people are one of the highly respected professionals in the industry. Most times, they pass through the “fast track” route at the departure section of airports on their way to board a flight and are hardly given thorough checks by the security officials unlike passengers who are screened to their pants.
Arik Air has had many staff caught or charged for drug trafficking
This has heightened call for extra efforts to be put into the check of crew members as the series of events over the last few years have exposed their vulnerability and willingness to be used as couriers for drug cartels.
Just last month, British authorities apprehended another Arik Air crew member, Mr.Chika Egwu Udensi, at Heathrow Airport, London, for allegedly peddling substances, suspected to be cocaine.
Spokesman of Arik Air, Mr. Ola Adebanji, who confirmed the latest arrest said the crew member was arrested by the UK Border Force in connection with alleged possession of items suspected to be banned substances.
Adebanji, in a statement, stated that the airline was presently carrying out its own investigation to determine how the cabin crew member came about the suspected banned substance.
He stressed that the airline would also be cooperating fully with the UK authorities and other appropriate agencies in their investigations.
In December 2011, a 29 years old Arik Air cabin crew, one Ms. Chiwendu Uwkaoyenma, was also arrested in London for drug trafficking.
She was jailed for five years in 2012.
Defunct Virgin Nigeria, whose crew was enmeshed with a drug traffic charge in the UK
However, these drug trafficking offences go beyond Arik but is a product of the kind of persons the airline has employed
Ibrahim Wudil, a Nigerian member of Virgin Atlantic Airways crew, was in August 2007 caught with 1.743 kilogrammes of a substance suspected to be cocaine by officers of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos.
The drug which was concealed in a black polythene bag inside a hand luggage was found in the flight compartment.
He was to be part of flight number VS 652 and registration number G-VFIT on its way to London Heathrow. The flight was grounded by the NDLEA pending further investigation.
These incidents of drug trafficking have brought the aviation industry in Nigeria to disrepute, coupled with the harsh reality that these offences and stain to the country’s image is being done by those who are supposed to be the pride of ambassadors to the country.
In truth, despite poor funding but solid international collaboration, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, at various airports within the country especially at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos arrests hundreds of passengers for drug trafficking annually.
These arrests appear not to dissuade the traffickers from engaging in the crime.
Overtime, the efforts of the agency had always been on air passengers, but recent happening among airlines’ crew revealed that apart from some of the passengers who engage in the illicit act, cockpit, cabin and technical crew of airlines too actively participate
Speaking on this evolving yet worrisome trend, the immediate past President, Aviation Round Table, ART, Capt. Dele Ore has described involvement and arrest of both cabin and cockpit crew in drug trafficking as career ruining for perpetrators of the act.
This is also has he said that Chief Pilots of airlines should consistently monitor the activities of crew.
Ore lamented the involvement of crew in such dastardly act and urged them to discontinue the disgraceful action, stressing that such people had nowhere to hide with the global tightening of security by security agencies.
He also attributed over-familiarity with the security agencies by the crew as one of the reasons they are able to courier the drugs outside the country with ease, advising security operatives to be more vigilant in the discharge of their duties.
He said, “The Arik Air cabin crew might not be the first time he was engaged in the act, but what they (security agencies) do is that they follow them and monitor their activities in order to eventually apprehend them.
“It is the function of the chief pilot to be monitoring the crew regularly. Once they catch one person, all of us become a suspect. This is a very unfortunate incident. The act is a carrier ruining for anybody that involves in it.
“All over the world, they have tightened up some of the privileges hitherto enjoyed by the crewmembers. They no longer have such privileges. Everybody is subjected to stringent screening. No hiding place anymore because they all exchange information.”
He explained further that there was no way just a person could engage in drug trafficking without accomplices who he said helped them to beat security, decrying that whenever such culprits are apprehended outside the country, they soiled the name of Nigeria.
Besides, he blamed the country’s airlines especially Arik Air for its inability to do psychological test for its recruits.
The Chief Executive Officer, CEO, Finum Aviation Services and a former staff of the defunct national carrier, Nigeria Airways, Engr. Sheri Kyari said drug trafficking among cabin crew was a long time phenomenon, which dated back to the days of the defunct national carrier. According to Kyari, in the days of Nigeria Airways, apart from the cabin crew taking part in the nefarious act, some of the technical crewmembers like engineers, technicians and pilots also participated in the act, adding that in those days, awareness about the dangers of the drugs was minimal.
He decried that the act of the crewmembers always dent the image of the airlines in the international community and advised airline managements in the country to continually carry out awareness campaign for their crew who he said are the image of the airline.
He explained that some of the crew members are lured into the trade by the monitory rewards involved while others make use of the drugs themselves. He also added that through active participation in the act, some of them have become barons overnight in the drug trafficking. He said, “One of the motivations is the reward for carrying drugs across.
Secondly, some of those involved in trafficking are also users and if they are users, they will discover that they will help the chain to continue by being a link in that chain and also, carry the ones that they themselves can use and once they made money out of it, they themselves will want to become peddlers and barons.
“Definitely, one would feel betrayed by a colleague who is found in this because averagely when you look at it, technical and cabin crew are paid well, which should dissuade them from any motivation that could lure them into carrying it, but you know those who have tasted money will want to throw away their dignity and integrity to the dust and engage in such act.
Also, a former cabin crew with Nigeria Airways, Mr. Olumide Ohunayo recalled that the first known arrest of Nigerian crew pertaining to drug trafficking was in 1987 when a pilot with Nigeria Airways, Billy Eko was caught with a large quantity of cocaine in the US.
Ohunayo said that the pilot was charged to court and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in U.S, adding that subsequently, some other crewmembers, predominantly cabin crew were arrested, at different times on and off duty in London, US and in Nigeria for the same offence. To reduce the menace, Ohunayo opined that airlines that are not first offenders should be fined heavily by the authorities when caught and the aircraft in question grounded
Apart from Nigeria where no fewer than five known cases have been established among crewmembers since 2007, countries like Tahiti, China, Kenya, United States of America, Australia, Brazil and many others are actively participating in the heinous crime, which hitherto used to be capital punishment in Nigeria between 1984 and 1986 and still remains so in most Asian countries.
For instance, more than 30 airline staff in Tahiti were accused of smuggling in drugs, including hauls of cocaine allegedly picked up by cabin crew on stopovers in the United States. Air Tahiti stood down a number of staff after police said they had evidence that cabin crew were involved in the drug operation.
In China, Chinese authorities also uncovered a drug trafficking syndicate involving several crewmembers of Air China, the national carrier. Several Air China crewmembers have apparently been arrested on allegations that they were involved with international syndicates, trafficking drugs.
This was revealed after authorities smashed a syndicate in October and some suspects implicated the Air China crew. In Kenya, Kenya Airways fired 32 employees after an internal investigation turned up evidence of drug smuggling by crew and other staff. Flight attendants and airline employees who handle crew schedules were among those fired.
In the United States, a two-year federal “sting” operation culminated in the arrest of 58 people, including current and former employees of airline caterer, LSG Sky Chefs Inc., who were charged with smuggling drugs and weapons on American Airlines flights through Miami International Airport, sometimes using meal carts and coffee containers.
The 11 LSG Sky Chefs employees, who were not named, allegedly lined the panels of rolling food service carts with compressed packets of cocaine and heroin and stashed drugs in coffee containers in on-board galleys. The suspects, who included ramp workers and law enforcement officers, were charged with conspiracy, possession and intent to distribute.
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