As debate continues on the identity of the stowaway who fell from a Kenya Airways flight in June, the matter has brought to the fore a security and humanity issue that has been affecting the aviation industry for decades without a solution.
Apart from the KQ stowaway whose identity is still unknown after the government disputed the contents of a Sky News investigation, without giving alternative information, there have been two other similar incidents since the beginning of the year.
Last month, the frozen body of a stowaway was discovered by engineers on a jetliner belonging to Royal Air Maroc after it touched down at Mohamed V Airport in Cascablaca, Morocco, from Conakry, Guinea.
In April, a homeless man was discovered alive in the belly of an Air France plane at Pointe a Pitre International Airport in the island city of Grande-Terre, in Guadeloupe, a French-governed archipelago in the Caribbean, after surviving a two-hour flight from the French Guiana's capital city of Cayenne.
Apparently, the KQ incident, which is currently under investigation, is not the first stowaway case from Nairobi. In 1997, the body of a man believed to be in his 30s was found hanging in the nose-wheel bay of a British Airways flight at Gatwick Airport in England on arrival from Nairobi.
Why a person would attempt a trip whose chances of success are extremely rare is what is puzzling aviation players and the public alike. The first hurdle that a stowaway faces on the trip is getting to the plane without being noticed and arrested.
Airports are highly secured areas. For example, the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) where the stowaway who fell from the London skies in June is suspected to have hitched his ride, is a Category 1 facility with not less than three security layers.
It is almost impossible for a person without the necessary clearance to access the airside, even if they work at the airport. As part of the rigorous upgrades at JKIA to get the coveted Category 1 status that enabled KQ to fly directly to the United States, KAA changed the entire security system at the airport towards the end of 2017.
Consequently, everyone who works at the passenger terminal was made to use their thumb print instead of access cards. This system change was supposed to prevent strangers from accessing sensitive areas at the airport using cards belonging to approved persons. This is perhaps the reason why Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) managing director Gilbert Kibe told BBC that the stowaway must have been someone who works at the airport.
Aviation magazine Airport Technology says stowaways are in most cases “poorly educated people who simply do not appreciate the risks they are subjecting themselves to.”
“Anybody with awareness of the climatic conditions inside the landing gear would never even consider climbing on-board, as it would mean almost certain death,” said the magazine in an article on September 26 following the Kenya Airways incident.
Dr Philomena Ndambuki of Kenyatta University says that for someone to attempt such a dangerous trip, then they must be running away from something that has bothered them for a long time.
“Due to lack of jobs, the minds of some youth have been accustomed to believe that there is a better life in the First World countries,” she says.