Plane stowaways: putting an end to a deadly gamble

Adele Berti 26 September 2019 (Last Updated September 26th, 2019 15:58)

The recent death of a stowaway who fell from a Heathrow-bound plane into a London garden has reignited a conversation about the deadly consequences of stowing aboard commercial flights. What lies at the heart of this issue, and what measures can be put in place to stop it from happening?

Plane stowaways: putting an end to a deadly gamble
Stowaways typically hide inside an aircraft’s under-carriage, in the small area left when the landing gear retracts. Credit: Eric (via Flickr).

Kenyan capital Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has more than three levels of security checks and a relatively solid perimeter fence dividing passengers from its airfield, where large numbers of aircraft are parked before departure.

Despite these security measures, in July, a man managed to hide inside the undercarriage of a London-bound Kenya Airways aircraft and embark on what was, tragically, the final flight of his life.

The man, who reports suggest could have been a member of Jomo Kenyatta airport staff, stowed away inside the most dangerous part of the aircraft for eight or more hours, before his lifeless body fell into a south London private garden as the plane approached Heathrow Airport.

This was not an isolated incident; it is the latest on a not-so-short list of dead stowaways registered in the UK and elsewhere in the world. However, July’s case brought back to public attention an issue that, despite being less common than its counterparts at sea or on the roads, has been affecting aviation for many decades.

Figures from the US Federal Aviation Administration show a staggering 126 people have tried to hitch a ride on an aeroplane since 1947, facing a 77% chance of never reaching their destination alive.

Profiling a stowaway

The migrant and refugee crisis currently gripping the world has formulated an image within our collective mind of a typical asylum-seeker, which happens to almost perfectly match the profile of the typical stowaway.

“We are normally talking about extremely desperate individuals who feel that they have to flee their homelands or current place of residence in search of a better life,” explains aviation expert Philip Baum, visiting professor at Coventry University and managing director of Green Light, a global provider of security consultancy and training services.

However, one main trait seems to differentiate a stowaway from other migrants. “In many cases, these are poorly educated people who simply don’t appreciate the risks they are subjecting themselves to,” Baum explains.

Former pilot and aviation consultant Alastair Rosenschein refers to this as “the ignorance factor”.

“Most of the cases have tended to be from places that are impoverished or developing countries.”

“These men are not aware of the fact they won’t survive, they think that going in the under-carriage space is like getting into the cabin,” he says, adding that 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.

The geographic origin point of air stowaways is another recurring factor; FAA data shows 34 of a total of 44 registered cases have originated from African airports.

“Most of the cases have tended to be from places that are impoverished or developing countries,” says Baum. “Maybe a flight from Africa towards Europe, or even from Eastern Europe towards Western Europe.”

Many of these poor communities also often have less advanced security checks at their national airports. As Rosenschein puts it: “These airports don’t have a proper exclusion zone, perimeter fence; it’s easy to actually get into the airport airside. They lack the standards that we have in the West.”

There is always a possibility, however, that the stowaway could be an insider, a member of staff, with clearance or easy opportunities to access the airfield.

Conditions leading to an almost certain death

Whether pushed by desperation, opportunism, or seduced by a Western lifestyle promoted by TV and social media, stowaways’ dreams for a better future – or their fears over what might happen to them if they remain at home – undoubtedly cloud their decision.

Aerospace Medical Association Air Transport Medicine Committee chair Elizabeth Wilkinson is incredulous that anyone would take the risk of stowing away on a passenger plane.

“When you understand what [stowaways are] exposed to, it really does make you think, why on earth would somebody do this?”

For starters, stowaways typically hide inside an aircraft’s undercarriage, in the small area left when the landing gear retracts, in the minutes before the plane’s departure, when it’s taxied and awaiting permission to take off or during night flights.

“It’s not like when you’re in a cabin; it’s not even like a cargo compartment.”

This brings the first of many risks a stowaway faces, the chance of being crushed by the landing gear itself when it retracts. A second risk is “falling once the landing gear then comes down again on the approach,” as Wilkinson explains.

But the most likely consequences of hiding in the landing gear, where the air is not pressurised or temperature-controlled, are hypothermia and hypoxia.

“It’s not like when you’re in a cabin; it’s not even like a cargo compartment both of which are pressurised,” says Wilkinson.” On most commercial aircraft, you reach heights of between 36,000 and 38,000ft and at that altitude, the air pressure is not enough to give the body the oxygen it needs,” causing the stowaway to lose consciousness.

Wilkinson adds: “The outside temperature at the cruising altitude of most commercial aircraft will have reached -50°C,” at which point the body will reach a frozen state and suffer from hypothermia.

These conditions, combined with his unconscious body crashing against the landing gear as the plane prepared to land, are thought to be the reason behind the death of July’s stowaway in London.

However, although this and other registered cases create a clearer picture of the issue and its impacts, Baum says it’s difficult to understand the extent of the problem.

“We know how many deceased bodies we find in landing gears,” he says. “We know incidents where somebody has fallen out of an aircraft, but we don’t know how many people have fallen after the aircraft has just taken off, before the landing gear has been withdrawn. We don’t know how many bodies have fallen out but not landed in a garden.”

The problem with raising awareness

But scarce and incomplete data is not the only issue; both Baum and Rosenschein concede finding an effective solution to the issue itself presents a number of challenges.

First of all, Rosenschein argues that the relative rarity of these cases makes it hard to implement solutions: “Because it’s not very often, it is going to be very difficult to prevent it, as the level of effort that would be involved in preventing these very rare occurrences is disproportionately high for the risk factor.”

“Because it’s not very often, it is going to be very difficult to prevent it.”

Secondly, even if resources were available and could be used to implement a number of resolutions, some limitations could come in the way of success.

The first, most instinctive action would be to increase awareness in developing countries of the countless dangers stowing away inside an aircraft brings.

“Near those airfields where we know stowaways have boarded, there could be adverts put in newspapers,” adds Rosenschein, though he admits being unsure whether enough people would read them.

Baum adds that while informing the public would be a good idea in principle, in practice it emphasises the serious flaws in aircraft security systems. “The last thing I think we ought to be doing is giving public service announcements telling people it will be dangerous to do so, because we are just saying we can’t stop people getting as far as an aircraft,” he says.

Tightening security checks to block stowaways

While openly campaigning against this near-suicidal practice might do more harm than good, the practical (albeit expensive) solution would be to tighten airfield security checks.

“There is a case for an increase in the number of patrol vehicles escorting aircraft out to the runway and keeping an eye on the aircraft right up to the point of take-off to make sure that nobody does it,” explains Baum.

Adding to this, Rosenschein stresses the importance of intensifying the aircraft checks pilots and engineers carry out before departure.

“The pilot will always do a walk around the aircraft an hour or 40 minutes before departure and whilst they do look in the undercarriage, they should look more carefully,” he says.

“Secondly, perhaps the engineer who’s in charge of pushing back the aircraft should do another check of the undercarriage space five minutes before departure.”

“There is a case for an increase in the number of patrol vehicles escorting aircraft out to the runway .”

Overall, both experts argue that technology could and should play a greater role in detecting stowaways prior to departure. “Aircraft themselves should be equipped with heat sensors, potentially even CCTV cameras that could provide the pilot with a view, or an alarm indicating that there is a presence of a body in the landing gear,” suggests Baum.

However, he concedes that even the most advanced devices would leave a limited time for intervention, and no technology would be effective if someone stows away in the undercarriage right before take-off.

The bitterest side of the issue, however, is that while measures can be introduced to intercept stowaways attempting to hitch a ride, dissuading them from doing it altogether is only destined to get harder and harder as time goes by.

“I worked in Africa for a period of time, during the 1980s, and we paid men 20 pence a day to work,” says Rosenschein, “and whilst I wanted to pay them more, I couldn’t because it creates disruption within the local villages; jealousy and fights.

“Unfortunately, this problem is going to continue, probably even increase, because of the draw factor of Europe; with the internet and TV, people can see that the life of people in the West is dramatically better than theirs, and they’re going to want to come across.”