LAGOS – Nigerian airlines could be allowed to fly their own planes to the United States by the end of the year following improvements in aviation security in the West African nation, U.S. and Nigerian officials said on Wednesday.
Airline security in Africa’s most populous country came under heightened scrutiny last December following a failed Christmas Day bombing attempt on a U.S. airliner blamed on a Nigerian passenger with explosives concealed in his underwear.
U.S. security officials have been working with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority for over three years to try to improve safety standards and prepare the West African nation for “Category 1” status by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority.
The status would allow airlines to fly Nigerian-registered planes with local crew to and from the United States. Currently, Nigerian carriers must “wet lease” aircraft and crew from another airline with Category 1 status for U.S-bound flights.
Wet leasing is prohibitively expensive for most Nigerian airlines, with Arik Air the only Nigerian carrier certified and able to afford to offer services to the United States.
“Category 1 would allow Nigerian carriers to fly directly to the U.S. using their own aircraft and crews, establish new routes and frequencies, and add additional aircraft,” Robin Sanders, U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, told a news conference.
“You’ve achieved and crossed … major hurdles on the positive path to Category 1 status, which I hope with my team that you will be able to achieve some time between now and the end of the year,” she said.
Nigeria has passed an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) audit after acquiring full-body scanners, explosive-detecting equipment and creating separate bays at international airports for security screening of U.S-bound passengers, officials said.
Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority director general Harold Demuren said the December 25 failed bombing attempt had slowed progress towards U.S. Category 1 status.
“It slowed us down a bit, but we rose to the challenge,” Demuren said.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 as it approached Detroit from Amsterdam with almost 300 people on board. He transferred to that flight from a KLM flight from Lagos.
Demuren acknowledged that Nigeria had yet to begin using full-body scanners ordered after the failed bomb attempt, which use radio waves to generate a picture of the body that can see through clothing and spot hidden weapons or packages.
The United States gave Nigeria five scanners between 2008-2009 which Demuren said were in working order.