Airplane stowaway case intrigues security analysts
LOS ANGELES – Virgin America Flight 415 from New York to Los Angeles was already two hours into its journey when some passengers in the upscale “Main Cabin Select” section complained that the man seated in 3E reeked of body odor.
A flight attendant asked Olajide Oluwaseun Noibi for his boarding pass and was surprised to see it was from a different flight and in someone else’s name. She alerted authorities, and Noibi went back to sleep in his black leather airline seat. When the plane landed, authorities chose not to arrest Noibi, allowing him to leave the airport.
On Wednesday, Noibi was arrested trying to board a Delta flight out of Los Angeles. Once again, he had managed to pass undetected through security with an expired ticket issued in someone else’s name. Authorities found at least 10 other boarding passes, none of which belonged to him. Law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times they suspect Noibi has used expired plane tickets to sneak onto flights in the past. On his website, Noibi describes himself as a “frequent traveler.”
Now, federal authorities and Virgin America airlines are trying to explain how the Nigerian American was able to get through layers of security – and then avoid arrest for five days after officials discovered he was a stowaway.
Aviation safety experts said they see several major breakdowns in security procedures. The Transportation Security Agency and airline officials should have noticed the ticket was expired and not in Noibi’s name when he boarded at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, they said. He was allowed on board by showing his expired university ID card, even though college identification cards are not on the TSA’s list of valid IDs and federal transportation sources said that it alone should not have been accepted.
The experts were also perplexed at why officials allowed Noibi to leave LAX after the plane landed when he had clearly violated laws.
“Obviously the system did not work the way it was supposed to,” said Brian Jenkins, a transportation security expert at the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose, Calif., and the Rand Corp., the Santa Monica-based think tank. “Procedure was not followed.”
The incident is another black eye for airport security officials, who are still dealing with the publicity surrounding the TSA’s decision last week to force a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair to take off her adult diaper when she went through a security check in Florida.
TSA officials said Thursday it was reviewing Noibi’s case. But Virgin America acknowledged in a statement that its workers “may have missed an alert” in processing Noibi in New York.
The saga began June 24, when Noibi got on the plane at JFK.
Noibi was not on the list of passengers for the flight, which would be mandatory “for each paying passenger on every U.S. domestic flight,” wrote special agent Kevin R. Hogg in an FBI affidavit. Virgin had no record of Noibi paying for his ticket.
Still, he was able to move past two checkpoints – at the security screening area and at the gate – with his expired ticket and university ID.
Investigators later determined the boarding pass belonged to a man identified in the affidavit only as “M.D.”
The man told authorities he printed his boarding pass at home and put it in his back pocket. When he arrived at JFK after taking the subway, he couldn’t find it. He said he did not know Noibi and printed a replacement boarding pass.
When the flight attendant approached Noibi two hours into the twin-jet Airbus A320 flight, Noibi produced a boarding pass for the day before. The attendant alerted Capt. Joseph Groff, who directed her to seek additional identification, according to the affidavit. Noibi initially hesitated but then produced a student ID from the University of Michigan. Noibi attended as an undergraduate student between 2006 and 2008, the college confirmed.
Groff noted that the names did not match, and the crew alerted authorities on the ground.
The crew kept the subject – who was asleep for much of the flight – under surveillance, but at no time felt there was any threat to the security of the flight, Condon said.
The five-hour, 23-minute flight landed in Los Angeles at 12:53 a.m. Saturday. Waiting officers let Noibi go after questioning him. But he returned to LAX on Tuesday, passed through security screening and waited for hours at the airport.
When he tried to board Delta Airlines Flight 46 to Atlanta using the expired ticket, authorities took him into custody Wednesday morning.
Noibi faces stowaway charges and is scheduled to appear in federal court today.