The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration granted Nigeria its top air-safety rating Monday, a decision that allows Nigerian airlines to fly directly to the United States but does not address the nation's porous airport security.
The FAA decision to grant Nigeria category 1 status comes as body scanners at Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport purchased after the alleged Christmas Day bomber began his journey at the chaotic airfield still go unused. However, the decision to put Nigeria at a higher rating than even Mexico came down to whether the civil aviation authority in Africa's most populous nation could properly oversee its airlines, FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said.
"It's the crux of what we looked at," Duquette said.
The decision, based on a July examination by FAA authorities, allows Nigerian air carriers to apply to send flights to the U.S. with their own aircraft.
Arik Air, which already flies U.S.-based leased aircraft from Lagos to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, plans to apply to fly its own planes there, said Harold Demuren, director general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority.
Demuren called news of the FAA's decision "fantastic," saying it showed how far the country had come.
U.S.-based Delta Air Lines Inc. also has a direct flight from Lagos to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Continental Airlines Inc. plans to launch new daily nonstop flights between Houston and Lagos late next year.
Nigeria, home to 150 million people, had never been rated before by the FAA, Duquette said. However, the nation's aviation history remains marred with air fatalities and fears over lax security.
The U.S. put a six-year ban on direct flights from Murtala Muhammed airport in the 1990s over security concerns. Even today, some passengers encounter officials at the airport who try to solicit cash bribes while baggage handlers rifle through luggage for valuables.
In October 2005, an airplane flown by Nigerian carrier Bellview Airlines crashed after takeoff from Lagos, killing all 117 people aboard.
In May 2002, an EAS Airlines jet plowed into a heavily populated neighborhood after taking off from Kano, killing 154 people in the plane and on the ground.
Security remains a great concern in Nigeria after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner with an explosive device hidden beneath his clothes on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab started his journey at Murtala Muhammed International Airport and only went through a metal detector before boarding his initial flight.
Security officials suggest that body scanners, which create detailed 3-D images of passengers' figures, would have shown the explosives that prosecutors say Abdulmutallab hid in his underwear. However, that equipment now sits idle as international passengers walk through security screening at Murtala Muhammed, the oil-rich nation's busiest airport.
Demuren previously has said the airport authority has yet to train enough officers to operate the screeners. Passengers flying internationally from the airport do undergo a pat-down search before leaving the security checkpoint.
The FAA's decision comes after the agency downgraded Mexico to a category 2 rating in July.
That rating is usually the province of Third World countries, but the U.S. has previously downgraded other important allies, including Israel in December 2008.
When the FAA takes such an action, it usually aims at the government regulation of aviation and safety, and not at individual airlines.
Source: The Associated Press.