Every so often you hear of stowaways who hide in airplanes, attempting to travel to another country in pursuit of a better life. You wouldn’t expect those people to be aircraft technicians with access to planes, but that’s exactly what’s going on at Ethiopian Airlines.
CNN reports that 16 Ethiopian Airlines aircraft technicians have recently escaped the country via a variety of means. This specifically involves those of Tigrayan origin, given Ethiopia’s emergency laws targeting ethnic Tigrayans. Some report that their families have been detained or killed, and that they fear that they could be next, so they felt their only option was to flee the country.
The details about two of these incidents are simply shocking…
One incident occurred on a flight from Addis Ababa to Brussels on December 4, 2021. Two 25-year-old Ethiopian Airlines employees made the decision to climb into the storage compartment of a converted Ethiopian Airlines A350 cargo jet that had been sitting in the hangar for a while.
Since they were ground technicians, they had access to the aircraft for routine inspection purposes, but in this case they decided to actually fly with the plane. So for more than three hours before departure, they hid in one of the plane’s secret compartments. Then for the seven hour flight, they sat in the cargo area of the Airbus A350, with no food or water, and in the freezing cold.
As one of the men described this spur of the moment decision:
“We took the risk. We had no choice, we had no choice, we couldn’t live in Addis Ababa, we were being treated as terrorists.”
After the flight, the question was how they’d go about seeking asylum. They were scared of being sent back to Ethiopia, fearing punishment, so here’s what actually happened:
“There were two guys working on the aircraft. One was unloading the cargo shipment and the other was coming with a torch around the plane. So when the first was unloading the flowers we jumped to the ground — me and my friend — we jumped, and we ran to the terminal. We were afraid they were going to send us back. The guards, they brought us tea, but we were kneeling down on the ground, we were shaking.”
The two men have now been granted asylum in Belgium.
The two men above weren’t the only ones to seek asylum. On December 1, 2021, two Ethiopian Airlines technicians hid in a Boeing 777 bound from Addis Ababa to Washington. In this case it was a passenger flight, rather than a cargo flight. They hid in the ceiling space above the passenger cabin. They got in there through a maintenance access panel in the crew rest area, and had to cut a larger hole so that they could fit through it.
The two Ethiopian Airlines employees spent roughly 36 hours on the plane before arriving in the United States. Upon arrival, the two men were detained by the Department of Homeland Security, before being transfered to Customs & Border Protection.
A CBP spokesperson said that the two men “possessed Ethiopian Airlines employee identification cards, and that they stowed away with the intent of claiming asylum in the United States.” The pair are currently housed in a federal detention facility pending a hearing with an immigration judge, and the CBP has issued a civil penalty to Ethiopian Airlines for the security breach.
While not directly connected to this situation, when I hear of Ethiopian Airlines employees seeking asylum, I can’t help but be reminded of the 2014 incident on ET702. Specifically, an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 was scheduled to fly from Addis Ababa to Rome.
While the plane was over Sudan, the captain used the bathroom, and the first officer locked the cockpit door. He squawked 7500, which is the international code for a hijacking. The plane eventually diverted to Geneva. While authorities on the ground knew there was a hijacking, what they didn’t know is that it was actually the pilot who had hijacked the plane, and not a passenger. He was just looking to escape Ethiopia, and was seeking asylum.
Airplane stowaways as such aren’t that uncommon, but aircraft technicians using their knowledge of planes to try to escape a country isn’t something you hear about everyday.
It’s heartbreaking that these people were put in a position where they felt their best option was to risk their lives and their future freedom by taking a chance to fly to a different country. That’s simply terrible, and it’s a reminder of how good most of us have it as we deal with our day-to-day challenges…