Stowaway Tumbles Out of The Nose Wheel-well of a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777

KUALA Lumpur International Airport won high praise in Airports Council International's Airport Service Quality Awards for its performance last year, being acclaimed last March as the best airport in the 15-25 million passengers per year category.

In attaining this exalted ranking, KLIA topped San Diego International, Zurich and, most satisfyingly to airport operators Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd, Singapore's Changi - for long the one to beat.

The criteria for this evaluation included "airport access and connectivity, airport services and facilities, security and immigration, airport environment, arrival services, value for money and overall satisfaction with the airport and airline services".

Changi's management might therefore have been bemused, to put it mildly, at a stowaway tumbling out of the nose wheel-well of a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 landing there after a flight from KLIA.

That Osama Shublaq survived the experience is a wonder enough. Such stowaways are not unheard of, to be sure, but as often as not they arrive dead.

An aircraft's wheel-wells are not pressurised or heated. The 27-year-old Palestinian survived in the wheel-well on a flight that reached a maximum altitude of 7,000m, where temperatures were well below freezing. But the Sepang-Singapore sector is a short hop; maximum altitude is maintained for only six minutes, and half the duration of the scheduled hour-long flight is spent taxiing to and from terminals.

This means the Palestinian man will be in a position to inform authorities on how he managed his feat. Malaysian immigration has no record of his entry into this country from anywhere, whether by land, sea or air. This raises speculation that the stowaway might have arrived off another flight and never left KLIA's "airside", somehow sneaking instead to the SIA plane to squirrel himself into its forward undercarriage.

In a year in which airport security and aircraft maintenance have been the top issues in airport operations, this is an embarrassment. Investigations into this incident must be swift and comprehensive.

Last January, KLIA joined most of the world's major airports in levying a new "security charge" of RM6 for domestic flights and RM9 for international ones, having passengers defray the added costs of checking them and their baggage for liquids, aerosols and gels in addition to the already extensive list of items prohibited on commercial flights. This extra expense, added to the consequently extended time taken for passenger processing, is devalued without a similarly heightened vigilance on mavericks choosing to avoid the security counters completely.