Two Ethiopian Airlines maintenance technicians hid in a ceiling void above the passenger cabin of a commercial plane in order to flee Ethiopia and claim asylum in the United States, a spokesperson for the US Customs and Border Protection has confirmed.
The two men claimed asylum on December 1 after clambering into the tiny void space in the ceiling of a Boeing 777 passenger jet and surviving a 36-hour journey from Addis Ababa. The plane ended up in Washington DC but went via Lagos, Nigeria and Dublin, Ireland before eventually ending up in the United States.
An airline source who spoke with CNN said an investigation concluded that the men had accessed the void space via a maintenance access panel within the flight attendant rest compartment which is fitted to some 777 aircraft.
On arrival in Washington DC, the men climbed out of their hiding space and surrendered to CBP officers. A spokesperson for CBP said the men “possessed Ethiopian Airlines employee identification cards, and that they stowed away with the intent of claiming asylum in the United States.”
“The two Ethiopian males are presently housed at a federal detention facility pending a hearing before an immigration judge,” the statement continued.
“CBP issued a civil penalty to Ethiopian Airlines for the security breach and were briefed on measures the airline is undertaking to enhance the airline’s aircraft security plan.”
The security breach is not an isolated incident. As many as 16 Ethiopian Airlines have managed to illegally smuggle themselves out of Ethiopia on the carrier’s own planes. Some have allegedly dressed up as cabin crew, while others have hidden in the cargo hold of commercial jets.
Two former Ethiopian Airlines employees told of how they fled to Brussels on December 4, 2021, after concealing themselves amongst crew baggage within the bulk cargo hold of an Ethiopian Airlines plane.
“We took the risk. We were — we had no choice, we had no choice, we couldn’t live in Addis Ababa, we were being treated as terrorists,” one of the men told CNN.
They are both of Tigrayan heritage from the contested Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has been involved in a fierce conflict with Tigrayan separatists and the national flag carrier has been accused of helping to transports military arms and personnel.
Ethiopian Airlines strenuously denies the allegations.
The airline has also been accused of discriminating against employees with Tigray heritage but Ethiopian Airlines says it “strongly refutes” the allegations. Ethiopian Airlines is yet to publicly comment on the latest allegations.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.