Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Danger in Free Rides


Imagine being lodged in the wheel well of a jet. The plane gathers speed on the runaway and gradually lifts off the tarmac. The wheels retract and as they fold in on themselves, so must you. If your body is unsecured or misplaced, you will be crushed by the landing gear. The temperature of the air moves inversely with the ascension of the plane. Soon it will reach -40 degrees in the hold. Any exposed skin is frostbitten within minutes; even with well-insulted clothing, to withstand conditions this harsh over the length of a flight is to defy vastly long odds.

This is stowing away on commercial flights in 2007.

On January 29th of this year, a body was found in the wheel well of a British Airways 747 jet at LAX during a routine flight check prior to takeoff. Documents found on the body identified the youth of 17 or 18 years old as a South African national.

Airline authorities have reported several incidents of wheel-well stowaways within the past few years. If not frozen to death or asphyxiated due to lack of oxygen in the hold, many of these individuals –some intact, some not – will fall out of the aircraft midair. In 2005, a severed leg was found in a residential backyard not far from John F. Kennedy airport in New York. Because so few of these fallen bodies are ever recovered, estimating the survival rate of a wheel-well passage is unreliable at best.

Yet some stowaways do arrive safely to their destinations. A man emerged from a French Polynesian flight to Los Angeles in 2000, his core body temperature an arctic 79 degrees -- well below what is normally fatal. Then in 2002, a Cuban man named Victor Alvarez Molina made it alive to Montreal. Freed after a short detainment and allowed to remain in Canada, Alvarez Molina found work in a car storeroom and learned French.

Since most stowaways are bound for either Europe or North America and originate from war-torn or impoverished countries, it is fair to presume they are seeking better lives abroad. This would explain why airborne stowaways resort to such extreme measures, risking repatriation and fairly certain death. A letter found on a decedent 14-year old from West Africa whose body was discovered in a wheel well speaks to these dire urges: "If you see that we have sacrificed and risked our lives, it is because there is too much suffering in Africa; [We] want to study and we ask you to help us in Africa to study to be like you."

The dearth of survivors also presents an obstacle in finding those behind this high-risk form of "people smuggling." The "coyotes" who facilitate illegal Mexican-American border crossings, and the "snakeheads" of Chinese smuggling syndicates who arrange ocean journeys in shipping containers are more likely to be indicted for their acts simply because the people they smuggle are more likely to outlive their passages.

Smuggling people into the United States has become a lucrative industry, netting $10 billion-a-year according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Border experts say the price for Mexican migrants, for example, has risen from $300 to $1,200 since 1994, the last time U.S. border controls were tightened.

Weighing humanitarian need against national security concerns in a "post-9/11 world" is not a problem our government has or will unravel in the foreseeable future. Of late, guest worker programs and provisions for Iraq-war refugees can be seen as forward-thinking initiatives, yet both remain controversial and difficult to implement.

Until immigration authorities and international peace-keeping forces can move more nimbly in response to the onset of wars and famine, their guilt will lie in the wheel well of a jet.

About the Writer

Matt Weston is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on The Danger in Free Rides

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By Steven Lane on March 19, 2007 at 12:06 am
Great story, I have seen incidental reports on these "stowaways" for over 20 years. You have to be desperate and uninformed to try this, hard to breathe at 38,000 feet. Desperation makes for very bad decisions.
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