A Nigerian airline says it could pull its business out of the UK after one of its pilots was arrested by immigration officials on suspicion of being a stowaway and threatened with deportation.
Max Air, which is based in Nigeria, condemned the move by border staff at Bournemouth International Airport as an example of the Home Office’s “hostile environment policy”.
The company is now losing £180,000 a day because they cannot find another pilot to fly the plane after Captain Adam Dilli Ibrahim, 36, returned home voluntarily on another flight.
Captain Ibrahim was detained for questioning, fingerprinted and photographed before being told he would be forcibly removed – even though pilots do not legally require leave to enter the UK for seven days or less.
Frank Unokesan, whose company is responsible for maintaining Max Air planes, told The Independent that there had been a ‘long history’ of problems with immigration officials.
“Whenever they see a green (Nigerian) passport they have doubted they are the captain and believe he is a stowaway, that’s their mindset,” he said.
“The captain has done nothing wrong. I feel terrible, I feel ashamed. It is so much bureaucracy.”
Mr Unokesan compared it to the problems suffered by other Commonwealth citizens under the so-called “hostile environment” set up by Theresa May when she was home secretary.
“That’s the way I see it,” he said. “I would have thought with Brexit the UK would try and make more friends but now they are kicking us in the teeth.
“I don’t know what kind of government they are running.”
Max Air may now avoid the UK in future and take its business to Germany, which has allowed pilots to stay for up to three months without any problems, he added.
“Nigeria is a former colony of the UK and we are trying to do business with Britain but now they are turning back our business and deporting the pilot,” said Mr Unokesan.
“Max Air has ten Boeings and five private jets, one of the biggest in the market in Nigeria. The managing director is so angry they are treating us like this.
“If you treat us like this, what is the hope for the future in the UK?”
The dispute with the Home Office centres on the interpretation of the Immigration Act 1971, which states that a pilot or crew member does not require leave to enter the UK if they depart within seven days.
Captain Ibrahim, who has previously flown in and out of the UK without problem, told immigration officials on arrival on 10 December that the maintenance work on the aircraft was scheduled to last between seven and ten days.
“Instead of respecting the position of the captain, they take his passport and they said after seven days we will talk about that,” said Mr Unokesan.
“They suspected the co-pilot is the real pilot because he has a visa in his passport and the captain is a stowaway posing as a captain. So they arrested him for entering into the UK without a visa.”
After taking legal advice, the pilot voluntarily flew out of the UK on 16 December. The maintenance work finished on 20 December but Max Air is unable to find a replacement captain at short notice. The aircraft remains in the UK and the co-pilot is still staying at a local hotel.
“This maintenance work alone was bringing in $100,000 (£80,000) of business to the UK, but we are losing $9,500 (£7,500) an hour,” said Mr Unokesan.
Max Air say that on previous occasions they have either brought in more engineers to finish the work in time or applied for an extension of leave for the pilot.
Mandie Sewa, senior solicitor and head of immigration at Moore Blatch Solicitors, which represents the airline, said: ”The recently published government white paper assumes that the UK will continue to be an attractive destination for non-EU migrants.
“However our client has suffered huge financial losses amounting to approximately $9,500 per hour, because of the current anti-immigration message received from the immigration officials at the border due to hostile immigration policy.”
Immigration officials argue that a visa is mandatory for nationals staying longer than seven days and that it is the responsibility of air crew to ensure they have the correct documentation on arrival.
The Home Office said in a statement: “We do not routinely comment on individual cases.”
By Peter Stubley