Today ends the three day national mourning declared by President Goodluck following the crash of a DANA Air plane on Sunday afternoon. But the grief of the bereaved families would last longer and for many of them the scars of the moral wounds would remain for life. Hence they need all the support they can get in this sad period.
The implications of the human tragedy would certainly transcend the period of mourning. The lives of those who took Flight 0992 have been lost, some other persons have been killed at the site of the disaster. It may indeed take some time more for the actual figures of the dead and the wounded to be ascertained. Worse still, it is in the nature of this system that some of the victims at the site, Iju Ishaga in Lagos State, may remain unaccounted for by the time the rubbles are cleared. Therefore, even after the official mourning period, our hearts should continue to go the orphans, the widows, the bereaved parents, widowers and all those who have lost their loved ones. The stories of the victims are indeed heart-rending. As their identities are further revealed, more human stories will be told in the coming days.
Among the immediate reactions to the disaster that were reported by this newspaper on Monday was the one that came from Senator Magnus Abe. Even as tears were flowing on Sunday evening, Abe said paying condolences to the bereaved families would not be enough this time round. The senator called for “prompt action” to make sure that anyone whose action or inaction is found to be responsible for the crash is appropriately punished. That is why it is important in the circumstance to establish what really happened to the flight. Perhaps it is in the same spirit of going beyond condolence that the President himself has assured the nation of a “thorough investigation” into what actually happened. Meanwhile the authorities have appropriately grounded the fleet of DANA airlines.
It is only rational to await the outcome of the “thorough investigation” into the cause of the accident. So, it might ordinarily be prejudicial to the investigation if a conclusion seems to be reached that the cause is human error, failure of regulation, sabotage or cutting corners by the operators. The report of the expert investigation is expected to reveal what actually happened. However, even at this sad moment wider reflections on the state of the aviation industry are inevitable.
After all, public concerns about safety and standards in the industry had been growing before the Sunday disaster. Passengers have been complaining about the quality of services they get in return for their money. In private chats and public statements attention has been drawn to the issue. For instance, Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State reportedly warned the management of DANA Air recently about the air-worthiness of its aircraft. This was after a disaster was averted in an Uyo-Lagos flight operated by DANA Air. The aircraft in question was said to have hovered for hours before landing in Lagos.
The governor made these revelations after the Sunday crash. Yet the governor as the head of a government in the federation should have gone further than merely admonishing the businessmen in the DANA Air management. He is in a stronger position to make the federal authorities that are responsible for the regulation of the aviation industry to effect a correction and prevent a disaster. There are policy issues in the aviation sector with consequences for socio-economic development.
You may argue that aviation is in the exclusive list; but it is also true that the governor is a member of the National Economic Council. So he could certainly do something more influential than a member of THISDAY editorial Board, Mr. Sonnie Ekwowusi, who only four days before the crash wrote a piece in this newspaper entitled: “Averting Another Plane Disaster”. It was a save-our-soul effort, if you like.
Ekwowusi, a lawyer, did not just warn the authorities against a disaster in the sector, he offered practical suggestions about what those responsible for safety should do based on his recent flight experiences. He wrote inter alia: “ The federal government has since 2002 directed that aircraft aged 22 years and above should not be registered and permitted in Nigeria, but unfortunately a lot of old planes are still flying the air space. Just last two weeks, I boarded a DANA Airline (flight) on my way from Abuja... Some of the aircraft toilets had broken down. The air conditioning was not cooling properly. As the plane was taking off some strange noises were heard underneath the aircraft...” Ekwowusi’s observations were in no way isolated. The tragedy is that such an outcry could not avert another plane crash.
Whatever the specific cause of the crash that the expert investigators may eventually come up with later, it is clear even now that this crash is another wake-up call to the government and other stakeholders to work seriously on the weak points in the chain of the aviation industry. There are sundry general issues that must be resolved at the policy and practical levels in the interest of the economy and consumers of the services of aviation industry. The platitude that “aviation sector is a success story of liberalisation” may no more be sufficient in the face of the challenges facing the sector. It is hardly disputable that the corollary of liberalisation is stronger regulatory mechanisms.
The regulator must be equipped and strengthened in a liberalised environment so as to prevent unethical operators from turning aviation into a sector of anything goes in the bid to maximise profits. Operators should not be allowed to define their individual rules just because they are investors who should be attracted to the industry. Was the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) aware of the enormous anxiety of the passengers about safety, enforcement standards and security? Does the regulator have the capacity to make it function properly? The pattern of investment in the sector should be properly interrogated.
The capacity of the investors to expand their fleets and maintain the aircraft are policy issues. With the frequent crashes in 2005/2006, there were strident voices in support of consolidation in the sector. The argument was that if operators pool their resources they could acquire more air-worthy planes. Such calls have since frizzled out in the spirit of competition. It does not matter if some competitors are operating with only one serviceable aircraft to opponents of consolidation in the sector.
While announcing the crash officially on Sunday evening, the minister of aviation, Princess Stella Oduah, said that the promised investigation would help in preventing future crashes in the sector. The investigation should, therefore, be taken seriously so as to assure the public of the safety of services provided by the operators in the sector. For now, it is another sad occasion to take a critical look at the condition of the aviation industry.