Chinedu Eze reports on how a delay in the take-off of a Rivers State Government-owned plane at the Akure airport opened a Pandora’s box that exposed the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority and stirred a wave of political brickbats
The political rivalry between President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State is being played out on the aviation turf, which incidentally is exposing the entrails of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to scrutiny. At the end, it would be left to the international aviation authorities and Nigerians to judge whether the regulatory body is acting as a real professional organisation or a tool that yields to the whims of the federal government.
The Akure Incident
It all started on April 26 at the not-well-known Akure airport when the Rivers State Government-owned aircraft, a Bombardier BD700-1A11 (Global Express) with registration number N565RS, was to take off like other flights that had conveyed personalities to the burial of the late deputy governor of Ekiti State. When the pilot was to take off, he was not given the go-ahead by the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) on duty.
According to a statement by the Rivers State Government, the aircraft was grounded for about two hours. The government attributed the delay to a witch-hunt by President Goodluck Jonathan who has maintained a strained relationship with the governor.
But the aviation authorities had their own explanation. The Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) argued that the aircraft was delayed because the pilot did not declare the aircraft manifest. NAMA said since after the helicopter crash in Bayelsa State last year that killed the then governor of Kaduna State, Mr. Patrick Yakowa, and former National Security Adviser Andrew Azazi it was had decided that any aircraft in Nigeria’s airspace, whether commercial or private, must declare its manifest for security and other reasons. A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) was issued on that.
The incident prompted NCAA to scrutinise the documents of the Rivers State Government aircraft. It discovered that its clearance certificate had expired since April 2. Meanwhile, NAMA and the Rivers State Government traded words over the grounding of the aircraft. While Rivers State Government insisted that the aircraft was grounded, NAMA insisted that it was delayed until the manifest was declared by the pilot.
In accordance with aviation regulatory procedure, the aircraft could not have been grounded without the pronouncement of the regulatory body, NCAA.
THISDAY understands that since the Akure airport is a day light operation airport because it has not airfield lighting, if an aircraft that is billed to take off stays past 6pm, the airport manager must seek authorisation from Lagos before the ATC could allow the aircraft to take off. This, aviation sources say, may have contributed to the delay. They maintain that what happened to the Rivers State governor’s flight is not a peculiar incident.
Pilots who regularly operate into the Akure airport and other airports in the country that do not have runway lighting experience similar incidents. This also explains why commercial airlines usually cancel their flights to some airports that are for daylight operation whenever it is close to 6pm.
But the question on many lips is, why did NCAA not ground the Rivers State Government aircraft when the clearance documentation expired and the aircraft had become an “illegal immigrant”?
Records show that the aircraft had been flying in the country since after April 2, when NCAA claimed that clearance expired. So why was the aircraft grounded only after the Akure incident? Did NCAA not realise the expiration of the clearance until after the incident in Akure?
THISDAY investigation confirmed that the clearance certificate of the aircraft had expired. And it has been alleged that the Rivers State Government may have illegally obtained the last clearance that expired on April 2 because Caverton Helicopters, which was supposed to be managing the aircraft as an airline with Air Operating Certificate (AOC), confirmed to NCAA that it did not have dealings with the state government over the aircraft. The aircraft was registered in the United States of America “and the registered owner is Bank of Utah Trustee, 200E South Temple Ste 210, Salt Lake City, Utah. The operator of the aircraft is ACASS Canada.”
This was confirmed by a document made available to THISDAY with Ref: NCAA/daws/13/VOL. 1/125. The document showed that the aircraft was operating illegally in the country and had been operating to different airports without flight clearance and also as a foreign registered aircraft.
Comedy of Blunders
But NCAA failed to detect the alleged anomalies or simply overlooked them.
Besides, the State Security Service (SSS) ought to approve the movement of the aircraft, but records show that this was not done before the flight to Akure.
The document said, “The aircraft has been operating into and out of Nigeria on ad-hoc since January 2013. The last flight clearance approved for the aircraft was on the route DGAA (Accra) –DNPO (Port Harcourt) –DGAA (Accra) for the date 28th March to 2nd April, 2013.”
But why are all these unfolding at this time? Does it mean that NCAA is so lax that it cannot monitor the documentation of aircraft operating into the country to know which ones have the right to be in the country’s airspace and the ones that do not?
THISDAY learnt on Wednesday from an operator that there are a lot of aircraft that fly in the country illegally.
“If this incident did not happen the Rivers State Government could be flying that aircraft for the next five years and nobody will ask. Who are you to stop a governor to question him about the clearance document of his aircraft? That is what other highly placed persons are doing,” the operator, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.
He explained why it was compulsory for aircraft to operate under airlines that have AOC, saying it is mainly for accountability so that the aircraft and its pilots are held accountable for their actions through the airline that they use.
“If you commit any crime NCAA will punish you through the airline that is managing the aircraft and that airline will make sure that it does not flout any of the regulations and that any aircraft under its management abides by regulation,” he said.
But many Nigerians are also worried that a state that is struggling with sundry development challenges could acquire an aircraft for $60 million. Moreover, the plane was registered overseas, thereby denying Nigeria the payment of charges, including import duty, which aircraft registered locally usually pay. The aircraft is still perceived as a foreign aircraft, though, it is owned by a state government in Nigeria.
Cost of Complacency
The incident has exposed NCAA as inefficient, thus, confirming a well-known fact in the industry that the regulatory body is complacent and malleable, especially with regard to the highly placed people in Nigeria who are the ones that own private jets. That also explains why about 87 private jets owned by Nigerians are registered overseas, with their documentation showing them as leased.
It is estimated that Nigeria losses over $10 billion annually to this overseas registration of aircraft. This money could have been earned by the country if the aircraft were registered locally.
Many have called for sanctions against NCAA for failing to detect that the Rivers State Government aircraft’s documentation had expired. Ordinarily, in aviation if an airline fails to take its aircraft for maintenance checks when it is due, it is penalised by the regulatory body. The circumvention of any regulatory law by an operator also attracts punishment and this means that the aircraft should be penalised, but unfortunately it is not under any operator; it is just in limbo, a very dangerous fact in terms of security and safety of air transport in Nigeria.
Many Nigerians believe that the actions of NCAA in the last one week were politically motivated.
A broader view is that NCAA should be penalised for allowing an aircraft to fly in the country without proper documentation. But the major problem with the aircraft is not just that its clearance certificate has expired; it is not being managed by the airline which core sign it is flying with.
That NCAA failed to detect and correct all these is what has fuelled insinuations that its belated decision to act is politically motivated. Whether the Nigerian aviation regulatory body would take lessons from the incident involving the Rivers State Government aircraft and begin to do the right thing, only time can tell.