Many experts in Nigeria and overseas agree that in spite of the recent air crashes involving both Dana Air and Associated Aviation Limited, Nigeria has significantly improved air safety standards. But government must still do more to stop aircraft from falling from the sky, reports Chinedu Eze
Nigerians have developed spontaneous, sequential reaction to reports of air accidents: in the release of their emotions, the routine shouts and shocks and the media rumour and speculative frenzy.
This is because air accidents have become such gruesome part of this society that many Nigerians, who have the resources to travel by air, instead choose to travel by road because they believe that the Nigerian sky has something sinister about it; that once in a while it takes some lives down with an affected aircraft.
The ululation and tears that followed the latest tragedy, the crash of the Associated Aviation Limited flight 631, which nosedived into the premises of Joint User Hydrant Installation (JUHEL) facility at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, on October 3, 2013, killing 15 souls, was heightened by the fear that another crash would happen again.
So the wailing was not only for those who had lost their lives, but for those that would die in air crashes in future, deriving from the long sorrow that has followed the history of air transport in Nigeria.
But it will be wrong to say that Nigeria’s airspace is unsafe. It used to be; not anymore. Significant efforts have been made, especially since 2006 with the Civil Aviation Act, which made the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) autonomous to improve safety in air transport in Nigeria, and such efforts have yielded fruits.
And it is good to say that air accidents happen all over the world, but the civil aviation regulatory organisations efficiently ensure that such accidents do not involve commercial airliners that airlift high number of people in their operations.
Shortly after the crash of Dana Air Flight 9J 0992 at Iju/Ishaga area of Lagos that killed 153 souls on board on June 3, 2012, the US-based Safety Flight Foundation, in reaction to the outrage that followed, said the accident happened despite efforts in recent years to improve air safety in Nigeria with global recognition of that effort, and expressed hope that Nigeria would continue the reforms it started after a series of fatal crashes more than five years ago.
"There's no question that we know a lot has gone on and I think you have to attribute some of this really good record up until now to that," said William R. Voss, president and CEO of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.
It is the same inclination that the International Federation of Airlines Pilots Association (IFPA) has spoken about the safety of Nigeria’s airspace. About six years ago the body never hesitated to lash at Nigeria at various fora and criticise its airspace which they deemed as unsafe.
But when systematic efforts started to improve the airspace through better communications, surveillance and navigation, the same body came out to laud the efforts, as pilots who fly through Nigeria’s airspace to various airports in the country and to other destinations, inform the association that the airspace is now safe.
Strategies for NCAA Compliance
The major challenge facing NCAA in regulating Nigeria’s aviation industry is the failure of some of the airlines to comply with regulation. It has become evident that airlines file fake documentation and deceive NCAA.
Instead of cooperation and synergy which should exist between the airlines and the regulatory authority, what is prevalent is a cat-mouse relationship between airline management and NCAA because some of the airlines do not want to comply with regulations, so they provide fake documentation for certification.
Ideally NCAA should repose confidence in the airlines which as much as possible should ensure that their operations are safe but it has become obvious they cut corners in maintenance and they file fake insurance and other documents, and from the Bellview crash, going by the last report of the Accident Investigation Bureau on the accident, they also file fake doctors’ report on the pilots.
But it will be naïve for NCAA to cite these as excuses why it has been unable to discover that airlines present fake documentation because there is precedence. Sosoliso could not pay the victims of the crash of Flight 1145 on December 10, 2005 that killed about 107 people because it did not take adequate insurance on the aircraft.
The Director General of the NCAA, Fola Akinkuotu, believes that if the airline meets all the set conditions, according to regulation, it should be certified to operate. Akinkuotu explained that Associated Aviation Limited met all the conditions to fly and was allowed to operate.
It is well known in the aviation industry that in terms of maintenance, some airlines cut corners to cut cost. It is known that some defer aircraft maintenance date; some do not carry out the whole maintenance as logged. The former Director General of the NCAA, Dr Harold Demuren, acknowledged that some airlines cut corners. In one of the interviews he granted THISDAY before he left, he said NCAA had to monitor maintenance checks of airlines to ensure that they complied with the level of maintenance as expected by NCAA.
“We do not allow you to do maintenance as per customer’s request. You must do maintenance as per NCAA approved maintenance programme. People who are crooked will take their aircraft for maintenance and specify areas that should be maintained and areas that should be left in order to save cost. We don’t allow that. First when you are going for maintenance we look at your log and see what you are going to do. Those who failed to abide by NCAA conditions were grounded in the past,” Demuren said.
Next Generation Aircraft
Although it is almost an anthem in the aviation industry that there is nothing wrong with old aircraft but those who say that acknowledge that without adequate maintenance an old aircraft could become a coffin and in addition to that old aircraft maintenance is rigorous and cost intensive.
So as Nigeria does not have Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility, it is difficult and very challenging to operate old aircraft and effectively carry out both unscheduled and scheduled maintenance. It is only Aero, which operate aircraft with average age of about 18 years, that is known to effectively do that in Nigeria.
Aviation consultant and CEO of Belujane Konsult, Chris Aligbe, said Nigeria should try and raise the bar by operating modern aircraft fleet, which has less demand on maintenance and consumes less fuel, noting that it is what other countries of the world are doing now.
Acknowledging that the US operates very old aircraft he said, “In the US there are many MRO facilities and the regulation is high; so also is the knowledge, competences and spares, but in our own situation, neither of these exist with us. We don’t have the maintenance facility, we don’t have the competences and we are still building our regulatory authority to meet international standards.
“People argue that age has nothing to with it but maintenance; but they have not stopped to ask themselves what competences that are there in Nigeria. It is cheaper at the beginning to have old aircraft but at the end it is cost intensive. So we need to upgrade to next generation aircraft; even when we build MRO it should be for new aircraft because that is where everybody is going.”
He said NCAA should conduct due diligence on all the documentation presented to it by all the airlines and use external agencies in the areas they do not have the competences.
Aligbe said safety and air regulation was weak pre-2006 because Nigeria had a system that was virtually unregulated, but from 2006 when the Civil Aviation Act was ratified, there was marked improvement of air safety in Nigeria, and few years later, Nigeria obtained the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Audit and the obtained Category 1 safety status from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the US.
“IFPA used to criticise Nigeria’s airspace as being unsafe, but in recent times they are praising the airspace. Both NCAA and the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) have done a tremendous job”, he added.
Aligbe and other industry operatives say that what NCAA has achieved for Nigeria is safety regulation, but it has not done much on economic regulation and customer protection, remarking that economic regulation is as important as safety regulation because an airline that does not have the resources to operate, pay for maintenance and pay the staff members, would negate safety regulations.
“From 2006 the focus was on commercial aviation safety because the challenge we had was on commercial airlines. The charter services did not come under the purview of the regulatory agencies. They focused on it and they did well. Credit must go to Dr. Harold Demuren for the improvement in safety regulations. But now we have to focus on economic regulation. NCAA should now find out whether the airline paid the pilots and the crew. In the past it was not the issue.”
Aligbe observed that economic regulation is very important and also the manpower of the airlines, noting that the welfare of the airline personnel and the person managing the air should be of critical importance to the regulatory body.
“NCAA has to now concentrate on economic regulation as well as safety regulation. Because initially NCAA’s focus was not there it did not acquire the competences for economic regulation. How many route analysts do we have and how many airline economists do we have. It was in October 2012 that NCAA developed something on economic regulation and Passenger Bill of Rights.
NCAA should be doing in the aviation industry what the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is doing in the banking sector. CBN regulates banks and approves appointments. It conducts due diligence on personnel of the banks. We need to look at it and make sure that those who want to establish airlines have the pedigree to do so.”
The aviation sector is not run like other businesses. A pilot not receiving his salary can have disastrous consequences; the same with the technical personnel and others who contribute in various ways to ensure safe air operation.