Nigeria has not recorded a fatal accident involving a commercial airliner in the last two years. Many attribute this to efficient regulation by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, but others warn against the dangers of docility. Chinedu Eze reports

It could be said that Nigeria is beginning to enjoy a breather in air transport as 2014 and 2015 were declared accident free years, because no scheduled commercial airline was involved in fatalities. But prior to this period, Nigeria recorded air accident almost every year.

Apart from the Beechcraft 1900 owned by Wings Aviation, which disappeared on its way to Bebi Airstrip in early 2008 and its wreckage was later found in a valley in the thick forest in Cross River state; the period from that year to 2012 was accident free, before the Dana air crash, one of the most tragic air crashes in Nigeria’s history.

The last tragic accident involving a fixed wing aircraft in Nigeria was that of Associated Aviation Limited with Flight 361, which was on a domestic charter flight operated on October 3, 2013.

The aircraft, Embraer EMB, was conveying the body of the former governor of Ondo state, Olusegun Agagu with others on board when it crashed on take off from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos on its way to Akure airport in Ondo state.

Out of over 20 souls on board, four passengers and two crew members survived the accident.

The accident happened one year and four months after the tragic Dana Air Flight 992, which killed all the 153 persons on board. The plane, which took off from Abuja, on June 3, 2012, crashed very close to the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos.

The recurrent air accidents in Nigeria have affected the psyche of most Nigerians, who travel by air. In fact, one of the major reasons why despite the huge Nigerian population, less than one per cent of Nigerians travel by air is due to fear of accident. That is why Nigerians are petrified by any kind of turbulence while airborne.

Compared to other countries, Nigeria has its major share of air crashes, which contributed to make Africa the most accident-prone continent in the world.

Effective Regulation

The autonomy of NCAA and the appointment of Dr. Harold Demuren as Director General recorded a turnaround in the rate of air accident in Nigeria. Although the good work under Demuren was severely hurt by the Dana Air crash, the renowned aviator laid a good foundation for the success being recorded by the regulatory body today.

For instance, his administration improved safety regulation and ensured that airlines began to act more responsibly; ensured that airlines underwrite their aircraft correctly and enhanced Nigeria’s membership to Cape Town Convention and later made it possible for Nigeria to be certified by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), climaxing it with the Category One rating of Nigeria’s air transport sector by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that enable US registered aircraft to fly into the country.

But under this period Nigeria recorded the aforementioned accidents involving Wings Aviation, Dana Air and Associated Aviation flights. But industry watchers strongly believe that the foundation Demuren laid has significantly improved the industry in terms of safety.

After Demuren NCAA management was subjected to uncertainty when Director Generals on acting capacity were appointed. Many insiders believe that eroded the efficiency in the organisation and ebbed the goodwill laid by the former Director General.

Industry analyst and CEO of Belujane Konsult, Chris Aligbe has noted that the interregnum when there were Director Generals in acting capacity was a low period for NCAA.

“The low period created so many problems. I don’t blame the executive as much as I blame the legislature. The legislature then didn’t see that NCAA is place that you should never give a long period where there is no substantive head; that was what they did. The position should never be left because it is so critical to the industry. But if you look at what happened, the exit of Demuren to the emergence of Captain Fola Akinkotu, there was a great lull as people battled whether Akinkiotu would come or he would not come, until he was brought in.

“It didn’t take too long a time he was removed. And then followed another period of lull where the industry was moving on without a substantive head. Yes, there was an acting head but such a place is not a place to be left to any person in acting capacity. But the politics then created that void and so much went wrong during the period. But these were the things that, maybe, the present Director General, Captain Muhtar Usman himself had to start correcting, has to start pulling back. And in a situation where you had cleavages here and there, it is usually difficult,” Aligbe said.

Complacence with regulations

Many in the industry believe that NCAA is losing its efficiency again because things seem not to be going well for now. Industry observers are of the view that although scheduled airline operators have maintained good safety record in the last two years, but this might have deluded NCAA into complacency. They posited that this was evidence in major incidents and accidents that involved aircraft in the general aviation, including charter operator services, helicopter services and cargo.

Former Commandant of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, Group Captain John Ojikutu, said statistics available with Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) accident reports (2000-2014) showed that there were more accidents involving aircraft in general aviation fleet than those in commercial aviation.

“That is very much expected because the general aviation operators conduct more flight operations than the commercial aviation operators. However, because of the international concern on commercial airlines, there is more NCAA oversight on commercial airline operators that on general aviation. Secondly, the general aviation aircraft operate away from commercial aviation active control areas and most times from active air traffic control and surveillance areas,” Ojikutu said.

He further explained that that is not to say that general aviation does not deserve the oversight of NCAA, as do the commercial airline operators.

“In fact, there are more AIB safety recommendations for general aviation than for commercial airlines but many of these are not implemented by NCAA,” Ojikutu added.

Corroborating the above observation, another informed source in the industry that had worked for the regulatory body said NCAA is yet to have effective oversight functions, adding that if the Authority were able to do this, 60 per cent of the problems in the industry would be solved.

“NCAA should be doing inspection work; they have to do surveillance to ensure the maintenance of law and order required in the aviation sector. NCAA is properly regulating the industry now; the action of some of the personnel negates the professionalism expected from the organisation and they don’t have enough technical personnel,” the source alleged.

Industry sources confirmed that it is only the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) has the right technical personnel mix among the aviation agencies. NAMA has 61 per cent technical manpower, while NCAA has only 13 percent and out of that percentage, 5.8 per cent are contract staff, while 8.2 are substantive staff.

“In the next eight to 10 years most of the technical staff would leave the agency. Do they have succession plan in terms of training? And even those who are now working in the technical areas, each person should have two or three younger persons understudying him,” the source said.

The Director of Airworthiness Standards, NCAA, Benedict Adeyileka, agreed that more personnel are need in his directorate, adding that it was not only more personnel that are needed, “we also need resources to train them, we need to provide cars, laptops and other materials needed for them to work, but that area is beyond our control.”

Spokesman of NCAA, Sam Adurogboye told THISDAY on Tuesday that the Authority has taken steps to address the issue of aging workforce through recruitment exercises carried out at different times upon federal government’s approval to that effect.

“The new ones, some of whom are still at the College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria for training while some are scattered in the industry for on-the-job training (OJT). Apart from that, the new ones on resumption from those trainings are attached to senior ones in batches to understudy them. The older staffers otherwise called contract staff are recruited to fill existing positions where experienced, skilled manpower are needed. That is the practice world over. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) team that came to audit Nigeria the last time had personnel of over 70 years among them. They have retired Air Force personnel among them. So, it is normal practice to engage experienced hands. NCAA has a succession plan in place. In fact for the Authority to be able to attract them, we have to secure federal government waiver,” Adurogboye said.

NCAA Director General, Captain Usman acknowledged that the Authority does not have adequate technical personnel, so it employed some on contract, noting that there are some areas the agency needed people, which it could not fill with substantive staff, so it had to employ on contract basis, reiterating that it is a worldwide practice.

“So we have to engage retired personnel as contracting staff. The rule is that we must get people with industry experience. Those active personnel that could be employed as substantive staff we cannot pay them, so they are in airlines making huge money, but we are gaining from the experience of those we employed on contract,” the Director-General said.

Beyond succession of personnel staff, observers still believe that NCAA is losing grip on enforcing regulation. They stated that the agency must gird its loins and improve its oversight functions to ensure that Nigeria continues to retain a clean record of no accidents.