Air Travel in a Depressed Economy

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Preventing accidents in the wake of an economic downturn can be daunting for the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, as the contraction may lure airlines into cutting corners, writes Chinedu Eze

There are fears that the aviation sector may go back to the old ways when the country recorded many air accidents because of the difficult economic times. Airlines are finding it difficult to generate enough revenue to carry out their daily operation, a development, which industry experts fear, could lure them into cutting corners.

There are reports of malfeasance among domestic carriers, which in the wake of the hard times are trying to survive by all means possible.

Recently the Accountable Manager of Dana Air, Mr. Obi Mbanuzuo expressed the frustration Nigerian airlines are facing trying to operate during these economically perilous times. Mbanuzuo expressed displeasure over some of the challenges facing domestic airlines such as the rise in fuel price, multiple charges, high exchange rate among other issues.

He said: “One of the issues domestic airlines are faced with is multiple charges. If these charges can be merged or eliminated, it will help the present situation of airlines. As it stands, airlines pay a statutory charge, which is fine, but some other charges, which the airlines need to grapple with, are not even applicable in other climes.’’

He also stated that presently, airlines peg fares in naira, whereas they pay for necessary maintenance in foreign currencies.

It is the above reality that is fuelling the fear that the airlines may do anything possible to continue to operate and generate revenue, including cutting corners in the area of maintenance. In fact, there was a recent report from the NCAA that an airline attempted to secretly sneak an aircraft engine out of the country without the consent of the regulatory body. The engine was damaged and instead of notifying NCAA, the airline wanted to take the engine to an unknown maintenance facility overseas for repair.

It was learnt that the NCAA stopped the move after it was notified. Industry experts have expressed concerns that such action may become rampant as the economy continues to nosedive; so the Authority has poised its antennae to detect and preempt such safety violations.

Over the years, the NCAA has effectively regulated air safety in the aviation industry and it had been certified by international organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with rating that could be compared to the best Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the world. That is why Nigeria is a Category 1 status country and the country has passed the ICAO audit, ramping up marks to over 90 per cent, which is a rarity.

But Nigeria has recorded many accidents even since the regulatory body was granted autonomy in 2006, so to ensure that the airspace is safe, the NCAA must reinforce its efforts.

Effective Regulation

Recently an airline notified NCAA after carrying out tests on its crew that one pilot was tested of excessive alcohol, while the other indicated using marijuana. The Authority promptly reacted by withdrawing the licences of the pilots. The regulatory agency said they were suspended for 180 days in line with the provisions of Part 2.1.11.8 (f)1 of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations (CARs) 2009. The indicted pilots were also asked to return their licences to the NCAA within 75 days. They were also directed to undergo compulsory detoxification and psychiatric evaluation by a Consultant Psychiatrist, after which, the result of the tests would be reviewed by the NCAA consultant before their restoration.

The spokesman of NCAA, Sam Adurogboye told THISDAY that there are many other infractions by airlines but the regulatory body is always on top of it and has improved tremendously in monitoring the airlines.

“I want to say categorically that we have a solid system in place as a way of monitoring the industry in our oversight functions. If not for that, we would not have been able to nip in the bud the attempts of operators trying to carry out airplanes to service outside without initial report to us on what has happened to the engine. Without that we would not have been able to stop the crew that compromised rules on consumption of alcohol or taking of stimulants.

“Over and over we have been able to sanction airlines, sanction flight crew. That was not the first time we suspended flight crew. It was just that we do not want to oversensitise the public so that people will not be scared away from flying. From time to time people have been sanctioned. Let me put it to you: there was an airline we sanctioned and we levied it N15 million and the airline is paying the money instalmentally,” Adurogboye said.

He said the NCAA has been sanctioning airlines and they have been paying big fines, noting that the airlines would prefer that such penalty they pay is not made public so that it won’t destroy their goodwill as reliable and dependable operators.

“We have sanctioned airlines and they paid huge sums of money in penalty without making noise about it. They prefer it than if we do a statement and publicise the violation. In fact, they would be extremely sad if it is publicised. However, they are the same people that go to the media to criticise NCAA. We are usually able to track those violations despite the fact they were the things that were done secretly. Our system is so solid that ICAO recommended us to some African countries.

ICAO collects the safety manual that we have and share to other states. Our open items are so small when compared to other countries. Recently an audit in the UK revealed over 100 open items but we had only 20. I say it without equivocation that the certificate you take out from NCAA is respected all over the world,” Adurogboye said.

Manpower

Adurogboye also said unlike in the past when the regulatory authority could not attract seasoned technical personnel in the agency, the federal government gave NCAA a waiver to employ the best hands and now it has the most qualified and experienced inspectors and others who have ensured that the rules are carried out and the airlines are closely monitored to ensure they abide by the regulations in their operations.

“During the last audit ICAO noted that NCAA has highly skilled manpower and recommended that we should do everything possible not to lose them.
All over the world they know what we have in NCAA and the way our oversight is done is not haphazard. If you talk to the airlines they will say we are over regulating them. Now, even the presidential fleet is under us. They said they prefer to be under us to the Nigeria Air Force. So Nigeria should go and have their sleep because we have very effective regulatory Authority,” he said.

Autonomy

But a senior official of a major airline told THISDAY last week that the NCAA regulation of the industry is limited because it only concentrates on airlines. The official noted that for the Authority to be efficient, it has to effectively regulate the aviation agencies, but unfortunately these other agencies see themselves as co-equal to the NCAA instead of subordinated to the regulatory authority. For example, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) was established by an Act, which makes it autonomous. It was due to Dr. Harold Demuren’s aura and power that he was able to close some airports that did not meet safety standards when he was the Director General of NCAA. FAAN management reluctantly abides by directives from NCAA and sometimes cite the Act the makes it autonomous.

“The best way to effectively have a regulator is to give NCAA a sense of autonomy to oversight all navigational service providers. For example, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) monitors the banks and regulates them; it does not resort to the Ministry of Finance to take its decisions on the banks. It is the same role NCAA should play both for the airlines and other aviation agencies. NCAA is not performing its oversight function well because it cannot do that in isolation. The agency cannot do proper oversight when it is regulating only the airlines and not the agencies.

“For example, if there is a bird strike and I do the report as a pilot and in that report I cite that the birds are attracted to the runway area because of the refuse dump near the runway. NCAA cannot stop it from occurring again because it cannot direct FAAN, which manages the airports, to immediately remove the refuse dump. If NCAA cannot stop it, it will occur again. If the Authority is autonomous it will just direct FAAN to immediately remove the refuse dump from there and it would be done. FAAN, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) and others should not see NCAA as another agency because these agencies should truly be answerable to NCAA,” the official said.

The Director-General of NCAA, Captain Muhktar Usman, in a recent interview with THISDAY, explained why FAAN and NAMA might not seek approval from NCAA before they introduce some charges. This, he said was because the two agencies have enabling laws that made them at least semi-autonomous.

“Don’t forget that FAAN was created before NCAA and both have enabling laws. NAMA also was created that way. So those are some of the conflicts that are being addressed by the amendment of the civil aviation act, which is already an ongoing process. So those will be addressed where regulatory provisions were inadvertently put in those agencies. But the Civil Aviation Act 2006 is clear, NCAA is the only regulatory agency as far as civil aviation is concerned in Nigeria and I am sure with the amendment all will be brought in line with that provision under the Civil Aviation Act,” he said.

Aviation industry experts are of the view that the NCAA, as the regulatory agency should fully take charge of regulation of the aviation industry to ensure safety of air operations and to also receive the flaks when that is compromised.