Growing Concern over Air Safety

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Since Aero Contractors and First Nation Airways stopped their schedule passenger service, there have been palpable fears that the poor financial status of Nigerian airlines could make them compromise safety standards. It is a general belief that airlines cut corners in aircraft maintenance owing to the high costs of checks, which are usually carried out overseas.

The tragic experience of the past when the industry recorded many accidents that wasted hundreds of human lives had been attributed to human error and shortcomings on the airworthiness of the aircraft.

At about N400 per a dollar exchange rate, it is extremely difficult for an airline to generate money and pay between $600,000 and $800,000 or even more for C-checks on one aircraft. Although this is a daunting task, it is known to airlines even before they started operations. But the current economic recession and the general parlous state of the economy have caused is more pressure on the finances of airlines.

The fears are not however unfounded because infringements on the regulatory body and in the airlines have caused incidents that led to accidents in the past. For example, it was reported in the aviation circles that an inspector in charge of Dana Air fleet grounded the aircraft but was overruled and the airline was allowed to continue operation shortly before the tragic crash of Dana Air Flight 992 on June 3, 2012 in which 153 people on board died. Another flight crash involving Associated Aviation Flight 361 on October 3, the following year involving 15 fatalities showed that an airline can compromise safety at whim as report of the crash indicted the airline taking an aircraft that was on ground for months into the air without maintenance and a recalcitrant pilot who against aircraft’s directive to abort a flight continued to flog a dying horse till it gave in.

So these fears are not unfounded but since 2013, Nigeria has not recorded any accident or major incident and the country has clean records in terms of safety status from both the Federation Aviation Administration of the US and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), but as it is always known, it is the responsibility of the airline to ensure the airworthiness of its aircraft. That is why the fear is palpable that any of them still operating might compromise safety.

The past accidents have made Nigerian travellers a frightful lot; that a little unusual noise emanating from an aircraft could leave them scampering for safety. In many occasions an incident occurred in a flight, even when the problem is identified and rectified, many of the passengers would withdraw from continuing with the flight. This is because of the tragic accidents of the past. Many air travellers told THISDAY that they fear travelling locally by air but feel comfortable while travelling out of the country.

But in a recent interview with Chairman of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema, he dismissed these fears, insisting that every airline knows the consequence of accidents whether involving his own airline or that of another, noting that the consequences are multifarious, from the lives that would be wasted to the abandonment of air travel by many Nigerians; then the consequence in the international aviation circles, from high insurance premium to the possible downgrade of safety status of the country. The airlines would lose goodwill; they would lose money; they would find it more difficult to lease airplanes and even to insure their equipment.

Onyema said he does not joke with the maintenance of his aircraft; having employed the best hands in that technical area and spends huge money in ensuring his fleet is airworthy.

“We have the Air Peace Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). And I have to give it to our head of training and Chief Pilot, Captain Victor Egonu; the man knows what it takes to produce a pilot. At this time when most airlines are finding things difficult, we are also finding things difficult but because of the premium we place on safety, we have sent about five aircraft out for C-check this same period and none of them is coming back with less than $2.1 million cost procured at N400 to a dollar,” Onyema said.

This is the standard that other airlines in the country have also maintained and the regulatory agency, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) ensures that this safety standard is maintained.

Spokesman of the Authority, Sam Adurogboye told THISDAY on Tuesday that NCAA has put a system in place that monitors the airlines, from aircraft maintenance schedule to training, insurance and health status of airlines crew, noting that despite the good record of the body in recent times, it continues to improve its standard in tandem with given international practices. He allayed the fears that airlines may compromise safety, noting that despite the current economic recession, there has never been anytime it was rosy for the airlines, so it has always been the same scenario.

“NCAA has put a system in place, which ensures that that every airline operation is properly monitored from the minute to the details and these include their maintenance, insurance, training of personnel, staff welfare and all other operational aspects, including fueling.

“We have custody of records of all these and know when it is due and when it is done. Aircraft are parked at various airports on account of one issue or another, which NCAA must have insisted should be done before further activities are allowed,” Adurogboye said.

Over the years NCAA has improved its regulatory responsibilities and it is not unmindful of the impact of the current economic recession on the industry.