Improving Safety Regulations in Nigeria’s Aviation industry

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The recent incidents involving Nigerian airlines have raised fears that they may be an omen of a tragedy waiting to happen if left unchecked, Chinedu Eze writes

Many major accidents that happened in the past in Nigeria were ushered in by incidents. The most major tragic accident in recent time was that of Dana Air Flight 992, which crashed on June 3, 2012 in which 153 persons on board and 10 persons on the ground died. Before that accident, a Nigerian cargo aircraft operated by Allied Air overshot the runway at the Katoka International Airport, Accra, Ghana on Saturday, while the Dana Air crash took place the following day in Lagos.

The Dana tragedy eclipsed the Allied Air accident, but it followed the gloomy pattern of the past accidents. The Nigerian freighter hit a minivan outside the perimeter fencing of the airport when it overshot the runway and 10 people died. It would have been a major accident if Dana Air crash did not happen because lives were lost.

Industry experts told THISDAY that this is always the pattern; that incidents would be building up until the big one happens. They explained that negligence in the area of regulation that may start today may have its result in a major crash in next two years. In the aviation industry, it is believed that accidents don’t just happen; it builds up over time.

Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) has attributed many accidents that happened in Nigeria to avoidable human errors and dereliction of duty by public officials working in the aviation sector.

Recent Incidents

Eyebrows were raised when the emergency door of Dana Air flight fell off on landing at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja recently. Then another flight of the airline overshot the runway at the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa. Fortunately nobody died in these incidents, but they conveyed a sense of fear and anxiety, especially “as the regulatory authority did not come out to address these incidents to allay the fears of the flying public”, said an industry observer who noted that Nigerians panic when such incidents happen because of the past tragic air accidents.

Recently one of the engines of Delta Air Line Flight 55 caught fire after takeoff from the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos forcing it to make emergency landing back to the airport few minutes later.

AIB described it as serious incident. Five persons were injured during the efforts to evacuate the passengers. Although Delta is a US airline but some industry experts posit that ramp inspection by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) could have detected the problem that led to the incident.

“When our aircraft goes to UK or US the team from the civil aviation authority of those countries and others will come and scrutinise our airplane in a fastidious manner; as if they are looking for a reason to stop us from flying to their country, but when they come here our inspectors from NCAA do not even get near their aircraft. It is as if everything is perfect with them,” said industry insider who insisted that NCAA should be carrying out ramp inspection of foreign airlines that operate into Nigeria.

Industry observers also noted that if not for the urgent action taken by the Commissioner of AIB to that the crew of the Delta Air Line flight must report to the Bureau otherwise the aircraft would not be accessed, the airline might have ignored Nigeria, as it immediately reported to US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and ignored Nigeria’s NCAA when the incident happened. But upon AIB’s insistence, Delta not only reported to the Bureau but also apologised. A belated report from NCAA came to the media in a hurriedly written reaction almost 18 hours after the incident.

On March 6 Arik Air Flight W3 304 on its way to Accra from Lagos recorded an incident whereby smoke emitted and enveloped the passengers in the cabin of the new Bombardier Q400, known as Dash 8 aircraft, 35 minutes into the 55 minutes flight.

According to eye witness account, until the passengers were disembarked from the aircraft which landed under emergency, none was informed about what caused the smoke and as at the time of filing this report, neither NCAA nor Arik Air has explained to the public what caused the smoke in the aircraft.

Bad Signs

Many industry observers are of the view that these incidents are bad signs that may be a harbinger of worse things to come; unless the regulatory authority braces up on its responsibility to monitor the airlines which may have started cutting corners and compromising safety.

THISDAY learnt recently that the head of flight operations of a Nigerian carrier presented a budget for retraining (simulator training) of flight crew and that of the cabin crew to the owner of the airline and the owner cried out that the money was too much and refused to approve the budget, forcing the head of flight operations to resign. Some of the pilots also resigned along with their boss, leaving the airline with inadequate technical personnel; yet it continued to operate. It was not confirmed that NCAA intervened in the matter; possibly, it was not informed about it. The airline had to recruit more pilots to sustain its operation after operating for weeks without adequate manpower.

Since the last air crash in 2013 Nigeria has not recorded any accident. That is a good report, but industry observers say that such good report may be a lullaby to sleep and believe that everything is okay until another tragedy happens. According to a former senior official of NCAA, “Any of these incidents could have led to a bad accident and the regulator is being implicated in the events. The airlines don’t seem to be very safety conscious and the authority seems to be lacking in oversight activities.”

Also an industry insider, an aeronautical engineer and pilot told THISDAY, “Yes, I see these as a lapse in the NCAA safety oversight activities. These things don’t appear immediately until conditions line up for them to happen.”

Precautionary Measures

There were three reported incidents in the last two weeks where a Medview Airline flight aborted flight as the pilot in command noticed reasons why he could not proceed with the flight and he returned the aircraft to the ramp. The public was notified in a statement by the airline management. There was another similar incident where a Dana Air flight was delayed. The pilot in command also noticed reasons why it could not proceed with a flight with the designated operational aircraft after the passengers had boarded and he notified the passengers who disembarked, waited until the airline management made another aircraft available. Then, there was Aero flight that was already airborne but when the pilot in command noticed issues with the aircraft he took precautionary measure and made air return.

These are precautionary measures taken by pilots to avert possible mishap, but airlines and pilots complain that whenever these precautionary actions were taken the media treat them as accidents averted, which tend to alarm the flying public and generally make air travel unstable in Nigeria.

Reacting to the reported incident on the precautionary action taken by Medview Airline pilot, the Managing Director of another airline noted, “It is a normal procedure if a pilot is not satisfied with parameters before flight. By publicising these things we are doing commercial damage to the industry as well as scare mongering our consumers,” he said.

Also reacting to the Aero flight that made air return as precautionary measure, which was erroneously reported as emergency landing, the CEO of the airline, Captain Ado Sanusi told THISDAY that it was to avert such negative reports that instead of taking precautionary measures some pilots may be tempted to risk a flight to its destination.

“The way reporters and the way passengers react to air returns, ground returns is very, very important because it plays a key role in the accident chain. If the psyche of a pilot is, if I do an air return a reporter will say, 150 people escape death he would rather not make that air return; he would rather try to manage that emergency to the next air field. Now, if in the process of managing he kills people it means that the reporters have contributed in the chain event of accident. That is why I said the way reporters report incident, the way passengers react to air return is key to the chain of accident.

“I encourage pilots to do air return, to do ground return; to do anything safe because what we were taught is: first save lives, second save your aircraft, third save your job. So you must save lives, no matter the situation. If you are flying from Lagos to Abuja or Abuja to Lagos and you lose an engine, don’t say that you want to make it to Lagos. Land in Ilorin, land in Ibadan. If you cannot make the field, land in the swamp; at least you save the passengers. In Nigeria we look at air returns as something that is unsafe, you are encouraging pilots to ensure that they don’t do air return and they carry the problem to the next airport and if they cannot get there the next thing will be an accident,” Sanusi said.

NCAA Reacts

Reacting to the decision of Arik Air not to report the smoke incident in its Accra bound flight, the spokesman of NCAA, Sam Adurogboye said: “Whenever an incident occurred in aviation, the operator is expected to report to us under the Mandatory Occurrence Report (MOR) system. After which it becomes our responsibility to analyse the report with a view to come up with an informed decision.”

On the recent incidents recorded by the airlines, Adurogboye said: “Our decisions are at all times based on fact as supported by law. Decisions are not taken out on sentiment, emotions and panic. This is because such doesn’t stop accidents. Accidents are prevented through informed decisions. However, we are always strengthening the inspectorate division of the Flight Standards Group (FSG) with experienced skilled manpower. We have the best of them. We presented them for our various international audits lately and we came out in flying colours. Nigeria just retained the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) Category One. We have had an airline with eight incidences of air returns in one week. We analysed them and they never had an accident not to talk of two occurrences by one operator in one month. NCAA has always been on top of its oversight functions. We will not relent.”