Olateru: Accident Investigation Has Improved Air Transport Safety

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Akin Olateru

The Commissioner/CEO of Accident Investigation Bureau, Akin Olateru, in this interview says the implementation of recommendations after accident investigations has improved air safety in Nigeria. He also explains the agency’s plan to evolve to multi-modal organisation to investigate accidents on all forms of transportation. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts.

What is your assessment of the global aviation industry in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic?

Covid-19 is not new to anybody; even kids on the streets know what it’s all about. The pandemic has affected aviation industry worldwide. We are one of the industries that this Covid-19 has affected a lot in terms of revenue loss. It’s a very expensive virus and it has crippled a lot of activities, a lot of families are out of jobs. I think Nigeria has done its best to curtail it. I give a lot of credit to the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Covid-19. They have been able to manage it very well. We just don’t have experience in this. It took us like a plague. So far, I am impressed with the way we have been handling it. I am impressed; we will make adjustments as we go along in terms of relaxation and all of that. It depends on scientific evidence available to the team. And I believe the phase will pass; things will be back to normal, but when? It is the scientists that will come out with vaccines that will help to mitigate this risk. I believe it’s a matter of time, things will fizzle out and things will return to normal.

How is your organisation addressing the challenges brought about by the pandemic?
In terms of performance, we refused to let the pandemic affect us. We are still doing what we would do normally, Covid-19 or not. We still ensure we deliver on our mandate, we ensure we do what we have to do, but the only problem we have is funding. Covid-19 has affected our revenues greatly. You know our source of revenue is from the three per cent we get out of the 5 per cent we collect from the Ticket Sales Charge/Cargo Sales Charge (TSC/CSC). So, in terms of affecting us, it’s more of less funding. But, in terms of doing delivery on our mandate, we made sure it hasn’t affected us in anyway.

How far have you gone with your plans to expand the scope of your incident and accident investigation to other modes of transportation in the country?
You will agree with me that it will start once the bill is approved by the National Assembly and the Presidency. Currently, we are set out to investigate air accident and there is a proposed bill in the National Assembly. At the House of Representatives, it has passed the second reading; we are waiting for public hearing on the new AIB bill. At the Senate, we are waiting for second reading and public hearing. Thereafter, it will be transmitted to the President for assent. For us, when you look at what we’ve done in air transport, we have been able to mitigate so many risks; we have managed to learn from our lessons in serious incidents. You look at aviation, it is a highly regulated industry, very expensive, highly technical, the fastest and the safest means of transportation and it is because of all these checks and balances that have made it so. There is a difference between investigating for liability, criminality and safety. AIB has been investigating for safety, not for liability and it is the same we want to take to other modes of transportation. It is not about who is at fault, it is about how can we prevent future occurrence. This is our core mandate and this is what we want to focus on. That is where we are and it’s going to take effect as soon as we have the green light from the President.

Accident investigation is a very complex assignment, what challenges do you face in the cause of discharging your duties?
When you look at it, challenges could come in any organisation in four major areas; equipment, infrastructure, human capital and systems processes and procedures. I always say that if you score less than seven out of 10 in any of these four areas, you still don’t have a company. If you have the best equipment and you don’t have manpower, you are not going anywhere. And if you have the best manpower, equipment, but you don’t have a good infrastructure and there are no systems and procedures to help them navigate their workings, you are not going anywhere. So, those four areas, I will say we had a huge challenge in them when I came in. Of course, the pillar of all the four is funding, but with the support of Aviation Minister and the National Assembly, we have been able to navigate throughout that.

Since your assumption of office over three years ago, how much have you expended on training your personnel and on accident investigations?
There are no two accidents that are the same; they may look the same, but there are no two accidents that are the same. Also, in terms of costing, I don’t think I have been able to break it down to exact figure. So, I will not be able to give you the exact figure, but I can describe the process for you. The type of accident will determine the cost. Sometimes, we have to send an engine back to the manufacturer, they call it engine teardown. So, we have to factor in cost of shipping, esta codes for two of my engineers that will go with it. What we want to ascertain is the engine producing power as at the time of the crash. So, there are several things that can push up the cost in accident investigation. It is a painstaking process; very detailed exercise, tasking and sometimes, it can be daunting because you must get it right. This is what accident investigation is all about. You must ensure whatever fact you put out there, you have enough evidence to back it up and this is why we go through so many different processes, depending on the crash. We get supports from engine manufacturers, airframe manufacturers, support from some countries; sometimes because it can be very complex sometimes.

Apart from the flight safety and material science laboratories you already have, which other projects are the management thinking of embarking upon?
Currently, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved construction of AIB headquarters and AIB training school in Abuja. These projects have started; we have two laboratories – flight safety and material science. For the material science laboratory, it’s a work in progress because we want to transform the material science lab to an avenue where we can make money. We cannot charge for what we do. We don’t charge for accident investigation; we don’t invoice anybody. We can look for little areas where we can use our resources to make money. That is the way we are going so that we would be able to address the issue of funding.

What is AIB doing about information management in case of an air accident?
It’s a very serious issue and I will be honest. It can be frustrating sometimes because some agencies of government don’t really understand the need for collaboration. They don’t understand why we are pushing for this cooperation. I will give you an example, God forbid an airplane drops into the sea, AIB doesn’t have the capacity for sea divers to retrieve any wreckage or black boxes, but Nigerian Navy does. Since 2017, I have been pushing the Nigerian Navy to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with AIB. It is not the day that we have an accident that we will start looking for who to call. This is the essence of these MoUs. Recently, we signed an MoU with the Nigerian Air Force and one of the benefits of that is that aircraft could drop off anywhere; bad terrain, difficult terrain that we cannot access. Air Force can help us with the logistics. We too can be of help to the Nigeria Air Force because we have a world-class safety lab in Abuja, rather than Air Force sending down their black boxes to overseas for download, they can use our lab in Abuja to do the download and save our country some costs. At the end of the day, it is to the benefit of the entire nation.

On National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), we have been on this MoU with them since 2017, we are still talking and that is what I mean by saying sometime it can be frustrating. AIB is not Akin Olateru’s company, but it is a Federal Government agency; we have a mandate. We have got some recognitions from some organisations like the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), you could see the way Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA) performed during the last unfortunate accident and that is why we are taking it further to sign an MoU with LASEMA to see how we can train their staff on how we work, what we expect from them when there is a crash. We have done a lot of trainings with the Nigerian Police as the first responder. We have trained civil defence, but like the Nigerian Police, I am still waiting for the MoU to be signed. I agree with you that it is 100 per cent important for all relevant agencies to come together and work as a team. There is no confusion as to everyone’s roles. We all have independent roles to play, but when we work together, we can achieve a much better coordinated service delivery.

You trained about 10 investigators on the use of drone recently, were you able to deploy it to the crash site of Quorum Aviation helicopter crash?

No, we didn’t. AIB is a responsible agent of government. We can’t flout any government rules and regulations. To operate a drone, you need a license and we are yet to sort that out with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). In getting the license, part of the requirements is to train your people on how to handle the drones, which we have satisfied. The operator has to be licensed by NCAA. So, we are in the process of normalising our documentations. You will agree with me that any company or agency of government must constantly review its processes to enhance service delivery. That is one thing we do here, we see how we do it and how we can make betterment or simplify the processes or get a better result for better performance.

Did this hinder your job in getting materials from the crash?

The non-deployment of drones didn’t affect our level of material gathering. The fact is drone is extremely essential when you have a wider area of crash, when you have a crash spanning about half a mile or a mile for instance. It takes time to walk through that to gather information or evidence, but for this one, we were fortunate the crash site was a bit contained. It was not over a large expanse of land. So, that is why we didn’t really miss it, but we hope to fast track our application with NCAA. But, on that day, LASEMA used their drones to take some pictures, but for us in AIB, we did very well. We have and gathered the right information. Deployment of drones will happen once we have necessary permit and licensing from NCAA.

How soon will this be?
I can’t speak for NCAA. We are putting our papers together and put in our application; may be soon. I don’t know how fast. Be mindful, this set of AIB team will probably be the first the NCAA will be licensing. So, it’s a new thing to NCAA, but I believe we will get there.