Foreign pilots should be familiarised with the airports and their codes
Last Sunday, a United Nigeria Airlines flight to Abuja took off from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. About 50 minutes later, the aircraft landed at Asaba airport. The cabin crew announcer duly informed the passengers they had arrived their Abuja destination, thanking them for their patronage. But when the passengers disembarked, they were shocked to realise that they were in Asaba, Delta State, and not Abuja as announced. Not finding the courage to explain what caused the mix-up, a crew member told the exasperated passengers that the pilot diverted the flight due to bad weather in Abuja, a lie that has been refuted by the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA).
Reports have confirmed that the ground staff that dispatched the flight in Lagos gave the pilot the wrong flight plan. Instead of ABV (Abuja), it was ABB (Asaba) that the pilot imputed into the aircraft system. What that development indicated is a lack of coordination at the airline because interactions among the crew would have exposed the destination error. What was surprising is that throughout the flight neither the pilot in command nor the flight officer made any announcement to the passengers, perhaps because of language barrier. That may also explain why there was no communication between them and the two Nigerians in the crew, which would have revealed the error even before the flight took off in Lagos.
Since after the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, Nigerian airlines have suffered depletion in their aircraft fleet. The forex crisis has compounded the problem. This has forced some airlines to abandon their aircraft maintenance overseas while resorting to aircraft leasing with stringent conditions due to the categorisation of Nigeria as country with high risk. Most airlines wet lease aircraft, which means that the aircraft they lease must come with crew. In this case with United Nigeria Airlines, both the pilot and flight officer are foreigners and the aircraft started operation in Nigeria just two months ago. The implication is that the pilots are not familiar with Nigeria’s airspace.
A policy was contemplated in the past, especially after the tragic air crash in 2012, that one of the cockpit crew in any flight in the country must be a Nigerian. The Accident Investigation Bureau report of that crash revealed that the pilot and flight officer were foreigners, and that the tragic accident might have been averted if the pilot had returned to base or requested to land at the international runway, R18R, instead of the domestic runway, R18L, which took a little longer to approach. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) may have to revisit that policy because a pilot familiar with Nigeria’s airspace would have realised that the flight was not heading to Abuja after take-off and would have rerouted the flight to desired destination or return to base.
Although this lapse cannot be described as a serious incident, it nonetheless points to systemic challenges that need to be addressed urgently. Nigerian airlines should adopt it as part of their standard procedure to always fly with a Nigerian in the cockpit, even on the jump seat. Also, to prevent such incident from happening again, airline crew should have a briefing before embarking on a flight and the purser (head of the cabin crew) should reconfirm flight details from the pilot in command before boarding passengers. Before foreign pilots are allowed to operate in Nigeria, they must also be briefed about the airspace and their Nigerian counterpart must pre-emptively familiarise them with the names of different airports and their codes.