Of Regulatory Challenges and Airline Operations in Nigeria

Of Regulatory Challenges and Airline Operations in Nigeria

The Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority is pressured by public outcry to take decisions that may hurt the industry, despite the regulatory authority’s priority to protect the airlines and the travelling community, writes Chinedu Eze

Last Sunday, United Nigeria Airlines flight NUA 0504 on Lagos-Abuja destination diverted to Asaba airport, landed and disembarked the passengers, after the crew announced that the flight had safely landed at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.

The shocked passengers were consternated by the incident and they went to the social media to express their shock; although the aircraft, an Airbus A320 aircraft, later took them safely to Abuja, their planned destination.

In what many in the industry described as knew-jack reaction, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) announced the suspension of all the leased aircraft operated by United Nigeria Airlines until after investigation was completed on the incident.

The airline has its own four aircraft, 50-passenger capacity ERJ 145 and out of the four, three are operational. It leased the Airbus aircraft from Europe-based Fly2Sky, and it had about 150 passengers during the flight that was inadvertently diverted to Asaba. On the strength of the leased aircraft, which has about 170 passenger capacity, the airline had sold tickets to travellers to meet its increased capacity or seats, but with the suspension of the aircraft, the airline left many of its passengers stranded on Monday, as its existing aircraft, already scheduled, could not take the passengers.

Subsequently, the airline cancelled many of its flights, thus hurting the operations of the airline and inconveniencing its passengers.

Safety Concerns

Contrary to what many Nigerians were complaining about on safety of Nigerian airlines on social media, industry stakeholders who spoke to THISDAY said that the incident did not infringe or compromise safety in any way but it led to flight delay, high cost of operation and inconvenience to passengers. The stakeholders said that there was nothing new about unplanned diversion of flight because the industry is replete with reports of similar incidents in different parts of the world and excoriated NCAA for taking a punitive measure of suspending the leased aircraft before indicating to carry out investigation on the incident.

In March 2019, a British Airways flight destined to Dusseldorf in Germany mistakenly landed in Edinburgh, which is about 800 kilometers from the planned destination. Reports stated that passengers only found out about the mishap when the pilot said the plane was coming in to land in Edinburgh, which is around 500 miles (800 kilometres) from Dusseldorf.After the crew realised the mistake, the plane was refuelled and flown to Dusseldorf, landing in Germany with a delay of more than three and a half hours.

Also, in October 2023, a Turkish Airlines passenger aircraft leaving Haneda airport in Tokyo, erroneously diverted from its route and flew over Tokyo Tower and other central parts of the Japanese capital.

According to media report, “The flight did not pose as safety threat to its passengers or people on the ground, as the plane flew at sufficient altitude, but the Ministry requested the airline to take preventive steps and alerted other air carriers to avoid similar incidents.”

The report also stated that instead of flying east over the coast of Tokyo Bay it flew northwest over Tokyo Tower and other parts of the capital before turning southwest toward the bay.

NCAA’ Knee-jerk Reaction

A reputable pilot who has flown for years as a captain told THISDAY on Wednesday that such mistakes of diverting flight to another destination different from where it is scheduled happen in aviation but noted that the airline was lucky that it landed at an airport the aircraft could take off again from, noting that in smaller runways, the flight could land but would not be able to take off again.

“Those mistakes happen. That is when you are given a wrong flight plan. But another thing I see is lack of coordination and there could be language barrier, which is making the crew that came with the aircraft not to be talking much. Otherwise, they could have noticed the mistake during conversation before the flight took off or when the flight was taking off. It could have been resolved on ground.

“I think they should investigate how the error occurred. It is not major incident but could get worse if such continues to occur. But couldn’t the airline come clean and tell the truth? Do you know why? They are afraid of the regulator. They are afraid because of the punitive measure the regulator will give to them. That was why they said it was caused by weather. Because of punitive measures airlines do not come clean when an incident happens. Weather is a phenomenon that anybody can see.

“They handed the pilot a wrong flight plan and he imputed it in the system. NCAA approach should not have been suspension of the leased aircraft. They should have tried to get the facts first before applying sanctions. You don’t react to public pressure. This should make other airlines to hide incidents. This is why we have non-punitive system, to encourage airlines to come out with their facts so that others can learn from it. This does not mean that there won’t be severe punishment if there is sabotage. This incident was not intended to harm,” he said.

Minister’s Reaction

The Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, Festus Keyamo in reaction to the United Nigeria Airline’s incident summoned Chief Executive Officers of aviation to a meeting. During the meeting Keyamo directed that all wet leased aircraft must have a Nigerian in the cockpit. This is because many in the industry believed that the pilot and the flight officer were not familiar with Nigeria’s airspace. The Minister said that if the pilot and flight officer are foreigners, a Nigerian pilot should be on the jump seat to guide the foreign pilots that are unfamiliar with the Nigerian airspace.

The Minister said “I have spoken with them (head of agencies) and we have all agreed that wet leasedaircraft coming into Nigeria, must have a Nigerian pilot seated at least on the jump seat and must be seated there with the foreign pilot.A Nigerian pilot must be there with them in the wet leases even if it is for a few hours.I have also directed the NCAA that within the next 72 hours, they should summon all pilots and crew who are operating wet leases in Nigeria for further briefing because the lives of Nigerians were at stake.They are flying Nigerians and our sacred duty is to protect Nigerians.”

The Managing Director/CEO of Aero Contractors, Captain Ado Sanusi, told THISDAY that Nigeria does not have enough pilots, who are qualified to operate and who are in the captain category, remarking that there are Nigerian pilots who are currently unemployed but they are not in the category of those that have the current licence to operate, so there is a gap.

On the directive of the Minister that Nigerian pilots should be in the leased aircraft during flight operation, Sanusi said that this could be possible if the airline leasing the aircraft speaks with them on that, but noted that he has misgivings about the policy because lessors may strongly object to it and such directive might not be in tandem with the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of the airline.

Sanusi also recalled that when he was the Director of Flight Operations in Arik Air, they had about 20 pilots from different parts of the world. So, in order to avert such incident from happening they encouraged cabin crew to be asking pilots about the flight plan and the assigned destinations.

“Communication was the problem. Communication between the crew and the ground staff. It is very important. It will be very important for NCAA to share the findings in order for us to learn from what happened,” he said.

Preventing Future Occurrence

Many industry stakeholders have suggested ways to prevent such incident from occurring in future. The major challenge is that the crew that come with leased aircraft may not know the Nigerian terrain, its airspace and the names of its airports. Many of the crew have English as their second language and may not be dexterous in it. This impairs effective communication. Some of the stakeholders spoke about interaction between the ground staff and the flight crew, while others suggest that foreign pilots should take out time to understand the flight codes and also there should be interface between the foreign crew and Nigerian crew, which in ideal situation should be a mix in every flight.

Some of the stakeholders posited, “Well these are some of the issues that pop up when you have wet lease crew operating in Nigerian airspace .One of the questions I ask is, was this wet lease crew given a brief  introducing them into flying  in Nigerian airspace  by United Nigeria Airlines or was it a case of just start flying in our airspace?

“Back in the day Bellview Airlines (now defunct) used to have  a Nigerian pilot in the cockpit  on the jump seat for four flights in all the destinations  on the Bellview network; that the wet lease crew (DC9 aircraft ) from JAT Yugoslavian Airlines flew  into.The JAT pilots complained they couldn’t  understand ATC (Air Traffic Controllers) instructions due to the  Nigerian accent of the controllers,our ATC procedures and hand overs they found strange, given that they came from a radar environment in Europe . The Nigerian Bellview Pilot in the cockpit assisted  JAT crew tremendously, and they appreciated this Bellview flight operations initiative.”

But an airline operator told THISDAY that piloting is an international job, where a pilot can come from any country and work in another country, operating the aircraft he is type-rated in. He also said that lessors and airlines have their standard operating procedures that may not dovetail with the new condition given by the Minister, insisting that a Nigerian pilot must be in the cockpit to guide foreign pilots.

“The operational environment could be different in the sense that we may not have state-of-the-art facilities which they have. Over there they can land at zero visibility but here in Nigeria you must see the airport. They may not be familiar operating under harmattan weather. But what we do is to reach understanding with the company we are leasing aircraft from and go through some familiarization expose. But pilot’s job is the same everywhere,” he said.

On the language and accent barrier, there are suggestions that the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) should activate its controller-pilot data link communication system to enable foreign pilots overcome the inhibition of accent barrier between them and the ATC. The system provides data instead of voice and this would provide more effective communication for the foreign pilots.

However, THISDAY findings indicated that currently the system has shut down due to the inability of NAMA to pay the company that provides the service. So, the facility, which is crucial, has been added to many other facilities and equipment relating to landing aids that are not working.

It is expected that NCAA should review its reactionary punitive directives and the Minister should also look at the regulatory books before giving directives so that such directives should be in tandem with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulations and recommended practices.

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