Nigeria recorded air crashes last year and in 2012. To ensure that future accidents are prevented, industry operators recommend actions that must be taken by government to protect the industry, Chinedu Eze writes. As the year 2014 draws to the end, it is hoped that it would be a year without any record of air accident or serious incident. On June, Sunday 3, 2012, Dana Air flight 992 crashed in Lagos, killing 153 people. The aircraft crashed into a furniture works and printing press building in the Iju-Ishaga neighbourhood of Lagos. The crash caused by human error, resulted in the death of all 153 people on board and ten more on the ground.
The crash of Flight 992 is described as the deadliest aviation disaster involving a McDonnell Douglas MD-83, as well as the second-deadliest involving an MD-80 in general after Inex-Adria Aviopromet Flight 1308. It is also the second-deadliest airplane crash on Nigerian soil, after the Kano air disaster of 1973. Also on October 3, 2013, Associated Aviation Flight 361 was on a domestic charter flight service when it crashed on takeoff at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos, Nigeria on its way to Akure Airport, Ondo State. Nigerians are hoping that 2014 will come and go without news of another tragic air crash and that such good record will hold sway in subsequent years.
Although the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) said that it had taken adequate measures to prevent accidents in the nation’s airspace but there are inherent factors that can still make that happen again. Besides effective regulation, which is at the behest of NCAA, there are infrastructural limitations that could lead to air mishap in the country. Some of these have been identified and they include poor, obsolete or non-existence instrument landing system (ILS) at some airports, lack of runway lighting at most airports, absence of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facility for the maintenance of aircraft in the country and inadequate security at some of the airports in the country.
An industry operator and Managing Director, Finum Aviation Services, Sheri Kyari, said although the Minister of Aviation, Osita Chidoka, may not stay long as he was appointed at the tail end of this administration but there are things he could do to improve air safety within the short period left. “The new minister should be able to address priority areas; maybe maximum of three. One of them that should be first in his agenda is airport security in view of the unrest and insurgent activities in the country. The minister should address the issue of airport security in all parts of the country to ensure that airports, passengers and other users of the airport are safe. People can fly in and fly out without much problem,” Kyari said.
This could be done by providing both perimeter and security fences at the airports to prevent security breach by people with obnoxious intentions to bomb aircraft or airports. If given access to the airside of any of the airports terrorists and others could harm aircraft at take-off or endanger their landing. There should also be adequate security personnel to patrol airport environment.
Kyari said Nigeria is in dire need of aircraft maintenance facility. Without such facility, Nigerian airlines and aircraft owners ferry their equipment overseas for maintenance. Cost of moving the aircraft alone in terms of fuel and accommodation and allowance for the crew could cost as much as $40,000 for small body aircraft. It is even higher for wide body machines. This is in addition to the cost of maintenance which obviously will be higher than what an airline can pay if the facility is domiciled in the country. Other gains of having the maintenance facility locally is that it provides training platform for Nigerian engineers and it creates employment. Its absence has safety implications, as airlines may be tempted to forego the maintenance of an aircraft as and when due because of the cost of taking it overseas.
Many of the accidents that happened in the country had been attributed to poorly maintained equipment and many in the industry argue that some airlines still cut corners, but NCAA always insists that there is no room for such excesses in recent times. “The second issue is aircraft maintenance. A lot of people have tried in their own small way to see how they can establish maintenance centres but they were limited. Most of them are just roofs over aeroplanes. We need a maintenance centre that can address all the needs of aircraft maintenance in the country. It is an area that can generate a very large number of employments for the country. If government can establish it, it will be good. What the minister needs to do in this regard is to be able to midwife a committee that can look at it with 90 per cent private investment in such facility. If he can do that; once that thing can take off before he leaves office, it will be to the credit of his name,” Kyari also said.
Kyari also spoke about the need to have airfield lighting at all the airports in the country. All the domestic carriers lament that their aircraft are not fully utilised because most airports are daylight airports where flights cannot operate in the night. The danger of this is that during emergency, a flight has very few airports it can land in the night, which are the airports in Kano, Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt.
“The third critical infrastructure are the landing facilities. The deficiencies that we have at most of the airports in the country, I think the minister can also address those ones. And I want to believe that they can collaborate with the state governments where these airports are located so that they can address airfield lighting, which has placed a lot of restrictions on flights. I recall in the 1980s when all these things used to work. Nigeria Airways used to fly even at 2:00 am. So if the minister can collaborate with the state governments I think they will assist to restore some of the airfield lighting at the runways of most of those airports, so that people will fly 24 hours a day. That will also increase aviation activities and might require more hands and it will also generate employment.
The cause of the air cashes in 2012 and 2013 was largely attributed to poorly maintained aircraft, although part of the cause of the accidents was human error as the pilots did not take critical decisions that could have averted the accidents. When the first engine of the Dana flight failed, many industry experts and pilots said the captain of the flight could have made air return back to Abuja, where it left 17 minutes before the engine failed. The crashed aircraft belonging to Associated Aviation Limited showed all the signs “that it could not make the flight but the pilots pushed the aircraft to its limit and it gave up,” said an official from the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB). So the pilots had the chance to change the tide of the tragedy, some industry observers had argued.
The Deputy Managing Director and Head of Flight Operations of Arik Air, Captain Ado Sanusi, said that the provision of airfield lighting would encourage a more efficient and safe flight services in the country and urged government to provide such critical infrastructure at the airports. “It is more important to have more efficient, profitable operation both for the passengers and the airlines, so airfield lighting should be provided in all the airports in the country for flights to land at any of the airports in the night,” Sanusi said.
On provision of maintenance facility, he said, “There is no doubt that we have the need for maintenance, repair and overhaul facility in Nigeria. Arik made a request to FAAN three years ago for a parcel of land at the Lagos international airport and Arik went further to sign an agreement with Lufthansa Technic to build the MRO that will cater for Boeing B737-700 and other wide body aircraft not only for Arik but for other airlines both in Nigeria and overseas. Suffice it to say that this will even generate revenue for the government through the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Nigerian Customs Service and others. However, this has been put on hold until Arik gets final approval for allocation of land at the Lagos airport. Everything has been done; we are just waiting for final approval from FAAN. It has been on hold for the past three years.”
On the efficiency of regulation, it has been said that NCAA has inadequate number of inspectors in its Directorate of Airworthiness Standards and many of those who are already on the job are old, although they have the desired experience but lack the motivation to work due to poor remuneration. It is also believed NCAA cannot attract young, active inspectors because of the relatively poor salary designed for these inspectors, so it is only able to attract those who have retired from active service, who lack the vigour to carry out the physical strain which the job entails. THISDAY learnt that since NCAA became autonomous in 2006, it has been unable to recruit young inspectors, train them and provide them the needed incentives to effectively carry out their duties and the consequence of this is that airlines are given the elbow room to cut corners because there is inadequate inspection.
But since after the last two air crashes, the new management of the regulatory body is playing it tough with airlines, ensuring that they take out their aircraft when due and to carry out the simulator training of their pilots and cabin crew. But from past experience, there are times the head of the regulatory body is faced with a situation he may have to make concessions. That is why some people in the industry continue to clamour that NCAA should be made autonomous. It has been autonomous since 2006 when it obtained the Act, but there are always interferences from political appointees. Nigeria may have accident free 2014 and in that sequence, accident free future.