On Sunday February 11, a regional airline flying an Antonov medium range jet crashed about 10 minutes after take-off from Moscow’s domestic airport on an internal flight. All the 71 souls in the plane perished. It is an occasion like this that brings to the fore the issue of aircraft safety and security. As proficient as the Russians are in military aircraft making, it does not appear they are good in making civilian planes.
There have been so many air crashes in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union necessitating the wholesale change of equipment from Russian aircrafts to Boeing and Airbus planes whose superior aircrafts are the planes of choice of Russian civilian pilots. Russian military aircrafts are as good if not better than their western counterparts. In fact, Russia’s Antonov An-225 Mriya and Tupolev ANT-20Mazim Gorky are the largest planes ever built.
There is secrecy surrounding military aircrafts and their operation and accidents but civilian aircrafts operate under international codes and norms determined by ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) and any air accidents must be reported. Air crashes can occur as a result of poor equipment, pilot’s error, poor maintenance, and bad weather. All things being equal, flying is the safest means of travel.
I have in my professional life as an academic and diplomat travelled to all the habitable continents of the world viz, Europe, Africa, Latin and North America, Asia and Australasia and across Canada and the United States from East to West. What I am trying to say is that I have experience travelling by air and I thank God for my safety over these years. When I travel by air, I want to be assured that the plane I am flying is ship-shape and in good condition while I leave my safety in the hands of the Almighty. Like all members of the travelling public, I am always sorry to hear about plane crashes because of the loss of lives that always come with the crashes.
On the 7th and 9th of February, I made a quick visit and return flight to and from Abuja from Lagos and I did not enjoy the trip on account of what I would call eventful flight. When my ticket was to be bought, Dana airline tickets were to be purchased but when I was told, I turned the offer down and settled for what I thought was a tested and better established airline which was Arik. I had travelled on Arik for many of its 10 years of existence. I had never complained before. If I do not complain now, I will be failing in my duty as a responsible elder citizen.
When we took off from Lagos, the noise of the aircraft was simply overwhelming. It sounded like the noise coming out of two exhaust pipes of a huge truck. I thought it would stop the moment we reached the right altitude but it continued until we started descending into Abuja 40 minutes later. The aircraft vibrated and rattled throughout the journey. It appeared to me that the plane needed a D- check or total overhaul. I believe this particular aircraft is not more than 10 years old which by international standards, it is not old.
But even a year-old aircraft if not properly maintained, can constitute a hazard to the flying public. On my return journey, I thought whatever temporary problem the aircraft had would have been rectified but it was not. The flight rumbled noisily again shaking and vibrating and noisily ploughing through the clouds like a brakeless truck that has lost its silencers. I told myself that if the best airline in Nigeria is like this, God help us. On the same day, I flew to Abuja, Dana Air, the flight I rejected lost its cabin door on landing at Abuja airport. The circumstances are not clear. Some of the passengers claim the cabin door actually opened while the aircraft was making its final approach to land in Abuja. Just as we were getting out of the bad news, an Air Peace plane about to take off from Lagos to Abuja on February 9 found that robbers had shot at its luggage hold while on the tarmac.
The flight take off had to be delayed for about two hours before finally taking off. Some years ago in Port Harcourt, a plane nearly crashed when cows blocked the runway. It was an embarrassment that went viral all over the world. One hopes this will never happen again and that all the airports in Nigeria have perimeter fences. There is plenty of people looking for jobs that fencing of airports should not be an issue at all. What does this say about the aviation industry in Nigeria?
It is obvious that the industry is poorly supervised. Anybody, it seems to me , can go to the desert of Arizona in Tucson or Mohave Airport in Eastern California where time-expired planes are stored in what are called boneyards to purchase what are meant for scraps and refurbish them to set up their so-called air lines in Nigeria which a former aviation minister called “flying coffins”.
We should not wait until we have another air crash before we call the attention of the travelling public and our government to the danger of flying in Nigeria. I am not sure whether setting up a national airline is the way forward. Our experience with the defunct Nigeria Airways does not recommend government setting up a totally owned airline. It seems in Nigeria that whatever belongs to government belongs to nobody and is quickly run down. It was a pity that we did not allow the Virgin Atlantic venture into our local aviation industry to succeed. The newly signed open air protocols in Addis Ababa hopefully will lead to investment by well healed foreigners in our aviation industry.
Our government can invite say Lufthansa German airlines or Ethiopian airlines to set up local airlines in Nigeria with Nigerian public and private part ownership. The current airports being modernized in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano are not going to be worth our while unless we have thriving domestic usage of these facilities. The present local airlines are just not up to what is needed in the biggest economy and the most important country in Africa. I of course can attest to the fact that Nigerian pilots are among the best in the world.
The fact that in recent times, unlike in the past, and in spite of poor equipment, we have witnessed few accidents in Nigeria is a pointer and confirmation of their expertise and professionalism. But we cannot rest on our record and wait until avoidable accidents occur. Whatever the case may be, we need an efficient aviation industry. Travelling by road is not the best way to go. This is even more so because of the creeping insecurity of road travelling in these days of kidnapping, armed brigandage, attacks by so-called herdsmen and armed militia gangs. Travelling by rail is an aspiration for the future.
I know quite a few Nigerians who, so unsure of our local aviation industry that if they have to go from Lagos to Maiduguri would rather drive. Aviation industry is so critical to our development that our present critically challenged government must face up to its duty of providing a safe means of air travel in Nigeria. The present “bolekaja” planes in the domestic air space of Nigeria need to be grounded immediately in order to save the lives of already traumatized and exhausted Nigerians facing the sometimes self-imposed problems of bad governance.
by Jide Osuntokun