Wednesday, July 25, 2012

When should Dana Air fly again?

Following the incident involving Dana Air Flight 0992 on June 3 in which all passengers and crew tragically lost their lives along with a number of people on the ground, the airline operator promptly cancelled all flight operations scheduled for the next day.

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) then followed up with a formal order indefinitely suspending the operations of the airline and denying the operator access to their aircraft. The reaction was an understandable one. The outpouring of grief and emotion across Nigeria following the tragic accident was immense and raw.

Today, we are approaching two months since the tragic accident and Dana Air remains grounded. As far as the author has been able to ascertain, neither the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) nor NCAA, nor even the Ministry of Aviation has issued any clear guidelines to the airline on potential resumption of flights. In fact, it seems that there are no clear policies regarding airline operations post an aviation incident at all. Each case appears to be treated very differently. In the case of Bellview, for instance, the airline carried on normal commercial operations almost immediately, while Sosoliso and ADC never flew again following their accidents in 2005 and 2006.

Sam Adurogboye, a spokesperson for the NCAA, was reported by the BBC following the accident as saying, “Their operational licence has been suspended until we carry out their recertification…this is standard practice after such an event.” This is not entirely true. In fact, and internationally speaking, this is an aberration. What does the NCAA mean by recertification? We would assume that they mean the fleet should be checked and certified as airworthy before operations can begin again?

In 2008, BA Flight 38 operated by ‘the world’s favourite airline’, British Airways, crash-landed just short of the runway at Heathrow Airport. Soon after the crash, the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced that they were aware of the incident and that the incident would be investigated by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the Department of Transport. British Airways’ licence was not suspended. In fact, they carried on with scheduled flights shortly after.

Just over a year later, in June 2009, Air France Flight 447 operated by an Airbus A330 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 216 passengers and 12 aircrew. The accident is on record as the deadliest aviation incident in the history of Air France and still ranks as having one of the highest numbers of fatalities to-date. Following the incident, the French authorities launched two separate investigations – a criminal investigation and a technical investigation. The final technical investigation report was submitted three years later on July 5, 2012. At no point during the investigations were Air France operations suspended, nor was Air France asked to undergo ‘recertification’.

Bellview Airline’s Flight 210 mentioned earlier, which crashed en route to Abuja killing all 117 passengers on board in October 2005, is still fresh in the minds of many Nigerians. The airline operator carried on flight operations up until it was forced to close shop in 2009 due to dwindling customer confidence and incessant delays caused by acute lack of aircraft. Their licence was not indefinitely suspended in the same way that Dana Air’s was. So, once again, one has to wonder what makes Dana’s case so different.

The move by the NCAA is legally ambiguous in that the AIB, whose job is not to apportion blame but to ascertain exactly what went wrong so as to ensure that such an incident never happens again, is still investigating the incident and a final report could take 12 months. If an inspection of the Dana fleet has not taken place, or any fault found if such an inspection has, then what is the basis for the ongoing suspension?

Very few individuals, and indeed professional bodies, have come out to speak up against this type of arbitrary behaviour. One of the few people to have the confidence to speak up about the matter was the secretary-general of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Mohammed Joji, a retired captain. Joji spoke out objectively alluding to undue pressure by the Senate on both the NCAA and the Ministry of Aviation. He faulted the calls for Demuren to be suspended and the Federal Government’s suspension of the airline. He rightly stated that there was no way Demuren or the NCAA could hinder the independent investigations of the AIB. He went on to say that it was necessary for investigations to be carried out before acting against the airline.

Captain Joji is right, and if one may add, the action of the Federal Government sets a dangerous precedent. What this says is that, regardless of international best practice, some airlines will be judged and punished without the need for investigations by the professionals empowered to do so by the laws of the land. It also means that a business investment is not safe because there are no clearly articulated guidelines for such a scenario with which a business can model its risks clearly before investing.

Granted, the incident remains a great shock and embarrassment to the country and many lives were tragically lost, but one hopes that the relevant institutions will act quickly and articulate a clear policy regarding an airline’s operations post an incident, fatal or otherwise. A good starting point for redressing the situation will be for the NCAA to clearly state if it has indeed carried out any inspections on the grounded fleet, what its findings are, and how, if at all, this will affect the so-called ‘recertification’ process. We cannot hold our aviation sector up as a success story until we consistently abide by the best practice that defines world class service and world class regulation.


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