Thursday, August 09, 2012

Regulation, Age of Aircraft and Air Safety in Nigeria

Domestic air traffic is at the lowest ebb because many Nigerians are afraid of traveling by air after the crash of Dana Air flight. Chinedu Eze appraises issues raked up by the tragic accident 

There are fears that the domestic air transport in Nigeria may become moribund. And this is happening at the time international air travel in the country is enjoying a boost, but unfortunately, while 21 foreign airlines operate into the country, three Nigerian airlines are involved in international operations. And they have about one per cent of that market.

The situation has become worrisome now that the domestic air market is shrinking because of the ill-fated Dana Air flight 0992, which crashed on June 3, 2012, killing 163 persons.

Industry experts say that domestic traffic has crumbled below 35 per cent and if it does not pick up in the foreseeable future, the few existing airlines may dissipate their operation funds and go into liquidation as revenue has significantly plummeted

In a knee-jack situation, the crash prompted a lot of reactions, including the controversial question on age of aircraft, the allegation of laxity on the regulatory body, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and alleged poor compliance on the side of the airlines.

At the height of uncertainty and confusion, the report of the Technical and Administrative Review Panel on Domestic Airlines (TARPA) released recently started a blame game, which was out of tune with the standard in the industry.

The report exacerbated the already tensed situation and gave angry Nigerians the organisations to blame for the crash even before the result of the investigation of the crash is released by the concerned authority that has the legal obligation to do so.

The consequences of the crash is adversely affecting the airlines as THISDAY gathered last Monday that both the airlines that operate modern and old aircraft are feeling the reaction of the passengers in the ugly place - their revenue coffers. Many passengers have abandoned the airports. They have also abandoned Nigerian airlines because whether old or new they believe that as long as Nigerians are in charge, the situation is foreboding.

This is the effect of so much ventilation of pent-up fury after the accident, which like the action of a mob lacked rationality as so much  was said that ought not to be said and all that were said have imbued potential passengers with the fear to fly.

The frightening factors include the allegation by TARPA that Dana Air’s, “certain maintenance practices by Dana Airline particularly the use of Technical Logbook were not in conformity with standard and recommended practices.”

While Dana Air was accused of that misdemeanor in that report, Nigerians would see it as a general malaise with all Nigerian airlines and tracing that allegation to the past, THISDAY investigations revealed that the alleged shortcoming has been there in the industry.

A circular from the Federal Republic of Nigeria Federal Civil Aviation Authority Aeronautical Information Services, dated February 12, 1992, titled: “Use of Aircraft Technical Log” stated: “It has been observed and confirmed that some pilots are not recording defects experienced during flights. In an attempt to make  quick turnaround or prevent uninterrupted operation of aircraft, pilots, in collusion with management and maintenance personnel, have in some cases decided to pay no attention to, or cover up the existence of such defects which otherwise would have been rectified before further flight.”

The circular accused pilots of not making entries in the tech log, deferring them to a convenient time or sometimes “scribble something on a piece of paper for maintenance engineers to rectify.” The circular, which ironically was signed by the Director General of NCAA, Dr Harold Demuren, who was then the Managing Director of the aforementioned agency, said that such action of the pilots “has grave consequences for the safety of flight.”

This showed that the allegation of the committee was not new in the industry; it was an age old tradition, unfortunately.

In spite of all the hoopla, the international aviation community still rates Nigeria in terms of air safety as one of the highest in Africa and Indian Region (AFI) and that explains why in the European Union (EU) blacklisted airlines which are 284 in number from 24 countries of the world none was blacklisted in Nigeria. These airlines are banned from flying to anywhere in Europe.

The Secretary General of African Airlines Association (AFRAA), Dr Elijah Chingosho at the recent African Ministerial Meeting on Aviation Safety held in Abuja, lamented how the EU unjustifiably treats African airlines.

“Out of the 24 countries worldwide with airlines on the banned list, 17 of them or over 70 per cent are in Africa. This means that about a third of all African countries are on the banned list. Currently, no African country has ever been removed from the list even though we have witnessed general improvement of aviation safety on the continent and a number of countries on the blacklist have rectified several safety deficiencies identified through ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) audit,” Chingosho complained.

Aviation is international because it follows the same standard worldwide and if the international aviation community does not have confidence in Nigeria since after the accident, ICAO would have made that known, the same with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States, which gave Nigeria Category one. Yet Nigerians have lost confidence in their airlines.

At the Ministerial Conference in Abuja it was made public that some African countries including Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Sierra Leone and Liberia are understudying the safety standard achieved by Nigeria in the aviation sector as international organisations, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and ICAO rated Nigeria’s air safety high at the event.

On age of aircraft which has become highly controversial in Nigeria, ICAO listed all the countries and their aircraft age and exposed the fact that most advanced countries have the most aged aircraft.

Currently, there are 26, 508 aircraft captured across the various continents with 59 per cent of aircraft above 15 years of age. Oceanic tops the list with 82 per cent of the aircraft above 15 years. North America is ranked second among Category One countries that that have aircraft above 15 years.

In Africa, Nigeria is ranked second as the largest country with aircraft fleet above 15 years of age, while Ethiopia, Morocco and Egypt seem to have smaller number of aircraft above 15 years and these countries have also benefitted from strong national/flag carriers and also government support. These countries also have significantly smaller domestic traffic compared to Nigeria.

It is generally believed that whether old or new if aircraft is not well maintained it would be prone to accidents. At the same it is also known that older aircraft demand more money from its operator for effective maintenance.

The Managing Director of Aero Contractors, Captain Akin George, in a recent presentation in Lagos said that the age of an aircraft had no direct correlation to operational safety, but that “focus should be that adequate maintenance in accordance with the manufacturer and the NCAA is carried out.”

George referred to the age of aircraft owned by prominent personalities in the world and disclosed that US President’s aircraft, Air Force One is over 23 years old; that of the Queen of England is over 25 years, while the average fleet of American airlines include Delta Airline,  A320 Fleet – 19 years; Alaska Airlines , United Airlines,  British Airways B 737  17 years.

“All airlines should put in place an effective Safety Management System (SMS). This will ensure a quality system is in place to monitor all aspects of airline operations.  (This is already a requirement by the NCAA and other CAAs’)”, the Aero Contractor’s boss advised.

The challenge really is that in Nigeria it is alleged that when they consider the huge cost of carrying out major maintenance checks, many Nigerian airlines may want to defer such checks and also cut corners to maximise the utilisation of their aircraft.

But industry experts, including operators said that no airline would like to be involved in a crash because that means the end of that airline, in Nigeria. Besides, who would like to incur the huge loses engendered by air crash or damage his or her reputation, just to earn a few millions of Naira?