Friday, January 02, 2015

Nigeria: Accident-Free Year in Aviation

Chinedu Eze 

For the Aviation sector, the most remarkable achievement in 2014, aside the renewal of the US Category One Safety status, was the attainment of an accident free-year.

The year 2014 will go down in history as one of the few years that Nigeria did not record any air crash. A casual observer will attribute this to mother luck, but it is much more than luck. The tragic accidents of 2012 and 2013 seemed to have roused the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) from lethargy and early in the year it introduced stringent measures to check the excesses of airlines and also to ensure that the operators abide by the rules.

By March, the NCAA had given directive to its inspectors to start the inspection of aircraft at the ramp (tarmac) before allowing each aircraft to go into service. It made airlines to strictly abide by the aircraft maintenance calendar, so there was not even 24 hours deferment to maintenance checks when the aircraft was due; the same with the simulator training of pilots and the retraining of the cabin crew. The regulatory body was also stringent with pilots and cabin crew medicals.

It is also interesting to note that NCAA now study the maintenance personnel of airlines, the idiosyncrasies of aircraft engines in the fleet of domestic carriers to know their performance and maintenance status. So the agency now recommends to airlines engineers that should be relieved of their duties because they cannot maintain aircraft engines effectively; and those that should be retained because of their good performances. All these contributed to the accident free year of 2014.

Kudos should also be given to airlines, which spend huge resources to go to renowned Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) organizations overseas to carry out maintenance of their aircraft. In the past, airlines were known to take their aircraft to unknown maintenance facilities and when they get there for C-check, for example, they tell the company the level of maintenance it should carry on the aircraft. This is in order to cut cost. It might be one of the reasons why Nigeria has recorded too many crashes in the past, considering the limited air traffic in the country.

But it has to be noted; however, that many airlines are tempted to cut corners every day, when they consider the huge resources they have to spend on major maintenance carried out on aircraft overseas. They are also embittered by the huge charges they pay to aviation agencies and government seeming indifference to their plight of operating in an environment devoid of local maintenance facility, high cost and sometimes scarcity of aviation fuel, poor airport infrastructure and underdeveloped air transport market despite Nigeria's huge population. So NCAA as a watchdog has to monitor the airlines acutely to ensure that they do not succumb to the temptation of cutting corners, which consequence may lead to tragic air accidents. So the regulatory body has succeeded in doing this in 2014.

Season of Sacks

On February 12 the federal government announced the sack of the former Aviation Minister, Stella Oduah and three others. The news sent mixed reactions to the industry. It was an excitement for those who were clamoring for her removal but sadness for those who had hoped she stayed to complete the aiport remodeling program she started, which led to the rehabilitation of the nation's 22 airports owned by the federal government; the acquisition and deployment of weather equipment to the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NIMET), the procurement of accident investigation equipment to the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) and other developmental projects she had embarked upon. Oduah, no doubt brought positive radical change to the industry and inevitably stepped on toes of those who established themselves as institutions in the industry. Her removal was sequel to the sandal occasioned by the alleged procurement of armored vehicles at outrageous prices at the NCAA.

Exactly a month later there was an announcement of the sack of the Director-General of NCAA, Captain Fola Akinkuotu and that of the Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), George Uriesi, the Rector of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria, Captain Chinyere Kalu and the Managing Director of the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Nnamdi Udo. Among the four persons removed, the one that ruffled feathers was the sack of Akinkuotu who by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Act had five years tenure. This reality gave rise to mild protests as the Director-General had just spent six months after his confirmation by the Senate.

New Aviation Minister Dr Samuel Ortom was appointed as the acting Minister of Aviation for months while Benedict Adeyileka was appointed acting Director-General of NCAA pending the confirmation of Captain Usman Muktar who was named by the Presidency to replace Akinkuotu by the Senate. Ortom's period as the acting Minister of Aviation was uneventful. He spent his time dousing the worry of Nigerians that the remodeling project of the airport facilities would be abandoned. It was at the same period that the Senate Committee on Aviation exposed the over N174 billion debts incurred in the remodeling program that was later put at N148.

In July Osita Chidoka was appointed Minister of Aviation. The industry expected so much from the young man who came in after his appointment as Corps Marshall and Chief Executive Director of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), where many Nigerians affirmed that he performed creditably well. Since his appointment he has kept the industry in suspense; yet to meet these expectations, but talks well to continue to keep hope and further expectations alive.

Adeyileka, as the acting Director-General was very ferocious in carrying out his duties. While he kept his workers on their toes, he might have incurred the wrath of many by his over-zealousness, as the news began to make the rounds that he was campaigning for a permanent stay. Though his tenure was brief, he was efficient in his management of the regulatory agency. There were also reports that due to the manner in which he was removed that Akinkuotu might be recalled, but later it dawned on all that government cannot retract itself, so six months after, Captain Muktar was confirmed by the Senate and he resumed duties as the substantive Director-General of NCAA.

The Ebola Virus Disease

In June Nigerians were jolted and petrified by the fear of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). It came from Liberia through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos and the courier was the late Patrick Sawyer who escaped quarantine in Liberia and came to Nigeria to attend a seminar organized by ECOWAS in Calabar. He died in Lagos.

The Ebola outbreak in Nigeria changed the lifestyle of Nigerians and prompted government to introduce preventive measures at the airport. People became scared of traveling. This affected passenger movement, especially on local travel. The fear of contracting the disease was palpable.

To prevent the spread of the dreaded Ebola virus, officials of the Federal Ministry of Health in collaboration with Port Health Services started the screening of inbound and outbound passengers at the Lagos and other airports in the country that operate international and domestic services.

Passengers arriving from different parts of the world and from different flights were screened with infrared equipment which is operated without the health officer touching the passenger and if negative, the passenger was allowed to go through Immigration and into the country for international passengers.

"Screening of passengers was set up and the screening was being done by the Federal Ministry of Health under the Port Health Services. At the airport their were three stages of screening on inbound airlines. " We have given instructions that airlines should carry out their own screening and make sure that people, anybody that has virus should not be allowed to travel.

"The second stage is that passengers are given forms in the aircraft to fill their health status; then thirdly is on arrival. We also have Port Health officials that are there to carry out preliminary checks which they do with infrared facilities, which does not involve contact and that is done even before Immigration counter," said the General Manager, Corporate Communication, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigerian (FAAN) Yakubu Dati.

The Minister of Aviation, Chidoka who was appointed at that time said, "I assumed office at a time the Ebola virus is ravishing some parts of West Africa, so part of the visit to Lagos is to review the medical procedures that have been put in place at the airports, the screening of passengers coming and leaving the Lagos airport. And to reassure all Nigerians that we are doing all that is within our ability to make our airport safe from the virus.

"You will also agree with me that the proactive manner Mister President has reacted to the issue of the Ebola virus, highlighting it, and making its curtailment paramount. I am coming out to make sure that the country does not go back in the fight against that virus. That is why we decided to go to the airport ... to interact at the airport and to reassure Nigerians of the government's commitment to keep our airport safe and to make sure that it is not a transit point for the transmission of the Ebola virus." Nigeria earned a pass mark from the world for curtailing and eliminating the disease from the country. Nigeria is always a case study wherever the Ebola disease is discussed.

Category One Safety Status

Despite the skepticism expressed by some Nigerians, the country was able to retain the United States' Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Category One Status, which it achieved in September 2010 after a rigorous audit by the US body. Retention of Category One status gives Nigeria carriers like Arik Air and others the right to continue to fly directly into the United States. Reacting to the initial doubts and the country's retention of Category One, industry consultant and CEO of Belujane Konsult, Chris Aligbe said, "The FAA when they come, even the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in all their safety audit, they are looking at the system, they are looking at the individuals manning the system, they are looking at the processes.

"The good thing is that we have document, the act is a very, very good document. The NCAA Act has been looked at; it has been certified and well put together to be able to sustain safety and safety regulations in the industry. So these are the things that they look at, they don't look at one accident that happened. Yes, they also want to know why that accident happened. If it is question of laxity from the system then they can say, look, with this we cannot guarantee safety. But if it is something that happens that you cannot blame it on the system that has been put in place; then you cannot come to the conclusion that we don't merit the Category One. And there is nothing like political Category One."

Having Category One Safety status has attracted so much to Nigeria from the number of foreign airlines that now operate from the country to the inclination of foreign investors to do business in the country's aviation sector. Above all, Nigeria is seen as having safety level that dovetails with international standard.

Closure of Lagos Cargo Terminal Nigeria is still reeling from the awful effect of the closure of its busiest and biggest cargo port at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos by the Nigeria Customs Service. The closure which lasted two weeks stopped the clearing of cargo at the airport. This disrupted cargo movement and gave rise to congestion and loss of revenue that is but at over N4 billion as it affected importers, handling companies, clearing agents and the federal government.

That action is still affecting the sector because volumes of cargo, including aircraft parts are yet to be cleared, prompting FAAN to direct cargo airlines to stop flying to Lagos but to divert their flights to other international airports in the country. Also, many countries that have goods destined to Nigeria have put their freighting on hold until the cargo apron in Lagos which is congested has been cleared. Managing Director of Skyway Aviation Handling Limited (SAHCOL), Olu Owolabi urged the federal government to expand the cargo apron at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos so that it would accommodate more freighters and cargo, remarking that Nigeria is a very big country with high volume of imports.

Also the Managing Director, Prime Port Logistics, Port Harcourt, Femi Adewunmi said that the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa has started serving as an alternative airport to Lagos in cargo delivery, disclosing that before the present congestion, no freighter flies to Port Harcourt directly; rather, they land in Lagos, discharge some cargo and bring the rest to Port Harcourt, but now they fly directly and in one week his company handled over 500 tons of cargo in Port Harcourt.

New Airlines

Three airlines Discovery Air, Azman and Air Peace joined the domestic service in 2014. Their entry heightened competition in the domestic market and helped lower the fares for domestic destinations. But the market is volatile and there is not much hope that many airlines in the domestic market will thrive for a long time. For now, the average age of Nigerian airlines is 10 years.


The major failure of the aviation industry in 2014 was the inability of the federal government to continue and complete the rehabilitation of airport facilities. Tremendous work was started by the former Minister of Aviation, Oduah but this was not continued by the acting Minister, Ortom or Chidoka.

Besides the terminals she fully completed before she was removed, like the terminals of the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) at Lagos airport; the VIP and hajj terminal at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja and the Aminu Kano International Airport terminal in Kano as well as the terminals in Owerri and Enugu, Yola and Ilorin; others at different stage of completion have been abandoned. Whatever the new Minister may be saying, the truth remains that work is abandoned on the projects, so it will hasten their decay which would take them back to worse deplorable situation. The hardest hit is the terminals at the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa, where terminal operation is still conducted in tent. The sector recorded tremendous achievements in 2014. Nigerians who commended the sector for attaining accident free year are now praying it should continue to be so.

Tragic year for foreign airlines However, while the airlines in Nigeria had a good year in 2014, it was not so for in the international scene. The 2014 could be described as one of the most tragic years for the international aviation industry in recent times. The disappearance of Malaysia Flight MH370 was an unprecedented tragic incident. For many years in the history of aviation such had not happened.

The disappearance of the flight on March 8, 2014 was shocking because it is believed that the advancement in airspace communication technology between the pilot and the air traffic control, the advancement in satellite development and the precision of radar in capturing flights in the air have pushed behind the possibility of the disappearance of a large aircraft of the size of Boeing 777. But for nine months now, the aircraft and its passengers and crew are still missing.

Another seeming impossibility is that the army of any nation, whether an organized army or rebels could gun down a civil jet airliner. But this happened at the Russia-Ukraine border on July 17, 2014 and until today no one has been brought to justice. Then the disappearance of AirAsia Flight 8501 on December 28, 2014 and the later discovery of the bodies and the debris of the aircraft showed that although air travel remains the safest means of transport, it still has its limitations in terms of safety.

These tragic accidents cast a dark cloud on the aviation industry last year and made the world realize that more needs to be done to make air travel safer. As the vehicle for economic development and the means to move the movers and shakers of the society, being the fastest means of transportation, scientists, aircraft manufacturers and others must have gone back to work to find how an aircraft that falls into the sea could send enough signals to expose its whereabouts; how aircraft with total electrical shut down could still emit signals and how aircraft could still communicate even below the coverage of a radar.

It has always been said in the aviation industry that the aircraft as a machine has become a perfect piece of work; that most of the accidents that happen in the recent time were caused by human error. It is a human error when a pilot that is facing bad weather demands for a high or lower altitude to get out of the dangerous area the aircraft is flying and he was denied, as projections to the cause of the AirAsia flight are conjecturing. It is also human error when an aircraft that has shown enough snags is still taken to the air despite the signs of deficiency in the aircraft.

Coming to Nigeria, the Dana Air flight crash on June 3, 2012 and the Association Aviation flight crash on October 3, 2013 were all attributed to human error because if the equipment has shortcomings it should have been fixed before taking it up. Malaysia was a signpost of the air tragedies that struck the aviation sector in 2014. The MH370 and the MH 17 are owned by Malaysia Airlines, while a Malaysian low-cost carrier has 49 per cent stake in AirAsia. These three crashes have led to the death of 684 people. And when added to the death toll of 110 in the Air Algeria Flight 5017, which crashed in Mali on July 24, 2014, it will be 800 deaths in major air disasters of 2014.

Weather and human error are the major causes of air accidents in modern times. It is believed that the disappearance of MH370 may have something to do with weather and the Air Algeria flight 5017 crash was weather related and so was the AirAsia QZ8501 flight. Many in the industry believe that government intervention and determination to sustain its national carrier is what would help Malaysia Airlines not to go under because the two tragic accidents would lead to the collapse of any airline.

The industry was shocked and confused about the missing MH370. Many industry experts cannot reconcile themselves to the tragic disappearance of that flight. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) after the accident started searching for solutions to prevent future occurrence of such incident.

The then Director-General and CEO of IATA, Tony Tyler, said the airline industry needs to improve the way it tracks aircraft and manages passenger data following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines' flight MH370. "Speculation will not make flying any safer. We should not jump to any conclusions on probable cause before the investigation into MH370 closes.

"There are, however, at least two areas of process - aircraft tracking and passenger data - where there are clearly challenges that need to be overcome." Tyler said IATA would "facilitate a unified industry position" on the tracking of aircraft and called for governments to make better use of passenger data.

"Accidents are rare, but the current search for MH370 is a reminder that we can never be complacent on safety. It may well be a long time before we know exactly what happened on that flight. But it is already clear that we must never let another aircraft go missing in this way, and it is equally clear that governments must make better use of the passenger data that they mandate airlines to provide," Tyler said. The tragic accident has sent waves of fear on air travellers but not many may have the choice of alternative means for quick travel, so the charge should be on how to make airlines operate safer flights, how to tame the weather with accurate reports and precise observation since there are no better alternatives to air travel for now.

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