The crisis in the Nigerian aviation sector has been linked not only to technical problems but also to the Nigerian factor which encourages cutting of corners and falsehood
| By Olu Ojewale | Oct. 28, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
THESE are not the best of times in the Nigerian aviation industry. Since the crash of Associated Airline in which 16 people were killed on Thursday, October 3, this year, it appears that the trouble which characterised the sector in the past had not completely disappeared but hibernating. This has brought about the suspicion across the country that all is still not well in the aviation sector. And because of the endemic corruption in the country, it is suspected that some of the airlines may be cutting corners and not truthful to their business. This school of thought has been reinforced with the recent near mishaps and other unpalatable reports emanating from the industry. The development has also called to question whether, indeed, the aviation sector can be called a poster banner for the President Goodluck Jonathan administration’s transformation agenda as it had been touted in the past one year.
In fact, before the crash, the Stella Oduah-led aviation ministry had been the darling of Nigerian air travellers, with heaps of encomiums and accolades poured on the minister and her team for making the nation’s airports more comfortable and more air travellers-friendly. But the recent happenings have reopened a Pandora’s box in the aviation sector, thereby bringing to the fore that the technical side of the industry might have been neglected. The criticism was also expressed at the National Assembly, where some lawmakers accused Oduah of being more interested in aesthetic rather than safety, which is the backbone of the aviation industry. But whether anyone accepts it or not the Nigerian factor has a way of creeping in to rubbish every well-intentioned programme or policy. That, it seems, is one of the major problems facing the aviation industry and the country at large. The question about this, again, came on when an IRS Airline aircraft was reported to have had an emergency landing in Kaduna, on Sunday, October 13. The aircraft was said to have developed a hydraulic problem mid-air. That, apparently, must have sent jitters into the spines of air travellers in the country to query the safety of the nation’s aviation sector.
To disabuse the minds of those who may have had doubts about the safety of the sector, Fola Akinkuotu, director-general, NCAA, addressed a press conference in Lagos, on Monday, October 14, in which he said that the incident was not an emergency situation as reported by the media. Akinkuotu said: “For the purpose of reinforcement, we wish to restate that the affected F100 aircraft operated by IRS landed safely at the Kaduna Airport, following a hydraulic alert in the cockpit while on final approach to the airport.”
He explained that the aircraft had two hydraulic systems on board and that when one was faulty the other one was available for use which made the aircraft land successfully. Besides, he also informed the media that the plane had three generators on board and that each generator could power the aircraft without any problem. “So, it is very difficult for all the three generators to be faulty at the same time. Some of the things the people in the media call emergencies are not emergencies in the aviation sector at all,” Akinkuotu said. He said there were enough precautionary measures in place to ensure air safety at all times.
Apparently worried by distrust among travelling Nigerians about the health of the sector which recorded high rate of air accidents and related incidents, the NCAA boss disclosed that plans were underway to embark on financial, operational and mechanical audits of all the indigenous airlines operating in the country. “We are going to audit all the indigenous airlines; we have a continuous process of auditing airlines. As a matter of fact, we are going to do a joint audit on all the airlines working with foreign audit firms to ensure that there is a complete validation of all the airlines. This is done to reassure the public of the safety of our airspace and to also continue the oversight functions of the NCAA.
“We intend to put in place regulations that would require all our airlines to have an International Air Transport Association Operational Safety, IOSA, audit. Many years ago, it was voluntary but this time we will make it compulsory. Airlines would be required to have this as a way of going forward and ensuring that their systems are tidy,” he said. Akinkuotu explained that the audit would be a continuous exercise for all the airlines, stressing that its essence would be to boost safety in the sector.
The NCAA boss revealed that the preliminary report from the Accident Investigation and Prevention Bureau brought to the fore some of the issues that the agency might consider. “We have been calling on operators to abide by the laws, and we will continue to do so, because these operators also have responsibilities to fulfill to ensure that they continue to abide by the laws in ensuring total safety of passengers,” he said and promised that the NCAA would continue to interact with operators on what they needed to do.
Ishaku Rabiu, chairman of IRS, who was at the press conference, commended the federal government and the NCAA on the regulation of the activities of airline operators to make the industry better. Rabiu said that airline operators were not in the business to kill anyone and would not willingly kill people in the process of making money. “It is wrong to injure people or kill them in the course of making money. I can speak for all operators in this area. I know people are concerned because they have friends, families and neighbours who fly. It is important to know that we have been in this business for 12 years and have had no accident,” Rabiu said.
As a pre-emptive measure, the NCAA suspended the licence of Dana Airlines on Sunday, October 6, 2013, three days after the crash of the Associated Airline aircraft which was taking the corpse of the late Olusegun Agagu, former governor of Ondo State, to Akure, capital of the state, for burial. The NCAA said it suspended the licence of the airline to enable it carry out an operational audit on the airline. But a source at the regulatory organisation informed Realnews that the suspension could be linked to a time when a flight involving one of its planes had engine problem at Port Harcourt International Airport. “The best thing for the NCAA was to ground the operation to allow for routine checks on all the planes. Though it came at the time the airline is building up and gaining the confidence of its customers, the NCAA cannot be faulted for being proactive,” he said. The last time airlines were audited was in 2006 after the crash of ADC Airline, when the country took a holistic action to save the sector, an action that eventually result in a six-year accidents free period.
It is hoped that the audit would take into account the unsavoury incident involving a Kabo Airline on Friday, October 4. Barely 24 hours after the Associated Airlines plane crashed on Thursday, October 3, another major disaster almost happened when the Kabo Airline Boeing 747 plane carrying 512 pilgrims landed on an airport equipment at Sokoto Airport on Friday, October 4. The aircraft, while trying to land on the runway, knocked and damaged the airport’s Instrument Landing System, ILS, and stopped with damaged tyres.
The Saudi Arabi-bound jumbo aircraft, had taken off from the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, to have a stop-over in Sokoto, for additional pilgrims when the incident happened. Mercifully, there was no casualty. The 512 Mecca-bound pilgrims had to stay extra day in Sokoto before another aircraft airlifted them for the pilgrimage. A statement from Yakubu Datti, general manager, corporate communications, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, confirmed the incident and said the plane damaged the airport’s ILS. According to the statement, the aircraft landed safely but: “Preliminary reports indicate that the control tower gave the pilot clearance to land on Runway 08 but the captain, opted to use Runway 26, for reasons yet to be ascertained. The 512 souls on board, comprising 494 passengers and 18 crew members landed safely. The aircraft, however, damaged some Instruments Landing System, ILS, and came to a stop with deflated tyres.”
Speaking to Realnews later on the incident, Datti said the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA’s findings on the case and the final report were still being awaited. The FAAN boss, however, claimed that whenever an aircraft was on flight, it behoved on the pilot to take any action that would suit the successful operation of the flight and he or she could disregard any instruction or advice from the air controllers. “What happened in Sokoto with Kabo Air, is that on any flight, the pilot is the commander and he decides any instruction he wants to take. It is always at his discretion to accept weather report and even the direction of the traffic controller,” Datti said.
Another source close to the aviation ministry told Realnews: “The pilot, for reason best known to him, chose to land the plane on the alternate runway. It is allowed. A pilot may choose if other runway is available. Air traffic controllers, give advice, but the pilot still has the command of the plane. The pilot is always in command. Though when a pilot violates the airspace, they are penalised. The ATC ensures that he gives the best operational advice. Parties must be careful in carrying out operational matters bearing in mind the penalties and insurance liabilities. Where a pilot or crew is fingered in the cause of an accident, the airline takes passengers’ insurance liabilities. If the accident is caused by the ATC, the organisation takes liability and the affected airline normally takes legal action to get redress.
“Still on Kabo, the tyres-landing gear on touch-down hit the airport ILS and this caused the burst tyres. The pilot in this case, was at fault. A typical case of a pilot’s error. This is not an accident in aviation, but an incident. The pilot has already been suspended by Kabo management. Kabo is one of the pioneers of the deregulated industry during the Ibrahim Babangida era in 1989 along side with GAS Air Okada Air, EAS, Harka Air, Harco, Hold Trade, etc. Kabo, following the ban on BAC-11 aircraft in the sector, ventured into hajj operations. The airline has been consistent and reliable with its own jumbo jets-B747. Kabo has a very good safety record.”
The Kabo incident apparently goes to show that at any time, a pilot can decide to play God like the captain of the Associated Aviation Airline Limited aircraft which crashed on Thursday, October 3, did. Preliminary investigation report has revealed the captain’s resolve not to listen to the wise counsel of the co-pilot. The Accident Investigation, Prevention Bureau, AIPB’s preliminary report has revealed that the aircraft was already faulty before Abdulraham Yakubu, the captain, decided to embark on the journey even when the co-pilot suggested that the flight should be aborted. The aircraft crashed exactly 31 seconds after take-off from the runway.
Muktar Usman, a captain and commissioner in charge of the AIPB, while briefing the press on Thursday, October 10, said that the crew discussed some concerns about the aircraft prior to departure. He refused to elaborate on those concerns because, according to him, there was still a lot of work to complete on the matter. Usman said before the crew embarked on the flight, there was an automated warning from the onboard computer voice, which consisted of three chimes followed by “Take-off Flaps…Take-off Flaps,” which were repeated severally. The commissioner said the warning suggested that the flaps were not in the correct position for take-off and there was some evidence that the crew might have chosen not to use flaps for the take-off. He, however, said the warning did not come as a surprise to the crew who chose to take-off.
The crash, has also exposed some operational lapses in the aviation sector. How airworthy was the Embraer 120 aircraft operated by Associated Aviation? Did the aircraft have a valid insurance cover as claimed by the airline? Who certified and released the aircraft for the ill-fated flight? Was the airline owing salaries at the time of the crash? These, and many other questions have been agitating the minds of air travellers and industry watchers as frequent incidents of air crash continue to dog the country.
First, the crash has shown that documentation of the airliner’s papers was faulty. For instance, when asked about the last date of the of flight of the aircraft, Taiwo Raji, chief operating officer of the Associated Aviation, said August 30, this year, whereas officials of the NCAA claimed it was August 22. Other documents said to have been submitted to the NCAA, especially the insurance covers were equally said to be suspicious.
But Akinkuotu said officials of his agency usually go about to verify documents of the airlines randomly. “You may find them talking to pilots before take-off flights and checking their documents. They also speak to flight engineers,” he said. On the suspicions that some of the airline may not have adequate insurance covers, he said: ”I am not an expert in insurance, but we have documentations to the effect that SEMA has provided some documentation. I believe that SEMA must be a brokerage firm; a brokerage firm is not the one that insures. But we usually have some documentation in respect of insurance.”
On the airworthiness of operating aircraft, the NCAA boss insisted that the agency usually relied on the documentation supplied by the airline. He said that unless there was a contrary information on the documentation, there was no way his agency would have found out otherwise. “The continued airworthiness certification of an airplane is largely the responsibility of the operator. There are certified engineers there who are licensed and certified by NCAA who signed that the aircraft was airworthy; the pilot also agreed the aircraft was airworthy and he accepted to fly it; so to that extent, the NCAA cannot say anything to the contrary as we speak. The NCAA applies the same standard to the major and fringe airlines. The rules are the same. If you are an AOC holder, you are an AOC holder. It is not a matter of the size of your operations. As a matter of fact, it is better to keep an eye on the smaller operators,” Akinkuotu said. Other than that, some airline watchers have reasoned that the system is subject to abuse because of the so-called Nigerian factor as the possibility is there that some airlines may forge documents or buy some regulatory officials to endorse their papers without going through the rigour of certification.
Another issue militating against airline operation in the country is believed to be the issue of workers not being paid their salaries as and when due. A caller on a radio programme who claimed to know Yakubu, captain of the ill-fated aircraft, said he should have more than 40 years of experience and should be about 65 years old. He said the captain was one of the pilots of Nigeria Airways and that he must have been pushed to look for a job in Associated Airline because his gratuity was not paid by the defunct national carrier. “I wonder what must have been going on in his mind when he was flying that plane; may be his salaries had not been paid for sometime because I understand that the airline is not doing well,” he said. But an analyst who does not want his name mentioned told Realnews: “Atually the age of the pilot has got nothing to do with the crash. What matters is the agility of the pilot. Even the age being touted is good for flying. What are most important are health, currency, a good sight (though he could wear medicated glasses in case of sight problem). The flying experience of 40 years means that the pilot must have grown to become an instructor training the young ones in field experience. His death in the unfortunate accident was a big blow to the industry.”
Indeed, there are said to be some insolvent airlines owing their workers several months of unpaid salaries. But Akinkuotu said the issue was currently being addressed by the authority. “If we have any airline that we know is not paying salaries, we will stop them,” he said. He also said that the agency would not encourage any airline that was not financially sound to operate.
Another intriguing area the NCAA needs to work on is how to avoid the kind of the dispute between the agency and the Rivers State government. The agency grounded the aircraft in April this year on the allegation that its clearance expired on April 2, and that the aircraft had been operating illegally in the country because it was not registered in Nigeria. Trouble started when the aircraft conveying the governor and his entourage was grounded for about two hours at the Akure Airport, Ondo State, for allegedly violating aviation procedures for take-off, on April 26. The development lent credence to a frosty relationship between President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State.
The ministry of aviation alleged that the crew of Amaechi’s aircraft failed to produce the manifest of the passengers on board as required by the new safety measures being put in place. “We have had incidents in the past where it was difficult to know the people on board a particular aircraft. The rule now is that you must present the manifest before you take off, whether it is a private or commercial aircraft,” Joe Obi, media assistant to the minister, said. It was later revealed that the aircraft had been operating illegally in the country because there was no evidence to show that it belonged to either Amaechi or Rivers State.
“The owner of this aircraft according to the certificate of registration is Bank of Utah, trustee of Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. The clearance for the aircraft was sought by Caverton Helicopters on March 27, 2013. Consequently, the aircraft in reference is hereby grounded at any airport that it is located right now in the country,” Fan Ndubuoke, general manager, public affairs, NCAA, said. Perhaps, if there was no rift between the governor and the president, the true owner would still have remained a secret and there would have been no proper documentation for the flight to operate in the country. This is one of the issues an analyst in the industry regards as one of the Nigerian factors being talked about.
Placed in the same mode was the quarrel between Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State and the National Airspace Management Agency, NAMA, on Friday, June 7. On that day, the NAMA had denied clearance to an helicopter meant to fly Oshiomhole from Benin to Asaba enroute to Awka, Anambra State where he was billed to attend the funeral of Colette, wife of former Senator Ben Obi, an aide to the president. The governor was said to have boarded the helicopter owned by OAS at the Government House in Benin, before the pilot was summoned to the airport for normal clearance. On arrival, it was learnt that, James Manahash, the Filipino captain, was told that the helicopter could not be granted clearance to fly. The governor, who reportedly waited inside the chopper for about an hour, had to disembark and call off the trip as the delay meant he would be late for the funeral. He was seen driven off in his official car visibly angry.
Datti later told Realnews that the Filipino pilot felt too big to file a manifest because he was carrying the governor. He said the owner of the helicopter had apologised for the pilot’s behaviour but because it was too late in the day, the governor decided to terminate the journey. But Manahash gave a different story which tended to show a witch-hunt by government officials. “We were already airborne when we got the call to return to the airport and even threatened that failure to do so would lead to complete grounding of the aircraft. The governor prevailed on me to return and listen to them. When we got back to the airport, I was told to pay landing and aerodrome fees which, ordinarily, we could pay later because we were already airborne. Even after completion of the process of payment within 10 minutes, we were still delayed for one hour fifteen minutes, with the governor still seated and thereafter left in anger. I am surprised by this development because this is not the first time I would be coming to Benin to fly the governor. I was even threatened, after payment that the aircraft will be grounded completely if I argued with them. I have flown for 35 years, seven of which I spent in Nigeria and this is the first time I am encountering a situation like this. I did not know what problem they have with the governor.” Whatever be the true position, it was obvious that one of the parties did not say the whole truth.
However, it is instructive to note that since that incident, the governor has had a brush with the aviation authority when he ordered the closure of the Benin Airport in July, for non-remittance of taxes to the state by FAAN. The matter was later resolved. But Oshiomhole insisted that the closure had nothing to do with the embarrassment he suffered from the airport’s authority in June.
What has remained curious again is how Ricky Daniel Oikhena, 13, was able to hide in the wheel compartment of an Arik Air flight from Benin to Lagos, without being detected and did not die during or after the flight. Oikhena had taken the flight to Lagos, on September 3, thinking that it was going to the United States. Nobody has been able to fully explain who gave him the idea that he could stowaway in such a manner. Stowaway is not a subject taught in Nigerian schools but somebody must have given him some lessons on what to do, where and when to wait for the aircraft and how to open the tyre compartment. It is sad that ever since the incident, nobody in any of the security agencies has asked pertinent questions to find out the brains behind the ugly incident. Was it a conspiracy of silence?
Instead, what has happened is that Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State, granted the boy scholarship to read engineering in the US so as to fulfill his dream. Edo State Government said recently that it had secured admission in one of the state’s top secondary schools for him to study and realise his dream. “He is an intelligent young man with uncommon challenges, but one that has a vision. We had him examined by people who should know and the result confirmed that he is normal. This incident was probably the kind of trigger that we needed to improve the facilities at our airports. You can never have all the money you need to do all you have to do. You should start from somewhere,” Oshiomhole said.
In any case, security around the nation’s airports has been increased to forestall such a future occurrence. Speaking about the tragic crash involving Associated Airlines’ plane, Oduah described air accidents as God’s will that were inevitable. But notwithstanding, she assured that the federal government would continue to ensure that there were no more air disasters in the country.
The minister who was speaking to State House correspondents on investigations into the crash, said: “Again, we do not speculate on the causes of accidents. Until they happen, you cannot say this is the cause or that is not the cause. But what is obvious and is the truth is that in aviation, there are shared responsibilities, starting from the man that carries your luggage to the man that makes sure that your boarding pass is issued to you. And so, the regulatory agency, the operators, the management, everybody has his/her responsibility and all must work in tandem for there to be an optimal, secure and safe aviation sector in the country. And that is what we have been working on.”
According to an analyst, Nigeria has the structures to cope with the aviation industry, but argued that the NCAA deserved more autonomy to regulate the industry. “Funding of safety is critical as well as equipment and training of industry personnel. We need to establish a strong national carrier to strengthen the industry,” he said. However, unless the aviation sector is pro-active to deal with sharp practices called the Nigerian factor, eliminating air disasters may be a forlorn hope.