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Few years ago an aircraft engineer working with a charter airline ran to the VIP Lounge at the Lagos airport where journalists were staying then and almost out of breath narrated how the owner of the airline he was working for threw a bottle at him for directing that an aircraft should not be operated because it was not air worthy.
The operator could not take that because of the money he was going to lose as a governor from the South East had requested to charter the aircraft. Because of the boldness of that engineer to defy his employer, he was later engaged by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).
There are similar cases where the decision of the engineer in charge of the aircraft was overruled due to financial considerations and some of the accidents that had taken place in the country could be traced to this.
One of the major accidents in 2005 that consumed 117 lives was caused by the operator who insisted that the flight must take off, even when the pilot refused to fly the aircraft; another pilot was cajoled into operating the aircraft and the result was a tragic crash and loss of many innocent souls on board.
Contravening the Rules
THISDAY columnist, Ekerete Udoh, spoke with a pilot, a captain who has commanded many flights for years and when asked whether his boss had ever ordered him to fly a plane that he was not satisfied was airworthy, he responded in the affirmative but said he would not do so again. He also said some Nigerian operators were usually reluctant to change the rotaries (parts of an aircraft that have life span and which are removed when they have approached the end of their span) but retain them, insisting that they are still working.
Udoh wrote, “I asked the captain if he had ever been pressured by his employers to fly an aircraft that he knew was not completely airworthy, but had to be ‘managed’ to the next destination. He looked at me for almost a minute and in a very concerned tone said, “Yes, I have” and added rather reassuringly that “that has stopped over the years and as we speak, I will not jeopardise the safety of my passengers whose lives have been entrusted under my care.”
The pilot noted that the airspace is relatively safe in Nigeria and added, as a matter of advice that passengers should be choosy on the airline they should travel with because many Nigerian operators do not efficiently maintain their aircraft.
Udoh also wrote, “When asked how safe it is to fly within the Nigerian airspace, the captain was brutally frank “It is relatively safe, I must say. But you should fly those airlines that have been audited by foreign technical partners. Any airline that you see some expatriates fly with regularly, tells you that their employers and their embassies must have been satisfied with the auditing that those airline technical partners had carried out, because those partners will not compromise safety, neither will they cut corners unnecessarily.”
Weak Enforcement of Regulations
Since 2006 till the appointment of the new Director General, Fola Akinkuotu, what has been prevalent and which may not have changed is the uneven level of enforcement of the regulation by the regulatory body, whereby NCAA was hard on some airlines but too soft on others.
In the past some airlines have broken the rule that any airline with one aircraft should not operate. NCAA was extending scheduled maintenance dates for some airlines and not to others; that when the Dana Air flight crashed last year one operator had to speedily ferry out his three aircraft which were due for maintenance but he was still operating them because NCAA was looking the other way.
Although there are stringent conditions that an airline must meet before it is given Air Operator Certificate (AOC) by NCAA, but it could be noticed that political considerations and interferences from the Ministry of Aviation and the Presidency tend to infringe on the professionalism of the regulatory body.
Also before the Dana Air crash last year, there were indications that decision making was done at the whim of the Director General. Inspectors might inspect aircraft and conclude that it was not air worthy and ground it but later overruled be by the Director General. That was also what happened with Dana Air fleet days before that accident last year.
Also there were allegations of compromise by the NCAA inspectors who might ground an aircraft to mount pressure on the airline to do “something” and as one industry insider noted, “A situation whereby an operator has his aircraft grounded for technical problems and he begs the Director General to release it for him and he agreed to release it, is not a sincere situation. If an aircraft is grounded because it has fault, no amount of pressure should make NCAA to release the aircraft until that fault is rectified.”
So what has been practised over the years by NCAA is regulation by whim. The Presidency and the Ministry of Aviation did not help the case of the regulatory body with their regular interferences, but the past Director General, after NCAA had become autonomous, did not defy such interferences and defend the regulatory body’s autonomy and there is no sign yet that the present one would do so.
It is expected that before AOC is awarded to an airline that NCAA should audit the airline’s finances to know whether they are robust or whether the airline is scrounging to survive. Many of the accidents that have happened in Nigeria could be attributed to bad weather, pilot error and faulty equipment. Some of the ones that were caused by pilot error had associated bad equipment situation, like the Associated airline crash on October 3.
Between last year and now, NCAA had licensed at least three new airlines. These airlines came with very old equipment to show for their business. Hopefully none of the airlines has started operating and NCAA should, for the safety of Nigerians, ensure that they do not start operation.
The regulatory body and the Ministry must ensure that airlines coming for AOC must have the funds to maintain their aircraft, pay their staff members and suppliers, and also that they must bring in newer aircraft.
Pioneer Commissioner and Chief Executive of Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB), Angus Ozoka, said this about old aircraft, “I will prefer, from what I have known, I will like that if I am travelling by air as a passenger that the aircraft that I am using is relatively new. I will prefer that. There are two reasons for this, going by what I know as an investigator, newer aircraft can also get involved in accident, but let us say, if newer aircraft and the much older aircraft get involved in accident in similar circumstances and crash dynamics, which is how it crashed and the spread of the wreckage, there is higher possibility of survivability in the newer aircraft that in the older aircraft.
“In recent years the aircraft seat has higher survivability during accident. The seat has been so modified and strengthened. If older aircraft and newer aircraft crash in exactly the same way, the passengers in the newer aircraft are more likely to survive the impact than the passengers in the older aircraft because the seats have improved greatly. That is number one. Number two, from the accident investigation point of view, the newer aircraft contains more variables, more information in the Flight Data Recorder (FDR).
“FDR will tell you the altitude of the aircraft, direction of the aircraft, height and hundreds of other variables. If you get a Flight Data Recorder or Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) from a newer aircraft, you are more likely to know where the problem in the aircraft is likely going to be.”
NCAA and the Airlines
There is still much NCAA has to do. It has to treat every operator equally, applying the laws equally and being strict with enforcement. There will be more crashes if NCAA continues to treat the airlines with kid gloves and the first move NCAA should make to ensure that it has turned the corner is to ground the operators that do not have the financial resources to conduct sound air operation and also ensure that the salary of airline workers is not delayed.
In a media briefing on Monday, the Director General of NCAA, Akinkuotu, said, “The operator has a responsibility to fulfil, to ensure compliance with the law, to ensure that things are done appropriately and we will continue to call the operators to abide by the law. We shall continue doing our oversight functions as required. We will also ask and demand that operators do their part.
“The AIB preliminary report has indicated that there were lapses on the side of the operator. That means that the operator has a role to play in ensuring total safety operation. The regulatory authority has role to play in putting the law into place. Unfortunately some of the things we do may not be so obvious to the public.”
But what has been obvious to the public are the crashes. During the interview it was noticed that the Director General was careful not to say harsh words against the operators. But the Chairman of IRS Airlines, Ishiaku Rabiu, who was at the meeting, assured listeners that the operators would continue to abide by the regulations as enforced by NCAA, but the regulatory body must have to jolt the status quo in purposeful manner in order to ensure safe air operation in the country.
Aviation consultant and the CEO of Belujane Konsult, Chris Aligbe, said what NCAA has achieved is safety regulation but it is yet to achieve economic regulation, noting that without economic regulation it is possible that Nigeria will continue to experience air crashes as airlines dodge to carry out effective maintenance of their aircraft because they lack the funds or are unwilling to deploy funds for maintenance.
“Economic regulation has not been the focus of NCAA. It was last year that economic regulation and passenger protection laws were added in the Act. The focus has been safety so whether the airline paid the pilot and the crew no one bothered to know. Whether the airline has the required competences was not the matter; they just look at the technical personnel but all that have to change now,” said Aligbe.