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A few days after the crash of Associated Airlines’ flight 361, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority said it would partner international organisations to carry out a technical audit of the nation’s airlines. However, since then nothing has happened, writes Chinedu Eze
Perhaps the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) promised to carry out comprehensive audit of Nigerian airlines, starting with Dana Air, which was already grounded, to douse the tension and angst that brewed up after the Associated Airlines flight crash.
Nigerians were angry that technical error and pilot’s misjudgement might have led to the crash and the blames beyond the airline involved in the accident fell on the lapse of NCAA. NCAA does not carry regular audit of the airlines; the inspectors that work with the agency are poorly paid and compromise their standards at whim.
Nigerians have also learnt that the Ministry of Aviation has passed vote of no confidence on NCAA because its inspectors have consistently failed to regulate the airlines maintenance system and as one inspector is being blamed today for the role he played in not overseeing effective maintenance of Associated Aviation Limited fleet; another was also blamed when Dana Air flight J9 092 crashed on June 3, 2012.
Since after the promise made by NCAA to audit the airlines, it was later learnt that the agency would not be involved anymore, rather, an organisation linked to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) would carry out the audit but nobody knows when.
THISDAY spoke to the Head of Communications of Dana Air, Tony Usidiamen, who said since the airline’s operations was grounded in October 6 so that it would be audited, nobody has contacted the airline and nobody has showed up for the auditing.
“After the grounding of our operations we did not have any other choice than to send the staff home. Since then they have not been paid. Everybody in the airline is feeling the negative impact of the grounding of our services. We cannot quantify the money we lose everyday while doing nothing but it should be in millions because this is a business concern.
“We are ready to be audited and we are willing to abide by all the regulations. The whole situation conjures the image of uncertainty because we are told nothing and nothing is being done. If they were not ready to audit us, why ground the airline?”
AOC and Aged Aircraft
There are multifarious issues dogging at NCAA and it is so because the regulatory body took a lot of things for granted. Many years ago, it jettisoned its autonomy and started enduring romance with government through the Ministry of Aviation. NCAA was always eager to say that besides regulating the airlines, another major duty before it is carrying out the policy of the federal government.
But NCAA can do this while asserting its autonomy. But investigations reveal that since the past four years, NCAA has been giving Air Operator Certificate on instruction from certain quarters and on personal interest. This illicit attitude gained higher gear when the acting Director General, Joyce Nkemakolam, took charge. Within that interim, six airlines were given AOC, the recent public hearing at the National Assembly had disclosed.
But what is ironical is that none of these airlines so certificated has started operation and that was because they have neither the operational system nor the equipment on ground. They do not also have the manpower, so why give them AOC?
Well-known industry operators said that it was contestable for any airline to be given AOC by a director general, who is in acting position, arguing that such AOC could be nullified by a court of law, especially if the airline in question was involved in accident that cost human lives.
Almost all the airlines that requested for AOC presented aircraft that were very old; the newest one was about 20 years old. When the former Director General of NCAA, Dr. Harold Demuren, was in charge, THISDAY learnt that he refused to give AOC to Hak Air and West Link but literally with the speed of lightning, Nkemakolam certified the airlines even when West Link presented the same old aircraft that Demuren rejected because of age and the fact that such aircraft was not allowed to operate in the country.
Demuren, in a paper he presented on July last year on the countries that operate ageing aircraft in the world, noted that in Africa, Nigeria was the second largest country with an aircraft fleet above 15 years of age, while Ethiopia, Morocco and Egypt appear to have smaller amount of aircraft above 15 years.
Ironically, the countries mentioned above have maintenance, overhaul and repair (MRO) facilities, which could be used to effectively maintain older aircraft but they operate relatively newer aircraft, while Nigeria that does not have any maintenance facility has one of the oldest fleet in the continent. Nigeria may only be second to Democratic Republic of Congo which has been in war for decades.
Demuren had argued: “Accidents are not limited to "older" aircraft alone. Data shows no correlation between aircraft age and propensity for/predisposition to accidents. In fact, more so-called "newer" aircraft (less than 20 years) have been involved in fatal crashes in the last five years than older aircraft (greater than 20 years).”
But in Nigeria, old aircraft are more disposed to accidents and the explanation is that they are not given adequate maintenance. The regulatory body, which should be supervising the maintenance, is carrying out the job ineffectively, so why license airlines with old machines when the country does not have the facilities to maintain them?
Back to the audit, the CEO of Centurion Securities, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), observed last Tuesday that NCAA was supposed to be carrying out regular audit of Nigerian airlines but it had not been doing and that even this one it planned to do, it may not have the necessary paraphernalia to do so.
It is expected that the Ministry of Aviation, which passed vote of no confidence on NCAA, should urgently begin the audit of these airlines and do away with ones that are not technically good enough because Nigeria cannot afford another air crash.
In auditing the airlines’ fleet, the Ministry of Aviation may direct the airlines that have aged aircraft that are gullible to technical problems to retire such aircraft and operate with the ones that have clean bill of health.
This measure is going to be drastic and a radical improvement of what used to be obtained in the past as it has become obvious that the limitations to safe air operations in the country has more to do with equipment and regulations rather than safety of the airspace and other airport facilities.
Former chairman of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Dr Steve Mahonwu, told THISDAY in Lagos that the technical audit of all the airlines will provide the needed data on the equipment, the capacity of the airlines to carry out effective maintenance of the aircraft and the manpower of these airlines.
Mahonwu said that it was also necessary to carry out economic audit of the airlines, noting that it was necessary because the failure of the airlines to provide better remuneration for their workers have contributed to the failings of the airlines in maintaining safe operation.
“The audit Ministry of Aviation wants to do is a conventional aviation practice, so it is good they do it. The problem of the Nigerian aviation industry is that most of the airlines operate aged aircraft but there is no adequate finance to service them. Airline workers, including those that operate the flights are not paid well and some airlines owe their staff and this is affecting them. When a pilot is flying he will be thinking about how to take care of his family. That is the reason many of the air accidents are associated with human error because these people are not being taken care of adequately these days like in the time past,” Mahonwu said.
THISDAY learnt that if not that air operations would ground to a halt, the auditing would have been done simultaneously on all the airlines, but now it would start with Dana Air that its services has been suspended and when it is completed and the auditing team is satisfied, it would be allowed to resume operation. But the audit team should start work immediately.
It is highly likely that some of the new airlines that have recently obtained Air Operator Certificate would not be allowed to operate until they meet the new criteria that would be made public soon, which include acquisition and operation of relatively newer aircraft, effective financial management of the airline technical department, strong international auditing department and robust finances to pay the workers and also fund both major and unscheduled maintenance checks.
Although the regulatory body would not acknowledge this but some of its inspectors may have compromised in the past and enjoyed particularly illicit romance with the airlines. The result of this is that the regulatory body sometimes looked the other way when the airlines have erred and the experience that has become prevalent is the obvious rip-off of Nigerians without a hiss of protest by the regulatory authority.
So the consequence of what government wants to do is that if effectively done, air accidents will drastically reduce in Nigeria, fewer airlines would be operating and there would be improved welfare package and higher remuneration for airlines staff. Existing airlines would also have robust financial profile, but the number of airlines that now operate will be reduced to one-third of their size.
The interlining offering (cooperation among airlines) which NCAA would compulsorily introduce would force airlines to work together as partners instead of antagonists and rivals. This will reduce the tension and bitterness among them and whelp a more agreeable fares for the passengers. It will also eliminate anxiety in passengers, who would be sure that once they got to the airport they would be able to fly any airline with their ticket.
But the snag there is that passengers who insist on flying a particular airlines would kick, but if there is effective regulation there would be confidence in passengers that all aircraft from different airlines airworthy.
It is expected that when airlines which do not have funds to maintain effective operations are weeded out, existing ones may be forced to merge and enjoy economies of scale, a situation that may bring down the air fares.
With successful air operation it is also expected that insurance premium for Nigerian registered aircraft will go down. Presently premium is relatively high because it is believed that the aircraft operate in harsh environment. But proper examination would show that besides harsh weather, the nation’s airspace has lost the danger of past years.