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Increasing aircraft incidents involving DANA Air, Delta Airlines and others carriers in the last few months have put a question mark on the of safety of Nigerian airspace. Experts are saying the confidence of the flying public is getting eroded, as government beams searchlight on the operational competence of aircraft and personnel operating in Nigeria. SHOLA ADEKOLA reports

AT present, the question on the lips of many Nigerians following series of near mishaps that have enveloped the airspace in the last few months is whether or not the Nigerian airspace is still safe.

Anxiety is increasing following the reported near tragic incidents involving some airlines operating in the country. These incidents have provoked serious questions relating to the quality of civil aviation regulations in the country, with the allegation that some operators may not be meeting up with statutory requirements for their aircraft and personnel.

At the last count, the country’s aviation sector has recorded close to six incidents. To many people, a record of six incidents is too many, while to others, six incidents within a month are nothing to get worked up about considering the number of auto accidents that occur on the roads on a daily basis.

Whichever way it is seen, since the incidents happened, the sector has been enmeshed in serious controversies with different key players expressing misgivings about the state of air transportation in the country.

Recall that the gale of incidents was started with the one recorded by the American carrier, Delta Airlines. The airline’s Atlanta bound Delta Flight 55, which departed Lagos Tuesday night, returned several minutes later to Murtala Muhammed International Airport following an issue with one of the Airbus 330-200’s two engines.

From Nigeria, Dana Airline’s MD 83 aircraft, which took off from Lagos airport, had one of its emergency doors pulled off on landing at the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja, which raised serious safety questions. While the dust was yet to settle, another Dana Air aircraft, which took off from Abuja en route Port-Harcourt the same month, got enmeshed in another controversy when the aircraft overshot the runway on landing at the Port Harcourt Airport.

Not done, Arik Air, another domestic airline, soon joined the list when smoke was detected in the cabin of its Dash 8 Q400 aircraft that was on flight W3 304 from Lagos to Accra on March 6, 2018, forcing the pilot to declare an emergency 81 nautical miles to airport of disembarkation. Also recall that it was around the same time that a Medview Airlines flight from Abuja to Maiduguri was cancelled due to safety reasons.

The latest of such scary incidents reared its head again when an Aero Contractors flight, operated with Boeing 737/500 aircraft, made an emergency landing in Sultan Abubakar III Airport in Sokoto due to a faulty landing gear. All these mishaps, however, occurred without any casualty.

The successive manner at which the incidents happened naturally would jolt not just Nigerians, particularly the traveling public. The stakeholders in their reactions to the incidents are raising questions about the safety conditions of the aircraft vis-a-vis their maintenance compliance. Nigeria, though, has retained its United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Category One safety certification third time after it achieved it in 2010.

Following the incidents, experts have argued that attainment and retention of the highest safety standard, the Category One may not be enough evidence that airlines and aircraft safety are on the same page. But, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) said the rising incidents involving aircraft are not sufficient evidence that safety standards are being lowered for airlines operating in Nigeria airspace.

Speaking with Sunday Tribune, the image maker of the NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, said the record of incidents did not mean that air safety was compromised.

“For as long as a machine is operated, there are bound to be occurrence or incidents. What is required to be done procedurally is to analyse the MOR as they come in and come to an informed decision.  We have, in the past, had an airline with eight incidents in one week. Those reports were analysed and the airline never had an accident.  DANA had two in one month,” he said.

Responding to those calling for the head of the regulatory body over the incidents, Adurogboye said the NCAA cannot be not be indicted in any way, “except the people want an industry without operations.  Citing the incident involving Delta Airline that had an incident while departing, Adurogboye asked if the Delta Airline incident was also caused by NCAA.

“However, people should be educated enough to know an engine will have to be on fire to actually work.  It is when the firing is abnormal that it becomes an issue.

“Nigerians should learn to allow agencies to do their job. Emotions and sentiment does not stop accident. Only carefully planned actions based on facts can prevent accidents, he told Sunday Tribune.

 

Intrigues and counter-intrigues

But the series of incidents have provoked attention, especially from officials of government who can be said to be major patrons of air transportation.  First, to fire, the first salvo was the members of the National Assembly. The lawmakers, especially in the upper house, had an extensive debate on the Aviation sector, including how air mishaps can be minimised.  In his contribution to the debate, Senator Sam Anyanwu declared that it is shameful that Nigeria does not have any national carrier and urged the government to look into this issue. “If the aircraft cannot be maintained, let’s use witchcraft and start flying,” he had mused.

Similarly, the federal government, at one of the Federal Executive (FEC) meetings presided over by President Muhammadu Buhari, had asked the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, to brief members on steps so far taken on the incidents involving the aircraft.

The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, at the end of the meeting disclosed that the government was particularly worried:

“A lot of quality time was spent discussing air safety. The government of Nigeria is very much concerned about safety and the life of Nigerians. The government is concerned, while the minister reported to the council on steps that were taken following the last incident on Port Harcourt runway. As soon as that happened, a rescue team was there on the ground and few moments thereafter, every passenger on board was evacuated.

“Within 24 hours, an official investigation commenced. One week after that, a preliminary report was prepared and it was on this that the council was briefed. Consequently, the engineer and the pilot of that particular aircraft got their licences suspended. Beyond that, the government has ordered a complete audit of Dana airlines in terms of personnel, operations, technical capacity,” he stated.

 

Aircraft are safe…

But the call for the probe of Dana Air did not go down well with some stakeholders who argued that the probe should not be directed at only Dana Air. According to the Managing Director, Afrijet Airline, Mohammed Tukur, “It is important to draw the attention of the federal government that aviation industry should not be politicised. When you single an airline for audit, especially when such call is not coming from the professionals, you create fear among the airline passengers.”

Tukur further cautioned against politicising safety issues. He said whatever is happening in the sector is not limited to Nigeria, just as he insisted that the incidents recorded have nothing to do with aircraft maintenance.

He warned against such unguarded statements as they are capable of creating unnecessary panic around air travels in the country and also insisted that an incident may occur without having anything to do with maintenance, or the age of an aircraft, like an Air France aircraft which was less than two years old, but still crashed some years ago.

“The recent calls by the senators that Dana Air should be audited because of incidents associated with the airlines lately calls for reflection on the industry. While I am not making case for the airlines, since I know the grave implications as an industry person when safety standards are compromised, it is important to draw the attention of the federal government to the fact that aviation industry should not be politicised.

“Airlines business all over the world and its regulations are the same. Never have we heard that lawmakers call for audit of an airline, even on the event of the worst crashes.

“Accidents are associated with aviation business, but when it occurs, relevant agencies step in to forestall a recurrence. But when you undermine the responsibility of these agencies and give directives without proper consultations, which may be counter-productive.”

To avoid recurrences, the Afrijet Airline boss called on domestic airline owners in the country to employ adequate quality inspectors, and not rely on only one quality assurance manager. He is of the opinion that one quality assurance manager cannot monitor an airline flight operations.

Tukur, while cautioning the lawmakers, advised that the only way to avoid such confusions is to allow relevant government agents to do its job for the purpose of avoiding unnecessary panic in the system.

 

Best practice

As the accusations and counter accusations continue, with many bashing the domestic airlines and the regulatory agency, even while the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) was yet to conclude its investigations into the incidents, the preliminary report released by the AIB has not declared any of the airlines culpable.

Commenting on the incidents, AIB Commissioner, Mr Akin Olateru, declared: “Air accidents are not peculiar to Nigeria or Africa only. Accidents happen in the world over. However, when they do occur, it is the responsiveness and professionalism of the relevant agencies that ensure that they carry out thorough investigations and come up with timely reports that engender, and enable learning from mistakes to forestall future occurrences,” he said while assuring that AIB would release its reports on the incidents.

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