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Nigeria

FG, act fast to prevent air disaster

Having boasted an era of relative safety in the past few years, the alarm bells started pealing in November 2017, when a Medview Airlines flight could not land in Abuja following an outage. The aircraft hovered for about 10 minutes overhead. The spate of near misses continued in January when a chartered Nestoil aircraft with nine persons aboard lost its landing gear and two tyres during landing at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. It later skidded off the runway. It is a case of when it rains, it pours. Around 24 hours later, a Dana Air plane hit the fence of the NAIA with its left wing. Media reports stated that the aircraft damaged its wing as it tried to park after landing. These are scary incidents.

Air travel is endangered without the rigorous adherence to standards. Bewilderingly, these near-escapes did not generate much sanction by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, the Nigerian Airspace Management Authority or the Ministry of Transportation. Thus, other incidents swiftly ensued. On February 8, the emergency door of a Dana Air plane fell off on landing at the NAIA, resulting in a cloud of tension. The airline lightly explained it away, saying that a passenger must have tampered with the door. This is ridiculous. Were there no airline officials around to prevent such?

The alarming pattern was visible 24 hours later on February 9. This time, there was a security breach at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos when burglars attacked an Air Peace aircraft, which was taxiing. On February 16, another Air Peace flight to Akure was prevented from landing after cows strayed into the tarmac. The pilot hovered overhead for minutes and was about to return to Lagos when he was granted permission to land. Early this year, a stray cow disrupted operations at the Benin Airport, Edo State. It took the intervention of a herdsman to bring the vagrant animal under control.

The biggest scare was, however, at the Port Harcourt International Airport on February 20. It involved a Dana Air plane, which overshot the runway upon touching down. With no tough remedial action taken by the authorities, the affected airlines continue to fly. This is dangerous, considering the history of disasters in the Nigerian airspace in the not-too-distant past. On March 6, an Arik Air plane on the Lagos-Accra route declared an emergency after the pilot noticed smoke filling the cabin. The plane, however, landed safely at the Kotoka Airport, after which the airline said it was being examined by experts.

However, in the past few days, the Federal Executive Council, the House of Representatives and the Senate have intervened in the fiasco. The National Assembly has summoned FAAN, NAMA, NCAA and FAAN officials to come and explain their lethargic response to these incidents. The invitations will resonate if they compel these agencies to enforce global industry standards.

The public is apprehensive principally because air crashes occurred at a frightening sequence a few years ago. Dana’s Flight 992 crashed into the Iju-Ishaga neighbourhood in Lagos in June 2012, killing 153 people aboard. In reaction, the Federal Government banned the McDonnell MD-83 aircraft from the Nigerian airspace and suspended Dana’s licence, though it was restored that September.

Other horrific accidents included the one in December 2005, in which 108 passengers – mostly pupils of Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja – died when a Sosoliso Airlines flight from Abuja to Port Harcourt crashed on landing. It was a McDonnell Douglas plane. An ADC Airlines flight, which had a stopover, after taking off from Lagos, also crashed shortly after taking off in Abuja, killing 97 passengers aboard. Coincidentally, these crashes occurred at weekends. As expected, the accidents led to the winding up of some of these airlines.

The recurring mishaps recently suggest that the aviation authorities are weak in the enforcement of standards. Elsewhere, safety-conscious regulators would have suspended the operations of these airlines and conducted detailed investigations. To send out a strong message on violations, British aviation authorities fined commercial operators Ryanair and Easyjet £20,000 apiece for repeated slot offending, in which an airline intentionally operates flights at times significantly different from its allocated slots. Similarly, in December 2016, the European Commission banned Iran’s third largest carrier – Aseman – from the continent over safety concerns.

Therefore, the Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika, and the aviation agencies should save the country from a possible air disaster. It is time to make special efforts: comprehensive checks on all aircraft types are critical at these trying periods. This should include recertification of all airlines, if need be. The derelict infrastructure at the airports has to be fixed, starting with the perimeter fencing. Animals, touts and bandits exploit its absence to infiltrate the airports.

To achieve the minister’s goal of boosting the GDP through aviation, administrative restructuring, in which 21 senior FAAN officials were booted out last October, has to be done systematically and every department strengthened with competent hands. The approval to build airports that are not up to standard should be discontinued.

Yet, there is a lot to gain from the industry. Global aviation revenue topped $754 billion in 2017. It is projected to hit $824 billion this year, says Statista, a global data company. Conversely, air passenger traffic fell eight per cent from 14.6 million to 13.4 million in 2017, the National Bureau of Statistics affirmed. To boost domestic operations, instil confidence among air travellers and make Nigeria a hub of the business, the Federal Government has to redeem it with strong policies and regulations.

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