June 18, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Reuters/Landov
Nigeria's air transport industry appeared to have transformed itself into a small aviation safety success story. But that image is crumbling following two fatal crashes within two days and the grounding of two carriers over safety concerns. Now the search for the root causes begins.
On June 3 a Dana Air MD-83 crashed on final approach to Lagos International Airport following what likely was a dual engine failure. All 153 on board and 10 people on the ground died when the aircraft hit industrial and residential buildings 4-5 nm from the threshold of Runway 18. A day earlier another Nigerian airline, Allied Cargo, lost a Boeing 727-200 on approach to Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana. The aircraft overran Runway 21 after landing in what has been described as a severe thunderstorm. The 727 breached the airport's perimeter fence, crossed a road and hit two cars and a bicyclist. Twelve people on the ground were killed; the crew of five survived with injuries.
And on June 12, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Administration (NCAA) temporarily halted Air Nigeria's domestic operations. This measure was taken to perform a safety audit following a one-week strike by pilots and engineers that had grounded the aircraft. Dana Air has also been grounded since June 4.
NCAA stated the audit was a “routine procedure.” But Air Nigeria, formerly Virgin Nigeria Airways, has been facing allegations about unsafe operations for some time. John Nnorom, the airline's former finance director, claimed in a highly charged public announcement last April that engineers were forced to sign off on aircraft that were unfit to fly. Only one of the company's 11 aircraft was airworthy, he said, but all the rest needed “deep and heavy maintenance.” Nnorom also claimed that the airline could not afford to perform mandatory checks. Air Nigeria denied the allegations.
The latest developments have been a fundamental setback for aviation in one of Africa's largest countries and healthiest economies. The country began to tackle aviation safety in a serious manner in 2005 when Harold Demuren, an internationally respected air transport expert and former head of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council, was appointed to head the NCAA with a mandate to improve safety.
And he did so, believes Gunther Matschnigg, senior vice president-safety, operations and infrastructure at the International Air Transport Association (IATA). “There has been a clear improvement in oversight,” Matschnigg points out. And Demuren also pushed through steps against non-compliant carriers. “A dozen airlines were shut down,” Matschnigg says. Demuren's fight to improve standards was opposed by the affected airlines and by local politicians. Nevertheless, Demuren prevailed. The country had not experienced a fatal accident for the last six years.
Ironically, following the two latest accidents, NCAA and its leader are being accused of not having done enough to improve aviation safety. Stella Oduah, Nigeria's aviation minister, appointed a panel to review “technical and administrative practices.” Demuren is facing calls for his resignation. The country's senate recommends his suspension. But IATA and the Flight Safety Foundation have urged authorities to not let politics interfere with accident investigations and flight safety oversight.