Despite the three years of zero accident, commercial air travel in the country may not be as safe as required due to non-compliance with safety recommendations and rules governing the sector.
In a recent self-assessment programme of the industry, cases of untrained pilots and engineers in the air-wing of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), unqualified workers at the Port Harcourt International Airport (PHIA), deficiencies in critical safety infrastructure at the Kaduna International Airport, and power supply problems even at the headquarters of the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and airports across the country were found. Most of these problems have been blamed on poor funding.
The fact-finding mission, though not to indict any operator or regulator, drew the attention of stakeholders, including the government, to critical areas where the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) needs to step up its oversight function.
The apex regulator, NCAA, in its reaction, promised to enforce compliance with safety rules, adding that some of the cases highlighted had either attracted sanctions or were in the process of being addressed.
As a norm in the global air travel, safety recommendations are issued based on investigation into accidents or serious incidents to forestall future occurrences. The Accident Investigation Bureau’s (AIB) Safety Recommendation Committee report 2018 recently made available to The Guardian, found at least 130 recommendations issued since the inception of the AIB in 2007, though with a lot still not implemented.
For instance, the report on investigations into the police helicopter’s fatal crash of 2012 mandated the “NPF air-wing to provide proper funding, conducive working environment, develop and implement a robust training programme for its technical or operational personnel, with adequate supervising and approved equipment to enhance safety.”
The final report of the 2012 crash, which was only made public in 2017, revealed how an unqualified pilot and an engineer crashed the Bell 247 helicopter, killing Deputy Inspector General of Police, John Haruna, and three others on board at Landir village in Kabong, Jos, Plateau State. The pilot’s medical certificate and simulator recurrency had expired as at the time of the crash.
But it seems very little has changed since that episode. The safety recommendation committee found that “27 engineers and 35 pilots have recently been employed but are yet to undergo any form of training while working on the NPF aircraft”.
The committee observed that the police have established Approved Maintenance Organisation (AMO) and acquired some equipment, but it is still inadequate for safety recommendation, even as the Abuja hanger facility is not conducive for personnel carrying out maintenance.
A senior personnel in the air-wing of the NPF yesterday told The Guardian that the section was awaiting funds from the 2018 budget to carry out necessary training.
“We have their trainings on schedule but for the non-release of funds. Also, we have not fully deployed these personnel given the limited equipment on ground.”
Indeed, it costs several millions to type-rate pilots or make them observe recurrent trainings, most of which are done overseas.
Another instance of non-compliance with safety rules is at the Kaduna International Airport. Recall that Chanchangi B737-200 aircraft had a runway incident at the airport in 2010, with some safety recommendations made in its aftermath. One of them is that “the provision of medical personnel during aircraft emergencies must remain a standard procedure in effecting a search and rescue operation.”
The safety committee, however, observed that the Kaduna airport, now of international status, still “does not have an Airport Emergency Procedure (AEP) instituted as at the time of its visit. Nonetheless, the airport has conducted emergency exercises without an AEP. It was further observed that the few staff present in the FAAN clinic at the airport have not been trained in over eight years.
“The clinic is not in good condition as there is no functioning emergency ambulance, the supply of medications is inadequate, and there is a lack of necessary clinical equipment. The committee was informed that FAAN lacks trained maintenance personnel for its fire equipment.”
Similarly, at the PHIA, Rivers State, are issues of unqualified personnel, contrary to safety recommendations in the aftermath of an Okada Air accident. In September 1989, a BAC One-Eleven 320AZ, belonging to Okada Air crash-landed at the airport due to bad weather.
Investigators had recommended that FAAN “should be made aware of its safety responsibilities to aircraft operators as far as airport operations are concerned. The authority should desist from using untrained personnel who could not recognise potential aviation hazards when many of these hazards are obvious.”
It was also found by the safety committee that much has not changed in terms of personnel. FAAN officials in Port Harcourt indeed confirmed that the training programmes were not encouraging.
“The recruitment and training are outside the scope of the regions but domiciled in the headquarters; most personnel in Port Harcourt (PH) do not have requisite qualifications.
“FAAN in PH has just 37 staff out of who 12 are marshallers (inadequate); these would still need refresher courses. The safety management system personnel have also not embarked on any formal training while the aviation security personnel are the staff currently undergoing training. FAAN in PH has casual staff, who have serviced up to 12 years, that were just taken as permanent employees.
“The agency’s electrical facilities are obsolete and NCAA does not carry out facilities gap analysis. FAAN-Engineering is in charge of airfield lighting systems, but none of the personnel is certified in airfield lighting systems,” the report read in part.
These observations are some of the 51 safety recommendations either partially implemented or not implemented out of a total of 130.
A similar safety fact-finding mission was carried out in 2014 – covering from 2000 to 2014. A total of 158 safety recommendations were discovered with less than 30 implemented.
Two officials of FAAN confirmed the challenges with training to make personnel qualified due to paucity of funds. One said it was most difficult, if not impossible to get all FAAN staffers at the 20 airports trained when operators owe the agency billions of naira.
FAAN recently withdrew services from two state government-owned airports – Kebbi and Gombe – over alleged N811million debt.
The NCAA, saddled with the overall oversight of the aviation industry, including ensuring compliance with safety rules, said “there is no cause for alarm” as they were aware of all the issues and would address them.
The Spokesman for the NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, told The Guardian that it is not all recommendations that are implementable. “Currently, 70 per cent of the recommendations have been implemented and those with issues (not implementable) have been raised with the AIB.
“Some of the safety recommendations may not be implementable until the regulatory Act or certain things are reviewed. It boils down to specifics but not something to display in the public so as not to create unnecessary panic,” Adurogboye said.
On the issue of police air-wing, he said: “We have even sanctioned them recently and they have complied. It is because we didn’t make it public.”
To aviation security consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), the bulk stops at the table of the NCAA, and the red flags should raise questions about oversight functions of the regulator, especially as regards sister regulatory agencies and private operators licensed by the NCAA.
“You cannot have an airport without an emergency plan. That is the problem of NCAA. You cannot put people in aviation without recurrent training. It is not done anywhere. And anytime you find things like these, point accusing fingers at NCAA.”
Meanwhile, what could have resulted to a major air disaster was averted at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, yesterday as an Air Peace passenger flight billed for Abuja made an emergency landing ten minutes after take off.
The flight was scheduled for 8:30 a.m.
On board were Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State; Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu; former governor Chimaroke Nnamani; Senator Chuka Utazi; Senator Obinna Ogba; and House of Reps member, Nkiru Onyejeocha, among others.
The personalities were returning to Abuja after attending Ekweremadu’s birthday held in Enugu on Sunday.
A source at the airport said the development was due to a “bird strike” at the airport. He clarified that the bird entered the engines of the plane and was only “noticed when the flight had taken off, forcing the pilot to make emergency landing”.
According to him, five blades of the aircraft were condemned, and it took another one hour for another flight to be provided that took the passengers to Abuja at about 11:30 a.m.