Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dana: One Crash, Too Many

My heart rends as yet another air crash was recorded on Sunday, June 3, 2012. What a tragic weekend it was for Nigeria. Starting from Thursday, 31 May  when on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, five people were burnt in a multiple accident involving nine fuel tankers while at least 24 vehicles were  confirmed burnt in another multiple accident on the same Lagos-Ibadan Expressway on Friday, June 1. By Saturday, June 2, a Nigerian cargo plane attempting to take off from the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana crashed, killing 10 people and injuring an unspecified number of others. As if that was not enough, by the time it was Sunday, June 3, the day broke with heart-breaking news that about three churches in Bauchi State were attacked by a suicide bomber. As at June 4, twenty people have been confirmed dead and 45 injured.

By far the most calamitous of the weekend of tragedies was the crash of Dana Airline MD83 plane in Iju-Ishaga area of Lagos killing the146 passengers, 1 Dana Air Flight Engineer, two pilots and four cabin crew totaling 153 people on board and an unspecified people on ground. Among the victims of this ill-fated plane crash was my brother’s wife, Mrs. Adenike Ajani who was returning to Lagos after a visit to her husband in Abuja.  News report has it that the ill-fated craft, McDonnell Douglas 83 (MD83) was bought in 2009 from Alaska Airlines, US. The aircraft operated its first flight 22 years ago. According to Aviation Safety Network of Flight Safety Foundation, the crashed aircraft was the 29th loss of MD 80 series; it was the 5th worst accident involving the MD series and the third worst accident in Nigeria. It was alleged that on May 10, 2012 the same aircraft with 85 passengers, coming from Uyo to Lagos, made an emergency landing at the international runway, known as 19 Right, of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, owing to loss of hydraulic.
Since November 20, 1969 when Nigeria Airways BAC VC10 crashed on landing, killing 87 people on board, Nigeria has recorded over 40 plane crashes leading to death of over a thousand people and destruction of properties worth billions of Naira. Most of the plane crashes took place in 2005 with nine crashes while the last five major air crashes in Nigeria happened at weekend. On March 14, 2012 a police surveillance helicopter had crashed in Jos, Plateau State killing four persons on board, including a Deputy Inspector-General of Police, John Haruna.
Revelations coming out of the Dana crash has raised a number of posers. Was the aircraft air-worthy? Could the disaster have been averted? Was the crash as a result of mechanical or human errors? Is it true that Nigeria has banned airliner that is older than 20 years from flying in her airspace? What role did corruption play in the latest mishap? These are questions begging for answers.
On Monday, June 4, a staff of Dana Air who spoke on a local TV station informed Nigerian public that the aircraft that crashed was forced to fly by Dana management against professional advice that the aircraft is not in good condition. According to her “The plane has been developing faults for a very long time. There was a case when it was on ground in Uyo for over six hours. And then it came to Abuja and some people went with the aircraft but they could not come back because it had a fault there and it couldn’t leave Abuja.” Even though this has been debunked by Dana management who claimed they conducted a test flight of the aircraft to Ibadan a day before it crashed, however, Governor Godswill Akpabio was alleged to have warned the management of Dana Air over the unsatisfactory state of its aircraft, following an averted disaster en-route Lagos from Uyo.

According to Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) website, on “23 August 2010 Nigeria achieved a Category 1 air safety rating from the U.S. Government under the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program. This means that Nigeria complies with international air safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations' technical agency for aviation that establishes international standards and recommended practices for aircraft operations and maintenance.” I am also not unaware of the restructuring and reconstruction of some of the nation’s airports. Some of the 11 airports being remodeled in the first phase are the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos; Nnamdi Azikiwe Intenational Airport, Abuja; Owerri Airport; Yola Airport and Benin Airport. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in August 2010, also announced that under its Industry Revival Fund, it had approved a N500 billion intervention facility for critical sectors of the economy. Out of the amount, N300 billion was earmarked for the troubled power and aviation sectors. The fund, which was channeled through the Bank of Industry (BoI), was to be accessed through commercial banks with a tenor of 10 to 15 years, at a concessionary all-inclusive interest rate of not more than 7 per cent.

Giant strides you would say, however, as a frequent flyer around the country; I know that all is not well with our aviation industry. Many of the airlines are engaged in malpractices and sharp practices. There is frequent flight delays almost always attributed to ‘operational reasons’ Recently, I was to go to Gombe and by the time I and my colleague got to the airport we were told our flight had left three hours earlier than the scheduled time without informing us despite having our phone numbers. We had to buy another ticket of another airline when we were told we cannot get refund but can only use our ticket another day. It is also not uncommon to be harassed by airport staff for tips when scanning luggage. Also, many a time, passengers’ luggages have been missing in transit. My colleague, Barrister Eze Onyekpere has twice suffered this fate in the last six months, with the recent one happening on May 29 while on a trip to Benin. We were on the same flight when the last incident happened.  

A couple of times recently, there have been light out at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International airport Abuja as well as Murtala Muhammed Airport Lagos thereby grounding the entire operation of the airports for hours. Since 2008 two former Aviation ministers and some top shots in the aviation ministry were charged for fraud in the N19.5 billion aviation intervention fund scandal. What has become of that case? More than four years, the cases are yet to be decided by Nigerian judiciary. Recently, some pilots and engineers of one of the airlines went on strike to protest delay in the payment of their salary. There has not been sufficient oversight on the aviation industry while collusion, connivance and impunity between the regulators and operators cannot be over-ruled. What happened last June 3 also exposed our lack of adequate preparation for disaster management. The rescue team got late to the crash site while there was also poor crowd control.

Again what has become of the over forty reports of previous air mishaps? They are gathering dust in the presidency and offices of appointing authorities.  President Jonathan has once more promised another probe while the Senate has ordered a comprehensive technical audit of all airline fleets operating on the nation’s airspace, just as the House of Representatives said it was interested in unraveling the detailed cause of the plane crash. Will the truth ever come out of these probes? Will the probe report ever be implemented? It is however heartwarming operational licence of Dana Air has been suspended by the federal government. More punitive measures need to be taken against the company if eventually found wanting after thorough investigation.