Air crashes in Nigeria are like coming of age ceremonies, where the attendees air their closets, stride their wares, get immolated and conclude the lessons of the day by wrapping up and behaving like it never happened. After the Dana disaster that has claimed the lives of tens of our fellow citizens, if history were to repeat itself we can guarantee nothing will come of it. Relatives will wail, government will make empty promises and we the citizens will forget!
Aircraft disasters are preventable, and should not happen. Unlike road, the air is not congested and is often plied by professionals with thousands of hours logged in training. Before aircraft take to the air for one to two hour trips, they are normally subjected to rigorous checks that declare them air worthy. Under normal circumstances, only a rare incident of once in hundred-year weather condition should even be capable of disrupting normal take off and landing of aircrafts; but not in an air of error: the type that whiffs the aviation corridors of Nigeria.
There three relative factors in play when aircraft accidents become common in any clime; these are the prevention, the reaction and the deterrence factors in place in such environment.
Speaking about prevention, the reasons why the Dana air crash occurred may not be self evident directly at the moment but the chain of incidents that led to it are clear. First is the average age of aircrafts in the Nigerian airspace. A recent list compiled by a blogger, revealed up to 40 years old planes (Kabo Airlines) are being flown in Nigeria! Most airlines have tokunboh airplanes flying upwards of twenty years and coming with the risk of mechanical failures.
This situation is directly linked to an inept regulatory system that allows these airlines to purchase and utilize these planes (with the NCAA director now rationalizing the 22 years old age limit for aircrafts flying our space, commercially). Where government regulation has failed, it is time for the market to put companies flying old aircrafts out of business, and this is why the list now circulating is very important. Beyond regulation though is the capital adequacy and competition issues confronted by the airline industry.
Indeed, the liberalization of the fledgling sector in retrospect is now looking like a terrible error. Even in better developed climes, the airline industry was heavily regulated like a utility until recently when their financial and manufacturing sector could handle the heavy capitalization required for efficient operators. It will be worthwhile for our economic planners and legislators to seriously consider reorganizing the industry, with limited licenses and competition alongside regulated airfares that ensure predictable returns to operators and robust funding mechanism to meet their needs. Our economy is not ripe for unlimited competition, cut throat airline ticket prices and bare bone market driven airline industry! We must learn to crawl before we walk; not all theories on paper work out as planned upon practice.
Also, the Central Bank of Nigeria working with the Ministry of Aviation should immediately commence credit guarantee scheme to finance purchase of new aircrafts by the few operators left under this heavily regulated regime. A rigorous operator guideline that emphasizes rigorous safety record and technical prequalification, robust financial wherewithal of sponsors and open bids for the limited licenses will ensure only four to six operators that are healthy emerge at the end of such restructuring. It will also ensure the sponsors’ collateral can be linked by the CBN to such aircraft purchase guarantee scheme to ensure Nigeria airlines can order tens of new aircrafts much like their South East Asian counterparts to service an ever growing (but more organized) domestic market.
Indeed, a better organized aviation industry also requires brand new airports removed from the madness of urbanization that made the Black Sunday incident a much greater tragedy. What in heaven’s sake is an airport doing in such densely populated area like Ikeja? Aircrafts should not fall on people’s homes! The government of Nigeria and Lagos state seriously start doing something about moving the airport to much saner location removed from the heart of Lagos. The airport is old; it is an eyesore and should be decommissioned as new ones are built at strategic locations away from the mess. The thousands of jobs created by such effort will more than pay off for the investment, disregarding the need, safety of travelers and image change such project will bring to Nigeria.
Speaking about response, the emergency response on Sunday left much to be desired and this has been the case from time immemorial. The lack of firefighters and first aid at the site of the incident probably killed more people than should have actually died. Tales now abound of at least one person walking out conscious in the first twenty minutes when that aircraft did not explode. What if we had firefighters in every neighborhood? What will it cost the government of Goodluck Jonathan to build 2000 fire stations across Nigeria as clear evidence of democratic dividends? What will it cost the opposition to begin a mass movement for such demand much like the fuel subsidy protests and not yield till we ensure no other Dana Air tragedy occurs again, without well trained fire fighters in place?
Beyond prevention and response however we have the deterrence factor that could ensure the human dimensions to the Dana Air crash never occurred. When the accident report is released, we are sure to find cases of technical and management malfeasance. Cutting corners on aircraft maintenance, insisting clear mechanical warnings of failure be ignored, taking to the air when the aircraft clearly had given signs of giving away will be few amongst many. It is important that the usual condemnation give way to prosecution this time around. Cases of murder, manslaughter – voluntary or involuntary must be brought against anyone involved.
This will ensure that next, where the choice is between losing your job and going to jail for life, the staff of airline operators in Nigeria would have learned the lessons of this air crash incidence and err on the side of being a whistleblower. Whistleblower funds should also be explored, to enable folks working inside this airlines give early warning signs to regulators about the management errors that brings this tragedy at regular intervals on our nation.
Last but not the least; the government must be commended for immediately withdrawing the license of Dana Airlines. That is good enough deterrence for other airline operators; fly a plane that crash at the risk of being put out of business completely and immediately. We must go further though than these knee jerk reactions though, and ensure complete investigation and appropriate actions to prevent further loss of lives in our airline industry.
God bless Nigeria and comfort the families of those whose lives were lost.