Avoidable death in the air

By Levi Obijiofor

Friday, 8 June 2012

Accidents are a natural part of life. They occur in the air, on land and on the sea. While some accidents occur naturally, others are created by human error and greed. One common feature of accidents is their arbitrary nature. Many people believe that accidents are unpreventable. However, many of the accidents that occur in Nigeria are easily avoidable. The crash last Sunday (3 June 2012) of the Dana Airline plane in Lagos has underscored popular opinion that we will never get things right in this country. In the past seven years, there have been no fewer than five air crashes and yet no profound action has been taken by the government and the aviation industry to check or reduce further accidents other than profuse but meaningless pledges.alt

Most of the disasters that impale us in this country are avoidable but because we walk deliberately into the pathway of the accidents, we are condemned to suffer repeat experiences. We cut corners to our detriment. We wail temporarily for the victims of major air disasters only for us to lay the groundwork for future disasters. When the December 2005 Sosoliso plane crash occurred in Port Harcourt, everyone thought that event would trigger safer air travel in Nigeria. Seven years on, we have failed to learn from our past. History and government inaction have just combined to take the lives of some air travellers in Nigeria.

There was a chilling report in the Vanguard edition of Tuesday, 5 June 2012. That news report contained sensational allegations about how the Dana Airline plane that crashed last Sunday was forced to embark on its fateful journey despite the airline management being aware of the defective condition of the plane. According to the Vanguard, one official of Dana Airline blew the whistle on the shoddy practice adopted by the airline which put passengers’ lives at risk. The official alleged that the management of the airline was well aware that the plane had serious technical defects but still authorised it to fly. That sensational allegation, if established to be correct, should attract no less a penalty than the cancellation of the airline’s operating licence.

The Dana Airline official who made the nerve-jangling allegation said “the plane has been faulty for a very long time. There was a case when it was on ground in Uyo for over six hours, because of delayed flight, it had a bolt. And then in Abuja it happened a few days ago, then some people went with the aircraft but they could not come back, because it had a fault there and it couldn’t leave Abuja.” The official continued: “yesterday, it (Dana Air flight 0992) was not supposed to leave Lagos at all, but it left and then got to Calabar, developed fault and it was fixed and then they took it to Abuja, when they should have returned to Lagos but because they didn’t want to part with the little money they will make, they took it to Abuja, loaded full passengers, and then it couldn’t get to Lagos.”

These are substantial allegations that must be investigated. If the airline is found to be blameworthy in any way, the government must descend vigorously on the people remotely and directly linked to the plane crash. It is unfortunate that the nation has to lose a lot of lives before aviation ministry officials, including the licensing authorities, could do their job effectively.

What the plane crash of last weekend exposed was our lack of preparedness to manage disasters. How could anyone imagine that sachets of “pure water” would be used to douse the huge conflagration generated by the crashed plane? Here is a sad tale narrated by one of the eyewitnesses who arrived at the scene of the crash: “When we got to the scene, we saw the plane on the building but it had not exploded then. The only fire from the aircraft was from the cockpit, which was not much. Only about 10 of us first got to the scene. That little fire was quenchable if there was immediate emergency response from fire fighters. We were even using sachets of pure water to put out the fire before we heard a loud explosion after 20 minutes.”

One other lesson from that depressing experience is that accident scenes should never be turned into a spectator sport. Last Sunday, the presence of a large crowd of onlookers at the crash site contributed to the inability of rescuers and emergency service officials from accessing the smouldering plane and the victims. Eyewitnesses who congregate at the site of accidents contribute nothing but confusion to the search and rescue efforts of emergency management officials.

In many countries, air travel is a safe and established means of transportation. In Nigeria, however, air travel is a dangerous means of taking a trip. Planes take off and land safely only at the mercy of the elements, not because of the efficiency and strict rules applied by aviation officials. While other countries tolerate no half measures in their aviation industry, we welcome and encourage underhand deals by airline operators in Nigeria. The safety of air travellers is widely compromised in the country.

In the past, air travellers in Nigeria used to fret about the quality and airworthiness of the aircraft in which they travel. Well, after a sustained period of air disasters in which the nation lost no fewer than 500 lives through plane crashes, the pain of careless loss of lives through air crashes remains well and truly with us. Just when you thought some half-hearted reforms in the aviation sector have eliminated the “flying coffins” – not all of them – from the skies, air travellers in Nigeria still have to grapple with that longstanding problem.

The certification and use of a fleet of ageing aircraft by some airline operators in Nigeria constitute a serious threat to the safety of air travellers in the country. I was mystified to hear an official of Dana Airline argue shamelessly and frighteningly on Tuesday this week that the plane that crashed last Sunday was only 22 years old. He sounded as though it was reasonable or justifiable, in the aviation industry, to use 22-year-old aircraft to operate commercial business. It is only in Nigeria that someone can advance this kind of perverse argument. Why can’t airline operators in Nigeria use more modern aircraft to do business? Why are airline operators in Nigeria allowed to import decrepit aircraft that have long served their usefulness in overseas countries?

There is reason to be anxious about the poor condition of planes that fly in Nigeria’s airspace. This says as much about the unsatisfactory licensing procedures adopted by the aviation ministry as it does about the lack of preparedness by federal officials to rid our airspace of dilapidated aircraft that ought not to be authorised to operate in the country.

The Federal Government has woken up belatedly to its responsibility to ensure air safety by announcing on Tuesday this week the indefinite suspension of the licence granted to Dana Airline. The government should convey the message forcefully that airline operators that toy with the safety of Nigerian citizens will never be allowed to do business in the country.

It is a scandal of grand magnitude that in the second decade of the 21st century, an airline operator in Nigeria was allowed to fly with an aircraft that has aged beyond 20. This is ghastly. It is a dangerous practice that should be scrapped immediately. Last Sunday’s air crash occurred because human lives count for nothing in our environment.

It is a distressing irony of the way things work in the country. While the rest of the world is celebrating new technologies that have allowed countries, individuals and organisations to do things better, more efficiently and in less time, we are still grappling with yesterday’s technologies that ought to have been replaced or upgraded. It is not that Nigeria lacks the will and authority to enforce the use of modern aircraft in the aviation industry. The poor condition of airplanes that fly in our airspace is simply a reflection of the high level of ministerial incompetence and misplacement of priorities by national and state leaders, the aviation ministry and the supervisory authority in the industry. With this unsteady and giddy approach to matters of national importance, are we ever going to catch up with the rest of Africa and the world in the commercial airline industry?

Anyhow you look at it, last Sunday’s plane crash was a national tragedy, indeed an accident scripted to happen. Many people travel by air because of the poor state of federal and state roads. Unfortunately, many passengers who fly across the country don’t seem to realise the extent to which they gamble with their lives each time they board a plane in Nigeria.

Over the past 51 years, Nigeria’s political and military leaders have consistently demonstrated that they are a breed of gutless leaders, strong in loud talk and empty pledges but weak, very weak indeed in making decisions that advance the interests of the citizens. As a nation that positions itself as a continental leader, Nigeria should have learned a long time ago to put its priorities right. Blunders such as the continuous plane crashes in the country expose the hollowness in Nigeria’s claims to continental leadership.


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