Dana Air Crash: The Duty Of Public Officers

The crash near Lagos of the Dana Air flight on Sunday, 3 June 2012, has exposed the duplicitous nature of some public office holders in Nigeria. Days after that tragic air accident, some key office holders lined up to regale the public with sad tales of how they knew the aircraft was defective and should never have been allowed to fly in our airspace. They said previous unpleasant flying experiences with Dana airline prompted them to warn about the continued use of the faulty aircraft.

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It is difficult to make sense of all these self-righteous claims especially as the forewarnings came after the event. I would argue that it is useless to complain about a problem in the airline industry only after the problem has resulted in a fatal accident. Some accidents can be prevented if early warning signs of danger were reported to the regulatory agency. To prevent accidents in our domestic aviation industry, it is the obligation of everyone to serve as the watchdog of society against widespread dishonourable practices committed by airline operators. Responsible citizens owe their conscience and the nation a duty to lodge official complaints relating to violation of air safety with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), particularly in cases of unfair practices committed by an airline operator.

It is true that the lodgement of complaints holds no guarantee that action would be taken. However, it is better to speak out against dangerous practices or poor treatment or bad experiences or injustices in the airline industry than to keep quiet and watch a small fire blossom into a huge conflagration. This is why all the people who said they warned about the poor condition of the aircraft used by Dana Air to service their domestic routes have only succeeded in prolonging the agony and emotional trauma of the families, friends and colleagues of those who died in that air disaster. A witness to a crime who fails to report the crime is as guilty as the person who committed the crime.

Why, for example, would anyone who witnessed the systematic use of a crumbling fleet of aircraft by an airline operator keep quiet and complain only after the nation has suffered a major crash in which many lives were lost? This question is noteworthy because soon after the crash of the Dana Air flight, Governor Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State said publicly that he warned about the bad condition of the aircraft used by Dana management to service their Uyo route. One key question is: Did Akpabio pass on to the NCAA his concerns and the complaints he received so the agency could investigate the complaints? The NCAA is the regulatory authority of the aviation industry in Nigeria. Akpabio cannot claim ignorance of this fact.

The NCAA says in official information posted on its website that it “is statutorily responsible for the safety and economic regulation of the civil aviation industry” (http://www.ncaa.gov.ng/Public/Ncaa/DATR/Default.aspx). This makes the organisation the highest overseer of all matters relating to the aviation industry in the country. It also means the NCAA is the most appropriate authority to receive complaints from the public regarding air safety infringements, including disputes between customers and airline operators in regard to poor services.

In fact, in specific reference to customer service, the NCAA has a consumer protection department that was established in March 2001. On its web site, the DCP states that its ultimate goal is “to ensure that all aviation consumers obtain the best services in air transportation” (http://www.ncaa.gov.ng/public/ncaa/DCP/Default.aspx). Its mission, it says, is to “serve as the eagle eye of the industry by being responsible for informing, educating and protecting consumers as well as ensuring the provision of quality services in the aviation industry.”

Of course, many air travellers will vigorously contest the notion that the regulatory authority of the industry has ever lived up to its lofty goals. In Nigeria, there is an enduring principle that suggests that anything that can fly deserves an airworthiness certificate. This is why many people have questioned the validity of the operating licences issued to some airline operators.

Governor Akpabio told journalists at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos on Sunday, 10 June 2012, that he informed the management of Dana Air about the numerous complaints he received concerning the condition of the aircraft being used by the airline. He said: “I received complaints from most Dana Air users in my state, complaining of what people may call near misses or crashes, like non-operational landing gear and all sorts of problems. I told the management why experimenting with the lives of Nigerians. I warned the management to recall what happened to ADC airline. This was the way ADC started and all of a sudden, they were putting faulty aircraft in the air.”

It’s all too easy to talk about prior complaints. This is precisely the reason why I am not persuaded by Akpabio’s remarks. His protests came so late because he revealed them after the air crash. Indeed, it is futile to report to an airline operator the violations of safety rules committed by the airline’s management. An airline operator that knowingly violates the rules of air travel can only be irritated by public comments of unsafe practices. Akpabio should have taken his complaints to the NCAA, the appropriate agency that has oversight responsibility for the aviation industry. The families that lost their beloved ones in the air accident will find Akpabio’s tardy warning worthless. In his privileged position as a state governor, Akpabio could have done more than issue warnings to the management of Dana Air. He should have gone one step further. People in positions of authority must demonstrate a higher responsibility to the society in which they live.

Akpabio is not the only high profile person to narrate to the public their chilling experience of flying with Dana Air. On Tuesday last week (31 July 2012), Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi said he complained about the condition of the particular Dana Air aircraft that crashed on 3 June 2012. He said this at a memorial service organised by the Central Bank to honour the eight staff members who died in the accident. What Sanusi did not tell his audience was the authority or agency to which he directed his complaint and the date on which he lodged that complaint. It is unnecessary to sound so sanctimonious about obvious dangers you experienced but failed to act on. Sanusi should not have subjected the families of the staff members who died in the air crash to further nightmares by talking about the poor condition of the aircraft.

As in the case of Akpabio, the NCAA is the right agency to receive and act on public complaints about airlines that violate the rules of air safety.

As if to provide further impetus to growing allegations of inadequate attention to air safety rules by Dana Air, the Vanguard published on Tuesday, 5 June 2012, astounding claims about how the plane that crashed in early June was forced to undertake its fateful journey despite the airline management being aware of the faulty condition of the plane. One official of Dana Air blew the whistle on the shoddy practices adopted by the airline. The official claimed that the management of the airline was well aware that the plane had serious technical defects but still authorised it to fly.

The Dana Air official who made the alarming 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.”

You have to wonder why the whistleblower did not furnish the NCAA with inside information about how Dana Air violated safety rules, long before the accident occurred. The allegations were substantial in nature and if they had been released much earlier they would have triggered systematic investigations by the NCAA.

The NCAA may or may not be aware of the sharp practices allegedly committed by Dana Air management and other airline operators. Because all the people who claimed knowledge of the faulty condition of Dana Air planes did not convey their concerns to the appropriate authority or because they withheld that information from the aviation watchdog, the precious lives of 163 Nigerians have been wasted. What the Dana Air crash of last June exposed was the hypocritical nature of people in privileged positions of authority in Nigeria.