Death-Defying Pilots Imperil Air Safety

Death-defying pilots imperil air safety

By Levi Obijiofor

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

There were two accidents at two local airports 11 days ago that received wide coverage in the newspapers but little editorial comment and even negligible public reaction. In Abuja, an Arik Air flight from Enugu was reported to have slipped off the runway when it landed at the airport. The incident was attributed to bad weather and, believe it or not, the behaviour of the pilot of the plane who allegedly defied weather warning and took the passengers on a swift but risky flight because he wanted to be in Abuja ahead of the onset of the predicted bad weather. Unfortunately, by the time the plane arrived in Abuja, heavy rains had started and passengers had to be delayed inside the aircraft for half an hour because of the torrential rain.

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In Jos on the same day, another Arik Air plane taxiing for takeoff was reported to have sideswiped a part of a stationary Nigeria Air Force plane. The outcome of the incident was a significant destruction of the Arik Air plane and the Nigeria Air Force aircraft. The two incidents in Abuja and Jos are not only grave but also bizarre and appalling. But the event in Abuja was more dangerous because press reports suggested it followed the reckless conduct of a kamikaze pilot.

At a time when domestic airline operators are under serious public scrutiny in Nigeria, it must come as a shock to many people that the management of a respected airline such as Arik Air would allow its pilot to ignore weather warnings and place the lives of passengers in serious danger. Even more worrying is the apathetic attitude of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). Ever since news of the two events emerged in the public sphere, the civil aviation organisation has not shown serious attention to the accidents perhaps because no lives were lost.

As ghastly as the Abuja incident was, no one is sure whether the death-defying pilot has been suspended or severely sanctioned by Arik Air. I have waited for public outrage over this event but no one seems to be upset or worried. This seems to confirm public opinion that we respond critically to air accidents in Nigeria only when human lives have been lost and property damaged. Just because the incidents in Abuja and Jos did not result in fatalities should not imply that they were not considerable enough to warrant serious action by the civil aviation authority.

Consider another unimpressive behaviour by an Arik Air pilot who was scheduled to fly passengers to Enugu from Lagos on the morning of Tuesday, 12 August 2008. We had boarded the aircraft on time but the aircraft lay on the tarmac with the engines shut. Flight W3 301 was scheduled to depart the old terminal of the Lagos domestic airport at 7.10am but it didn’t happen. For about an hour, no official of the airline considered it fitting to furnish passengers with valid reasons for the delay. That was understandable. In Nigeria, air passengers absorb insults shoved down their throats by airline operators with minimum resistance.

It is unacceptable that passengers should be seated inside an aircraft for an hour while the airline made no attempt to explain the cause of the delay or to offer apologies for the long wait. That conduct showed how poorly Arik Air cabin crew and management treated their customers. Poor customer service in a competitive airline industry is the easiest way to strangle a viable business. The real cause of the delay on that August morning came exactly one hour and forty five minutes later.

A shuttle bus from the Arik Air fleet sped toward the plane and dropped off its lone passenger. Hurray!!! Here was the pilot. No sooner did he settle into the cockpit than he offered a more valid reason for the delay. He overslept, he said, because his alarm clock did not go off. Believe it or not, passengers burst out laughing. The pilot said it was his duty manager who roused him from sleep and alerted him that he was already late for his first assignment for the day. He pleaded for forgiveness.

Beyond the explanation, there were other more worrying questions. Was the pilot physically and psychologically fit to operate the Boeing 737-700 series aircraft to Enugu? If the pilot was woken up from sleep, as he confessed, did he have sufficient sleep to be in the right frame of mind to operate the aircraft? Only the Arik Air management could explain the decision to allow a pilot who was roused from sleep to take control of an aircraft for a 50-minute flight to Enugu.

The Abuja incident of Saturday, 14 July 2012, occurred just one week after the NCAA issued a public statement advising pilots to respect weather warnings. Surely, the NCAA has no business issuing directives or reminders to pilots about their responsibility to observe and respect weather reports. That is one of the messages that are conveyed to pilots in the early stages of their training. The NCAA is the regulatory agency of the airline industry. When basic rules are violated by any pilot, it is the responsibility of the watchdog to investigate the incident and to penalise the offenders.

Once a pilot has been licensed or certificated, it is compulsory (not a choice) for that pilot to adhere to all primary and secondary rules of flying. Obeying weather reports is a key duty of a pilot. Air safety rules cannot be disregarded arbitrarily. Pilots who violate air safety rules expose the lives of passengers and their own lives to danger. Those pilots should never be engaged in the business of flying. Their licences should either be suspended indefinitely or withdrawn completely. As previous experiences have shown, when emergencies occur mid-air, passengers do not get a second chance to amend a pilot’s stupid mistake.

Air safety is given priority attention in countries in which the rules governing the protection of passengers are deemed to be inviolable. Shouldn’t the NCAA adopt such blunt policy that instructs pilots and airline operators that one strike at violation of safety rules would see them out of business? Pilots who engage in dangerous stunts or misbehaviour should not be tolerated in the airline industry. Human lives are valuable and cannot be regarded as worthless. It is not only when accidents claim lives that we must rise and shout and complain about careless attitude to safety rules. We must go beyond hysterical reactions to air disasters to adopt preventive and proactive measures that help to reduce or eliminate air disasters in Nigeria.

The NCAA must compel airline operators and pilots to comply with the rules outlined specifically to ensure air safety in the industry. The domestic airline industry is a key contributor to Nigeria’s economic development. Any threats to the viability and success of that industry must be regarded as a direct threat to the economic advancement of Nigeria. Already Africa has carved out a notorious and disreputable image as the continent with the worst record of air accidents in the world. This is perhaps why many African airlines have been banned by the European Union from operating within the European airspace. Aviation Minister Stella Oduah-Ogiemwonyi admitted this horrible statistic when she acknowledged last week that “Africa is at the lowest rung of the ladder in terms of ensuring safety in our airspace.”

As a continental leader, Nigeria should be in the frontline of African nations helping to improve aviation safety in the continent. We should not, through disregard for international benchmarks for aviation safety, aggravate that disgraceful record. It is not for nothing that two international regulatory authorities in air transportation – the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – insist on strict adherence to air safety rules.

Two proposed policy initiatives announced by the Federal Government last week at the meeting of African aviation interest groups could be seen as the government’s desire to improve air safety in Nigeria. The government said it was committed to the development of a national domestic airline operator “driven by the core private sector with substantial public ownership.” In another move that would come as a surprise to airline operators in the country, the government announced it would now place a 15-year limit on the lifespan of aircraft that operate in the country’s domestic airspace. This is a significant reduction from the present age limit of 22. This would seem to be a reaction to the crash near Lagos of a Dana Air plane on 3 June 2012. The crashed plane was reported to have been in service for 22 years.

The use of a fleet of ageing aircraft by some airline operators in Nigeria must be regarded as a threat to the safety of air travellers although public debate persists as to whether airplane accidents in Nigeria or anywhere else could be attributable to the dilapidated and ageing nature of the aircraft. Given the choice of flying in a decrepit aircraft or in a modern plane, there is no doubt many passengers would vote for the second option.