Civil aviation is one of the most regulated industries in the world. Every single technical personnel, equipment and airport must be certified and monitored by competent regulatory agencies known as Civil Aviation Authorities (CAAs).
In Nigeria, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is the apex regulatory body, overseeing the activities of all airlines and their pilots, engineers and cabin staff, airports, airstrips and heliports, navigation aids, all service providers including the airport authority and the air traffic service provider, aviation training institutions etc. In short, the NCAA is the ‘police’ of Nigeria’s aviation industry.
As stated on the NCAA website, “The Authority sets safety standards, issues licenses and operating certificates to personnel and service providers, and monitors their compliance through a range of surveillance activities. Where safety rules are breached, the NCAA takes strong corrective actions to enforce compliance which may include sanctions.”
Perhaps it was a ‘breach’ in ‘safety rules’ that the NCAA was trying to address when it grounded the operations of Dana Air, IRS and Chachangi, shortly after the crash of an Associated Airlines jet on October 3, 2013? If that was truly the case, then the agency deserves to be commended for enforcing strict compliance with laid down guidelines and safety regulation.
But really, was the recent grounding of Dana Air operations due safety reasons? Wouldn’t this be the second time the airline is being grounded by the authorities for ‘safety issues’ since recommencing flight operations this year? If, as the NCAA told the media a few weeks back, there is going to be an operational audit of all local airlines, how come Dana is the only one grounded for ‘audit purposes’?
My take is either Dana Air is an ‘exceptional’ defaulter to warrant such selective action or the NCAA isn’t telling Nigerians the full gist of the matter. Or could there be a deliberate witch-hunt on the airline by the ‘ogas at the top’? Perhaps the NCAA is just following instructions from ‘higher’ quarters to keep the airline grounded for reasons unknown?
Maybe a look at the circumstances surrounding the suspension of the airline in both instances will help us answer these questions: On March 16, 2013, the carrier was handed a suspension order due to what the NCAA and the Ministry of Aviation would later refer to as ‘safety issues’.
On ground Abuja, a Lagos-bound Dana aircraft developed a snag. The Captain, during his pre-start checks, noticed that the airplane battery was under charging. He humbly explained the situation to his passengers and called for a replacement aircraft from Lagos which eventually ferried the passengers to Lagos safely. The airline’s operations were suspended by the NCAA later that evening on the orders of the Minister. Apparently, a friend of hers who was onboard placed a call to her that the aircraft's engine was faulty and could not start.
The Dana scenario described above brings to mind the October 23, 2013 Lagos-bound Arik Air flight which was aborted in Abuja when the aircraft developed technical issues and refused to start. According to one of the intending travelers, Dominic, who spoke to Channels Television, “the passengers had checked in and were about boarding the aircraft when some people noticed the pilot was having issues in his seat. After a few minutes, a member of the Arik team announced to us in front of the airplane that there was a technical issue” and so they would have to wait for another aircraft from Lagos to ferry them to their destination. “
Of course, the Dana and Arik incidents are similar and, in both cases, the pilots acted in line with standard international aviation practice by aborting the flight and calling for a replacement aircraft. The only difference for both airlines was in the outcome: one airline (Dana) had the misfortune of having a Minister’s friend on board, and so got grounded by the NCAA; the other (Arik) did not incur the wrath of the NCAA. Perhaps, they were lucky enough not to have a ‘Minister’s friend’ onboard? Or maybe the NCAA’s yardstick for regulating operations of airlines is simply different from one airline to another?
The recent grounding of Dana Air, as widely reported in the media, came on the heels of an air return the airline had on October 6, 2013. I still find it hard to believe that this is the reason being adduced to the airline’s suspension, as most operators, local and international, have had cases of air return(s) in their history, due technical or non-technical causes. Otherwise, Medview should have been grounded after its ,, 2013 air return? Or how would Arik have escaped suspension following its September 26, 2013 air return on a Calabar-bound flight, or the October 4, 2013 air return on a Benin-bound flight? Many such cases of air return abound, involving other local as well as international airlines, and the NCAA has all the records.
As has been emphasized by several aviation experts, air returns are not uncommon in the global aviation industry. The decision by a pilot to return an aircraft to base after take-off is a precautionary safety measure, and it is in line with international best practices. Or would the NCAA and the Ministry of Aviation rather pilots continued on a trip after noticing a snag that could affect their safe continuation, thereby risking their lives and the lives of their passengers? Obviously not! They should rather be commended for taking such initiatives. Of course, as per standard practice, the snag(s) on the aircraft must be duly reported and rectified, and the aircraft recertified by the NCAA before its return to service.
So, back to the question of the planned operational and financial audit of all local airlines which, by the way, is a welcome development for the industry: does the NCAA need to ground the entire operations of an airline to be able to conduct an audit? Why the selective grounding of Dana Air? Would the operations of Aero, Arik, First Nation, Medview, Kabo, Overland and other small airlines currently flying be grounded for audit purposes too?
If, indeed, the NCAA is unbiased in its oversight functions, why then did it allow IRS and Chachangi to carry on with their operations with just one aircraft for such a long time (until the October 13, 2013 incident involving IRS), even when the law states that operators must have a minimum of 2 serviceable aircraft? And why wasn’t Kabo Air’s operation suspended following the near mishap in Sokoto on October 4, 2013 involving one of its aircraft?
On the agency’s website, its Director-General of the NCAA, Capt. Fola Akinkuotu states, “At the NCAA, great emphasis is placed on workers' integrity and professionalism. NCAA provides services in the most efficient, effective, quality and technology driven manner to stakeholders.” Clearly, going by the inconsistencies highlighted so far, this doesn’t seem to be the case in the agency at present.
The onus is now on Capt. Akinkuotu and the leadership of the NCAA to put their house in order and prove to Nigerians that the agency is capable of performing its statutory functions efficiently, and without fear or favour. Aviation business is too serious for vital decisions to be made on a whim, and undue political interference must be firmly resisted. We must begin to do things right, and as per global aviation standards. Nigerians are watching! The world is watching!!
Edet Akpan, an Engineer, writes from Lagos