Eddie Iroh: Nigerian airlines are unsafe at any height

by Eddie Iroh

Those of you who bother to read my occasional intervention on this page will bear witness to one glaring omission on my part. I try to avoid jumping on the bandwagon of comments and opinions whenever any of our many totally avoidable national calamities and political upheavals rears its gruesome head. I have a number of reasons for this. First is that I truly believe that there are younger columnists and commentators like Simon Kolawole and Kayode Komolafe who are now carrying the torch of our national outrage to a new and higher level of poignancy. Old codgers like me can then take a back seat, dream dreams while these young guns see visions. May be they can be heard since we appear to have been whistling in the wind all these years.

The other is that in the us-and-them, for-me-or-against-me, friend-of-my-enemy-is-my-enemy nature of Nigerian politics, I do not want to carry the stigma of mistaken identity. This is important to me because I belong to only one political party called FRN – Federal Republic of Nigeria. I therefore try to focus on what I feel can help us as a nation to recognise the dangers of our national delusion, deception and denial. For, if I may say so, I have seen the 21st century and it works. And contrary to our delusion of greatness, our country is nowhere near the 21st century.

It is therefore wise that when you get to a certain age and stage, you use your tongue to count your teeth, as my Igbo people will say. But when you keep doing that and finding a good number of your teeth missing for no reason that you can account for, it becomes necessary to change course; to use your tongue for the purpose for which God gave us tongue.

The tragedy of the Dana air crash of Sunday, June 3 has drawn comments from all and sundry. So much has been written and said that it seems not much is left to be said. But a tragedy of such magnitude, especially one that was so totally avoidable, can never be fully explained or examined because the issues and questions it raises are often beyond the actual mishap itself. Indeed you need to hear how the news got to some of us to understand that the Dana tragedy is a metaphor for all that is wrong with Nigeria.

The Editorial Board of THISDAY had just concluded a meeting with the Minister of Power, Professor Barth Nnaji, when the news of the crash broke on the social media network that has taken over today’s world of instant communication. Nduka Obaigbena made frantic calls to Lagos to verify the news. He was told by someone who claimed to be an eyewitness that the plane had just taken off from Lagos en route to Abuja. This eyewitness, who is supposed to be an engineer, swore that he saw the plane take off, encountered some kind of problem, and requested to return to the airport, and crashed before it could reach the runway. As we all know, the reverse was the case: the aircraft was coming in from Abuja when tragedy struck. Is this important? Well you be the judge. When someone who claims to be an engineer and an eyewitness to this event can so totally mislead the publisher of a major newspaper, you may want to know what is happening to us in a country that claims to be the most educationally developed in Africa.

We have questioned whether the Nigerian aviation authorities have been up to their responsibilities in regulating our airlines in terms of safety standards. All these are important issues and deserved to be examined. But the truth is that the tragedy of Dana happens every day even before any aircraft lifts off from a Nigerian airport. It starts with the ticketing and checking-in counters of our airlines. The typical Nigerian terminal is a mad house of chaos and pandemonium.

The process of getting a ticket and boarding a flight is not a one-stop shop as in other climes. First you put your name down and you get a piece of paper to pay your fare at another counter; then you return with your receipt to the same person who had written your name; you are then given a ticket to go to yet another counter to get a boarding pass! Now you tell me, if an airport authority cannot simplify this routine process, how can it manage the more challenging business of aircraft safety? In any case, why do we need three separate bodies – Nigerian Airspace Management Authority (NAMA), Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), and Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) – to do a job that elsewhere is done by a single agency? By their mere nomenclature, even Stevie Wonder can see that these three agencies are integral and intertwined.

We must also look at the emergence of Dana as a major carrier in a short space of time. I was a regular flier on Dana whenever I was in the country. Indeed I had taken the airline to and from Lagos in the week before the crash. Dana became the airline of choice for many travellers for one reason: the failure of existing private airlines on the critical matter of respect for time: it was the only airline in the whole Federal Republic of airlines that took off on schedule. It found that niche and rightfully exploited it.

While other airlines flew by Nigerian time, Dana stuck to its scheduled times, whether its aircraft was half-full or half-empty. Dana might have taken this competitive advantage to a perilous level, but which authority in the land has ever ensured that airlines respect their own scheduled times?

Indeed our airlines are not just unsafe in the air because of the age of their fleet and appalling lack of diligence on the part of the civil aviation authorities. Our airlines are unsafe even when they are on the ground. Many of them operate like bolekaja. I have been on several aircraft in Nigeria where after closing the doors and announcing departure, the pilot shuts down the engine, the doors are opened again to take in just one lone passenger! On occasions like this, I had found myself to be the lone voice of protest, while fellow Nigerian passengers look at me with those eyes that say: What is this man’s problem? Is he not a Nigerian?

We have renovated Murtala Muhammed Airport but not increased or improved its runways since it was built more 30 years ago. Like universities, every state wants it own airport so that their governors can land without the inconvenience of driving another hour so that they can hurry to solve the pressing problems of our people. The strain that this convoluted idea of “development” puts on the civil aviation regulatory authorities has obviously not been factored into our projection.

Nigeria became a dumping ground for old and discarded aircraft from the old Soviet republics, many of them carrying passenger instructions written in languages that only a Yugoslav can read. We saw many of these airlines disappear just as quickly: Oriental, Albarka etc; there was even one by the weird moniker of Slok! But the lessons were not learnt, instead new airlines emerged, Arik, Air Nigeria, you name it. But standards did not improve; schedules were not respected. And while we may boast of the largest number of private airlines in Africa, Nigeria remains the only major nation I know that does not have a national carrier.

According to an old Chinese proverb, if we don’t change the direction we are headed, we will end up where we are going. The fact is that the template for restructuring the airline industry exists in the work that Governors Chukwuma Soludo and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi have done to reform the banking and insurance sector. There has to be some mandatory minimum capitalisation and technical requirements for establishing a private airline in the country. The industry has to be compelled to consolidate where necessary and recognise safety as paramount by not endangering passenger safety with aircraft discarded by countries that put higher premium on the safety of their citizens. This must apply not just in the air but in every single aspect of airline operation and management.

As Jodi Picoult wrote in her book Nineteen Minutes, you cannot undo something that has happened; you cannot take back a word that has already been said out loud. Similarly we cannot bring back the dead, but we certainly can prevent future loss of lives.

 *This piece was first published in Thisday


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