By Owei Lakemfa
Nigeria is leadership-challenged at all levels, including an inability to regulate basic sectors. While the effects will be slow to manifest, the failure to properly regulate the aviation industry is quite frightening. No, I am not referring to the frequent crashes of military aircraft. I am talking about large civil passenger airlines.
On May 19, 2021, I flew into Abuja from Calabar by 3pm to catch a 5pm flight to Kano on Max Air. But the flight had been rescheduled for 11.55pm. That meant I had to spend nine hours at the airport! The alternatives were not attractive: they include making the long drive to the city and returning by 10pm or booking into an hotel. This will not happen in countries with proper regulatory agencies.
Even in international flights, where passengers have long hours to connect flight, the airline provides accommodation, transportation and food for the passenger. The Max Air officials had no apologies. I was to realise that this was their normal system of operation. As I checked in and complained to the officials, an airport official told me I was in fact lucky as a similar flight the previous day, took off at 2am!
I reminded the airline officials that the Federal Government had a nationwide curfew from 12am to 4am, so it meant we might on arrival, have to stay at the Aminu Kano International Airport, MAKIA. They bursted out laughing. The message was: who obeys this government?
At the departure lounge, I met other victims of the airline scheduled to fly to other parts of the country. These included media colleagues travelling to Bauchi for the Nigeria Institute of Public Relations, NIPR Fellowship Awards. Their morning flight had been rescheduled to 4pm. Then as they waited, it was moved to 9pm. Finally it departed at 10pm. One of them said that the airline seemed to have a lone aircraft flying; that the one that took passengers to Lagos was the one taking them to Bauchi. He calculated that the aircraft was likely to return past mid night to pick the passengers to Kano. He was correct; we finally departed at 1am!
At the Bayero University, I complained to one of my hosts, who told me I was lucky. He narrated the experience of a family member whose flight was delayed from early morning until far into the evening.
Then I read in the newspapers that the Max Air flight that took off from Kano for Abuja airport at 1:21pm on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 carrying the Emir of Kano, Aminu Ado Bayero and 139 other passengers, had a bird strike, which forced one of the two-engine aircraft to malfunction, prompting the pilot to make an air return.
Some of the passengers said the bird strike caused a big bang in the aircraft and that they were petrified at their near death experience. However, the Max Air Director of Maintenance, Muhammad Mubaraq who was not in the aircraft, told the media: “It is very wrong to say they had a near-death experience.”
That same day, the Aero Contractors’ Boeing 737-500 with the registration number 5N-BKR flying from Port Harcourt to Abuja had a similar bird strike experience.
These life-threatening incidents are quite avoidable as the installation of bird strike avoidance radar system at our airports would have taken care of them. When I scanned the internet for costs, I discovered that a 20-kilometre mobile or fixed version was advertised for as low as $200,000 per airport. How much is this compared to the possible loss of 140 lives and loss of aircraft?
These issues I have raised are not as frightening as the aviation authorities allowing an airline to serially endanger passenger lives for six weeks before waking up to take the mild action of suspending the airline to force it carry out basic safety steps. But the Azman Air, which had a sense of immunity, felt so insulted by the suspension that it issued a statement accusing the regulatory Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, of witch-hunt.
It also made allegations of unprofessionalism against the NCAA Director-General, Musa Nuhu, whom it accused of attempting to extort N15 million from Azman. It was only at this point the regulator found it fit to reveal the unprofessional and dangerous manner the airline was operating. In so doing, it unwittingly exposed its own failure to act timeously in the interests of the passengers and public.
The revelations which the airline did not contest included NCAA inspectors on February 10, 2021, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, finding Azman Air maintenance engineer carrying out the replacement of the right-hand main landing gear wheel assembly of their Boeing 737-500 without referring to the manufacturer’s maintenance manual. This was a violation of the Civil Aviation Regulations. The regulator fined both Azman Air and the engineer but they refused to pay the fine.
The next day, the same Azman aircraft Boeing 737-500 during take-off in Kaduna en-route Lagos, lost a component part which fell off the aircraft. The Air Traffic Control, ATC, notified the Captain, who rather than abort the flight, chose to continue. Even at that, on arrival in Lagos, he failed to make an entry in the aircraft technical logbook.
The Azman Air maintenance team in Lagos was notified that the part which fell from the aircraft was the no 3 Main Landing Gear, MLG, heatshield. But rather make the necessary entry in the technical logbook and rectify the defect, Azman released the aircraft for a scheduled passenger flight from Lagos to Abuja. The NCAA inspectors in Abuja were notified and grounded the aircraft, forcing Azman to effect the necessary repairs.
Five days later, on February 16, 2021, NCAA inspectors reported that the same aircraft “suffered burst tyres while landing in Lagos, with resultant severe damage to the aircraft engine and fuselage.”
On Monday, March 15, 2021, Azman Air Boeing 737-500 aircraft with registration 5N-YMS, departed Kaduna for Lagos. The NCAA report was that: “The Captain reported a loud bang after retracting the landing gear during take-off but decided to proceed to Lagos as all parameters were normal.” Air Traffic informed the Captain that the cause of the bang were burst tyres and that indeed, the debris were on the Kaduna runway.
Inspection in Lagos showed that the aircraft had two severely damaged tyres and “a damaged hydraulic line with resultant hydraulic leak and damage to the hydraulic reservoir.” It was only at this point, the regulator decided to suspend the airline. Six weeks later, the suspension was lifted.
Despite the general degeneracy in the country, it is necessary that the aviation industry maintains safety standards because air travel hardly gives passengers a second chance of survival.