17 August 2012

Nigeria: Age of Aircraft and Air Safety in Nigeria

Photo: Vanguard
Bulldozers clear the rackege of the Dana plane

The debate seems endless on correlation between age of aircraft and air accidents in Nigeria, but industry experts insist that effective maintenance, not age of aircraft that matters.

Since the crash of Dana Air flight 0992, which killed 163 persons in Lagos on June 3, 2012, the controversy and argument have remained unabated about aircraft age. Because the aircraft involved in the crash, McDonnell Douglas MD-83 with Registration Number 5N-RAM, was 22 years, many critics have linked the crash to the age of the aircraft.

Such connection has become a refrain by some of those in the industry and outsiders who may not be blamed, knowing that aviation is a technical area where one must have more than cursory knowledge to be able to dissect issues meaningfully.

Some industry critics acknowledge that the attack on aircraft age has taken a mischievous hue, especially when the reproach seemed to understate the importance of maintenance in aircraft management. In fact, aircraft maintenance should be the crux of discussion, not the age of aeroplane as it is obvious that aircraft older than 30 years are still being operated in many advanced societies, including Europe and the United States of America.

Those who canvass for newer aircraft say that new generation aircraft have more sophisticated equipment; they give less responsibility to the pilot as human error have become major reason for many recent crashes, and they have advanced safety devices, including precise weather radar.

But in the last few years many crashes in different parts of the world involved new generation aircraft. The one that shocked and astounded industry observers was the Kenya Airways crash in the mangrove swamp area off Douala international airport in January 2007, which killed 114 people. The aircraft was just four months old.

Air France Flight 447 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on January 1, 2009 and killed 216 passengers and 12 crew was a new generation Airbus A330-200 which flew from Galeao International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on its way to Charles de Gaul International Airport, Paris, France.

Also the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET409, which crashed kilometres off Lebanon after taking off from Beirut and killed 90 people onboard, was just eight years old. It was a new generation aircraft, Boeing 737-800, which was heading to Addis Ababa from the Lebanon capital when the tragic crash occurred.

These crashes involved new generation aircraft and they were all attributed to human error. The pilot who handled the Air France crash was inexperienced. The Kenya Airways flight and that of Ethiopian Airlines ignored weather conditions. Now, if human error is responsible for many of the crashes that happen in the world, it means that age may be a non-issue as far as air crashes are concerned.

When an aircraft is not maintained, the problem is poor maintenance and not old age that may give rise to a crash.

Assistant Secretary General of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Mohammed Tukur, argued that if human error was responsible for most air crashes, it means that both old and new aircraft are susceptible to crashes, depending on what the pilot was doing, conceding however that new generation aircraft gave pilots less responsibility and therefore less opportunities to make mistakes.

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