Like with previous air accidents in Nigeria, the recent crash involving a Dana Air Boeing McDonnell Douglas aircraft, again, brought to the front burner the controversial question of aircraft age and safety, as many tried to rationalize the crash and deduce reasons for its occurrence, even as the country's Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) was yet to conclude its investigations into the cause of the accident.
Even the Senate and House Committees on Aviation, in a televised joint public hearing on the Dana Air accident, also lent a voice to the discuss. However, if there was one thing the 3-day sitting achieved, it only served to heighten the confusion on the matter of aircraft age vis-à-vis safety, as members of both houses shamefully displayed crass ignorance on the subject.
"Surely, the NCAA, the Ministry of Aviation and, in fact, the entire aviation industry must have their work cut out for them", I thought to myself, as I monitored the online conversation which raged on for weeks; this nagging question needed a clear response. This was all the more necessary to restore public confidence in the sector, given that the average age of the aircrafts in the fleet of most airlines operating locally is over 15 years.
It's now 5 months since the Dana incident and, though the initial dust it raised seems to have settled, and the issue of aircraft age and safety is no longer a hot item on popular blogs and websites, the significant drop in passenger load today may not be unconnected to the failure of industry stakeholders to clear the air on this largely misunderstood topic and adequately inform and educate the travelling public.
So, is there a relationship between the age of an aircraft and safety? If we appreciate that, in strict aviation terms, an aircraft begins to 'age' right from the moment it first flies and various effects begin to occur, then the appropriate answer to the question would be 'YES'. An aircraft is yet to be built that doesn't require ongoing maintenance, so 'ageing' of an aircraft (whether a day old or 20yrs old) can be a safety issue but with adequate maintenance, the consequences of ageing can be mitigated.
Management of aircraft ageing actually begins in the design phase. An aircraft is usually designed taking fatigue and corrosion into consideration. Damage tolerance is a popular method of designing for fatigue. This method assumes that cracks will occur, but can be managed by regularly inspecting the crack prone area. Such inspections ensure that cracks can be identified before they reach a predetermined critical length. Periodic inspection and replacement of worn or time-limited parts keep small problems from becoming critical safety issues.
Ongoing additional and specific maintenance is vital to controlling ageing. The aircraft maintenance programme needs to take into account in-service defects, as well as analysis of flight critical components. Manufacturer support is important to ensure the thoroughness of the programme, and manufacturers of high capacity aircraft have the obligation and resources to provide the continued airworthiness of ageing aircraft.
Contrary to popular belief, the most common reason why operators, the world over, decide to replace their old generation aircraft is the disproportionate cost of maintaining them; not an inherent lack of safety and airworthiness. In Nigeria, the age of aircraft became an issue following the crash on May 4, 2002 that killed 64 passengers and seven crew members. In a bid to 'prevent future occurrence', the Nigerian government decided to impose restrictions on the age of aircraft being registered in the country.
I believe, however, that the main question should be 'How regularly are these aircraft maintained?' Operating a younger fleet is not a guarantee to safe operations in itself, as other parameters are just as important. Crashes of new aircraft also occur. Examples vary from the Kenya Airways 5-month Boeing 737 aircraft to Air France Airbus 330 that was 4.4 years and Japan Airways Boeing 747 that was 4.5 years old at point of loss. Simply put, a new aircraft that is badly maintained is more dangerous than a 20 year old aircraft that has been well-maintained.
While talking about the age of aircraft, we need to take into account hours and conditions, as well as the material a particular aircraft is manufactured from - aluminium, steel, wood or composite. In theory, any aircraft can be flown so much that it becomes worn out, but that's seldom the case. Most aircraft develop problems from the lack of use, not overuse.
Aircraft are, after all, machines, so it's not the years; it's the miles that count. Years are nothing but a number. The age of an aircraft becomes relevant only when it becomes uneconomical to continue maintaining the aircraft. Actually, the fuselage of an aircraft, the APU and the engines are the three primary components. 'If an airline owner decides to replace the 10 years' old engines with the new ones he can add another 15 years to the fleet.
Up till this moment, there are aircraft older than the crashed Dana Air MD83 aircraft which was 22 years old, in use all over the world. The two Boeing VC-25As - specifically configured, highly customized Boeing 747-200B series aircraft, currently used as Air Force One by President Barrack Obama, were manufactured in 1990 (same year as Dana's crashed MD83 aircraft).
For the records, Air Force One is the official air traffic control call sign of a United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. In common parlance the term refers to those Air Force aircraft specifically designed, built, and used for the purpose of transporting the president. Several aircraft have been used as Air Force One since the creation of the presidential fleet. The US Air Force is looking into replacing the two VC-25 aircraft with three replacement aircraft beginning in 2017, by which time they would have been operated for 37 years.
Let's even focus on current operators of MD83 aircraft; from the largest foreign and domestic truck carriers to new start-up airlines and charter operators. American Airlines tops the list with a fleet of 275 followed by Delta Air, also in the US, which operates 117 MD80 88 series models. A further 74 are operated by airlines across Europe. Even the aircraft used by the US Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, for his campaign at the 2012 US presidential election was an MD83 aircraft manufactured in 1990 (same year as Dana's airplane). His 42-year old running mate, Paul Ryan, used an older version of the MD80 series - a DC-9-32 aircraft - same age as his birth age.
Here in Africa too, Air Burkina and Air Mali use the MD80 series aircraft to ferry Air France passengers going to points beyond Ouagadougou and Bamako, and the UN uses a version of the aircraft to lift Nigerians and other troops for peace keeping missions up till this moment. The MD 80 is known as the workhorse of the fleet for these airlines and they have been successfully in service for many years. The average age of all the MD80 series aircraft that currently exist globally is just over 23 years.
Again, let me reiterate that age is not equal to safety and safety is not equal to age. What is most important is that, through a system of highly regulated checks, the service integrity of an aircraft is maintained fully, in line with the recommendations of the manufacturer, no matter the age. Other contributory factors to aviation safety include airmanship (failure of which is often described as Pilot Error), depth of airline management and the operating environment; though governed by nature environment is controlled by governments. An example of failure in this regard is a ground equipment failure to provide required guidance or detect inclement weather.
In spite of the accidents recorded globally in the last few years, statistics show that air transportation remains the safest means of travel today. And despite the unfortunate Dana Air accident, Nigeria's aviation industry is still rated high on safety, as well as the oversight functions of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
A letter signed by the President of ICAO, Mr. Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez, shortly after the tragic accident of June 3, 2012, said that Nigeria was one of the 13 countries out of 54 in Africa whose Level of Effective Implementation (LEI) of the eight critical elements of ICAO safety oversight was above the world average; the eight critical elements being legislation, regulation, organization, technical staff & training, technical guidance & tools, licensing, certification, approval, continuous surveillance and resolution of safety concerns. A similar letter, affirming the safety and security of Nigeria's air transport system, was also sent by IATA in July 2012.
Airline operators, the NCAA and the Federal Ministry of Aviation must, however, do more to fully restore the confidence of the public in the sector: Investigations into the cause of the June 3 accident must reach a logical conclusion and the recommendations by the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) must be fully implemented; airline operators must be given the necessary encouragement and support for acquisition of new aircraft, not necessarily out of safety concerns but to enhance passenger comfort and increase profitability; the NCAA and other relevant aviation parastatals must uphold the zero-accident target for the industry by ensuring 100 percent compliance by airlines and service providers to all safety regulations; and the Government must provide a more enabling environment for airlines and aviation agencies to perform more efficiently.
Oladipupo Olabisi is a mobile money analyst based in Lagos