24 November 2012

Nigeria: How Aviation Sector Is Hatching Many 'Xmas Turkeys'


Like Nigeria's power sector, there has been a couple of probes to unearth the rot in the aviation industry and find lasting solutions to it, but to no avail. The last attempt by a probe committee of the National Assembly spent four months to do a job meant for four weeks.

The Nigerian aviation sector is not new to controversy but what could be new is that many Nigerians including those in government circles possibly, with the exception of those in the sector do not really know how bad things are in the sector that is supposed to be one of the most open and transparent considering its importance in the life of a nation.

Since the return to civil rule in 1999, many investigations had been carried out by the National Assembly including the aviation industry. In the last, Senate for instance, its committee on aviation then probed the sector and unearthed monumental fraud especially in the management of the Bilateral Air Services Fund (FUND) I, which it was discovered that during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo $176 million of the fund was diverted.

Then it was discovered that government officials from the Presidency to the ministry and agencies had turned the fund into "Christmas Turkey" where they butchered with impunity. The report concluded that government intervention of N200 billion then in 2006 after deadly crashed was a waste. To date, nothing has been heard of the report after it was passed on to the executive by the Senators.

Now, the Joint Senate and House of Representatives committee on Aviation is expected to turn in another report which probed the June 4th, 2012 Dana airline crash which claimed 153 passengers on board and six others on ground in Lagos.

Immediately after the crash, the two chambers passed resolutions instituting investigation. However, it was on record that Aviation Minister, Princess Stella Oduah made unsuccessful effort to block the investigation.

Oduah has requested for the postponement of the public hearing until after the conclusion of investigation into the crash by the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB), saying this will also allow the families to complete the painful process of DNA matching identification and burial of their loved ones.

However, Senate President David Mark, has said the probe by the National Assembly is in the first instance at the behest of the executive, which requested that the sitting of both chambers be combined in order to save cost.

Whereas the mandate of the joint committee was to probe the Dana and allied air crashes, it however, unearthed many irregularities and anomalies in the entire sector.

Oyur sister newspaper had exclusively published the draft report on November 20th, 2012 in which it was discovered that Nigeria's aviation industry is weak and stagnating, because of regulatory negligence, cutting of corners, ageing fleets and ministerial interference in duties of agencies. The reported also painted a grim picture of a sector that is tottering, bedeviled by allegations of corruption.

In its conclusions, the committee said it found "palpable evidence" of "an industry that is, at best, stagnating and in need of new policy engines of growth."

The panel found that there is weak regulatory regime, declining and low professional competence in the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) in particular, non-adherence to laid down procedures, long standing ministerial interference in functions of parastatals, sub-standard search and rescue co-ordination and approach in the sector and poor funding.

It said "debt overhang" is weighing down all domestic airlines, which mostly operate "ageing aircraft" and suggested a need for the airlines to merge so as to be stronger, adding that part of the problem in the sector is "the solo philosophy of airline operators in spite of their weakness, non-growth and non-profitability arising from their small sizes."

On the NCAA, the committee said, "One observation that further reinforced allegations of laxity, compromises and corruption is the fact that with the public hearing announced, (an airline) that was operating immediately ceased operation and send its aircraft to overseas for maintenance.

"This gives credence to the allegations that the NCAA, at will, unduly extend operational life of aircraft over due for checks. This jittery reaction (of that particular airline) can only be explained as an attempt to avoid detection of untoward and unethical practices."

The report added: the "NCAA does not have any known and clear competence for regulating operations of both the Airport Authority, Airspace Management Agency, Meteorological Agency and others."

It also found that Nigeria is not sufficiently covered by the NCAA inspectors. "Of the 56 inspectorate staff of the NCAA airworthiness directorate, 51 of them are deployed in Lagos, tow in Abuja, one each in Port Harcourt, Kano and Kaduna. More critical is the fact that virtually all the NCAA maintenance oversight engineers are deployed in Lagos and only two in Abuja and one in Kaduna while Port Harcourt and Kano have none," the report said.

On the ill-fated Dana airliner which crashed on June 4, killing 153 people onboard and six on ground in Lagos, the committee said it was an old plane that was banned from use in the United States before it was brought to Nigeria in 2009. The aircraft MD 83 was acquired by Dana in 2009 and registered on February 3, 2009, originally owned by Alaska Airlines, USA and was 22 years old at the time of the crash. "MD 83 is not just only an old generation aircraft that is no longer in production, Dana is the only operator of the aircraft type in Africa," the report said.

"Between October 2009 and March 2012, Dana recorded 14 air returns out of which the ill-fated aircraft accounts for five," it added. On October 20th, 2009, the aircraft recorded air return of 'cabin air temperature', on March 13, 2010 it also recorded "cabin pressurization", on April 19, 2010 it had "bird strike", and on March 18, 2011 it had "cabin pressure above schedule." Also, the plane on January 17, 2012 recorded "smoke detected activation due to smoke in the cabin". The report also said: "Allegations of corner-cutting flowed freely from within and outside the airline. These were hitherto unknown to the public who believe in Dana."

The committee headed by Senator Hope Uzodinma recommended that Dana "should phase out its present fleet and embark on fleet renewal to comply with the age limit requirement. This is in view of the fact that MD.83 is not just only an old generation aircraft that is no longer in production, Dana is the only operator of the aircraft type in Africa."

It also said "all aircraft in the fleet of Nigerian airline operators should not exceed 20 years for passenger operations and 25 years for cargo operations. Aircrafts to be used for short term such as pilgrimages are not impaired by 10 years acquisition age bar but must comply with the 20 years limit for passenger airlift and 25 years for cargo. 10 years age limit to be placed for new acquisition for passenger aircraft and 15 years for cargo aircrafts."

Now, where as noted earlier this is not the first time such an investigation is being conducted by the parliament, and bearing in mind that the Aviation Minister who was indicted in the report has tried to stop the investigation in the first place, one does not need a sooth sayer to foretell what fate may and or will befall the report even if it is adopted by the two chambers.

That is not even the problem for now. The committee, given four weeks within which to conclude its assignment and turn in the report, is now four months since its inauguration on June 19th, this year. One, therefore, wonders what is delaying the legislators on the two committees from adopting the draft report and tendering same to the two Houses.

However, be that as it may, and assuming that all things being equal and both the Senate and House of Representatives adopt the report and pass resolutions on it, implementation lies squarely on the shoulders of the executive led by President Goodluck Jonathan whom the lawmakers said has a penchant for jettisoning their resolutions which both his spokesman Dr. Rueben Abbati and Information Minister Labaran Maku had always described as "mere expression(s) of opinion".

This looks more of a vicious circle, just as the lives of Nigerians flying is more than ever before still at a greater risk.

The question here is: who can save the situation since the National Assembly has consistently failed to address the intractable rot in the aviation sector as it is in the power sector?

Meanwhile, Nigerians are still waiting for the report of the joint committee of the Senate and House of Representatives set up to probe the aviation industry.

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