When Nigerians began to celebrate that they had overcome the jinx of frequent air accidents, 2012 became the signpost of another bloodletting and a reminder that a lot is still to be done to have safer skies in the country.
The tragic crash of Dana Air flight J9 992 in Lagos on June 3, 2012, killing 163 people jolted Nigerians from reverie and the delusion that the country has joined other nations that have achieved a high level of safety in air transport.
It also aroused the concerned aviation authorities from the lethargy of self-adulation and a costly assumption that all was well, with the often quoted maxim; Nigeria has achieved safety in the airspace.
The Director-General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Dr Harold Demuren, crashed from the zenith of a hero down to the valley of a villain overnight.
They heaped all the blame on Demuren because out of emotion and shock, Nigerians chose to ignore the standard procedures that are used to attend to air accidents. They desperately looked for a villain to lay the whole blame on. And Demuren literally became a punching bag.
It was out of the bid to ventilate the torrents of emotions and also out of mischief that prompted the National Assembly to hijack the process of accident investigation as laid out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). And it was the same high emotions that attended the decision of the Ministry of Aviation to set up a panel to investigate the cause of the crisis and activities of domestic airlines.
But the outcome of the whole shenanigan was a bedlam. The chaos has not abated. The National Assembly has not learnt about the limit of its oversight function in the economic sectors of the economy. The House of Representatives, which announced some draconian recommendations recently, did not know that it went too far by laying the blame of the accident on individuals, even before the result of the investigation of the crash was out. It jumped the gun because the whole incident was mired in politics and self-interests.
The politics and vengeance mission, which seemed to have attended every bit of interest the National Assembly has in the accident, seemed to eclipse the protagonists of the crash and the role they played before the tragic bloodletting.
The Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) which released the preliminary investigation about three weeks after the crash is being blamed for not saying enough. Individuals whose only relationship with aviation was boarding flights to their destinations became experts and issues reports on what caused the accident, laid blame on individuals and ignited more outrage.
But THISDAY learnt that before the accident took place, the engine of the aircraft was in good condition.
Tito Omaghiomi, a seasoned pilot of many years pointed out issues concerning how the pilot of that flight decided to ignore his checklist, even when managing the aircraft when it had dual engine failure.
Omaghiomi said at a press conference in Lagos then that the crash could have been avoided if the pilot did his job very well and insisted their action was careless, unprofessional and incompetent.
He also alleged that the pilots of the ill-fated flight did not follow the aircraft checklist that could have assisted them when they experienced the crisis, adding that emergency did not kill but the action or inaction of the pilot, usually the captain was responsible of most of the air accidents on record.
"Emergency don't kill, it is the action or inaction of the pilot that causes most plane crashes. In fact, what they did as far as I am concerned in the Dana plane crash is a cowboy operation. They did not do their job the way they should have done it. So it is their fault," he stressed.
Before the crash the atmosphere was sanguine. Things were looking up, in spite of the crash of Nigeria's cargo plane in Accra, Ghana a day before (June 2, 2012).
2012 would have marked a turning point in aviation if not for the crash. Since the accident in June, most activities in the sector were centred on the crash or as reaction to the crash. It turned the progress in aviation into another corner and perhaps another destination.
The African Ministerial Conference of Air safety that was held in Abuja shortly after the accident, the plan by the Minister of Aviation to bring in modern aircraft from manufacturers like Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer were borne out of the crash. There was the zeal and eagerness to obliterate that tragedy by doing things differently; including the plan to reduce the years of aircraft that would be allowed into the country from the present 22 to 15 years.
The accident brought in a sad sobriety in the domestic air market. It somehow led to the disappearance of Air Nigeria, a major operator, First Nation Airways and introduced a period of fear and deserting of airport domestic terminals in the country by those who feared to travel by air.
With fewer airlines, the law of demand and supply set in and air fares were jerked up by over 300 per cent. Airlines like Arik Air and Aero Contractors celebrated the high points of the market by recording average of 98 per cent load factor, which ushered them into the December great rush.
So why few airlines that were operating smiled to the banks, the passengers grounded their teeth because of the outrageously high fares. That period opened a blossoming business for touts. Because it was difficult for a passenger who did not book for a flight previously to get ticket on the day he was travelling, especially such destinations like Abuja, Port Harcourt, sometimes Enugu and Warri, touts started brokering deals with alleged connivance with airlines officials.
The consequence was that passengers started paying more for their already costly tickets. As days went by more Nigerians began to travel locally but there was paucity of aircraft. That gave rise to another fear, that the domestic air transport was approaching moribund stage and would soon become extinct.
But there were developmental events that took place in 2012 in aviation sector in spite of the sadness and the prolonged frown. The rehabilitated General Aviation Terminal was inaugurated to the happiness of many Nigerians who travel with Arik Air.
And others that became excited by the new facility that smiled at the sky. The terminal was built with N648 million! An amount that was deemed very prudent by many Nigerians, considering that N36 billion was spent on the domestic terminal, MMA2, which is however bigger and more complex.
When the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah, started the rehabilitation of some of the nation's airports many believed that such action would receive commendation, but ironically the programme was booed by many in the industry, especially the think tank group, Aviation Round Table (ART).
But the same ART had lamented over the years that the airport facilities were outmoded and needed a revamp. And the minister surprised many because when she started, many believed that it would be a long-term project that would take years but nine months after the projects on 11 airports were started, the Kano international terminal was completed. The same with that of Benin airport, the GAT in Lagos and by March this year, almost the projects would be completed.
Under Stella Oduah, the Ministry of Aviation has pursued deliberate strategies to grow the domestic airlines. She successfully championed a campaign for the removal of taxes and tariffs imposed on commercial airline spare parts, which was a major cost component in the overall cost of domestic airline operations.
While this policy was commended by the airlines, they were skeptical that the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) would implement it but Oduah in an interview with THISDAY dispelled the fears, saying that even the head of NCS was enthusiastic about the policy and that it was a government policy which must be implemented.
The minister has designated some airports as agro-allied with established cargo terminals to promote investment and make them self-sustaining. This will lead to a reduction in rural-urban immigration, massive rural development, provision of employment and lead to a reduction in crime rate.
Another feat that is worth documenting is the introduction of mobile, airfield lighting that was introduced at domestic runway of the Lagos airport, known as Runway 18L. The runway has been in use since 2008 it was rehabilitated without airfield lighting, which many in the industry deemed as strange. But five years after domestic airlines had incurred huge losses in delays, fuel consumption and wear and tear as their aircraft taxi from the international runway to domestic terminals, government was able to provide the equipment.
According to a NAMA official, the advantages of the mobile airfield lighting include fast delivery, which suits the Nigerian environment; it is rechargeable and will remain in place in the interim until permanent airfield lighting is installed early in 2013.
The trailer contains 66 lights, which cover the whole length of the runway, with two trailers arriving last weekend for deployment in Lagos and at the Enugu Airport.
Three more trailers of lights are also expected this January and would be deployed in the Abuja, Kano and Yola airports.
The NAMA official confirmed that the mobile lighting, which is also known as emergency airfield lighting, would serve as alternatives to permanent lights until this New Year.
To ensure that airfield runways at all the airports in the country do not suffer hiccups, government also plans to install solar power plants which the agency has already started installing at some airports.
The year 2013 will also witness the inauguration of brand new airport terminals in Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt, and the commencement of the Aerotropolis project, a concept that involves building cities around airports, and thus connecting businesses, suppliers, executives and goods to the aviation global world. The Aerotropolis will create wealth and employment through the cluster of businesses at the airports.
Although the Dana Air and other crashes that took place in 2012 were a huge black stain in the firmament of that year that stirred so many prospects, there was a lot of successes that could have spread large but for these tragic crashes.