Safety in air transportation is largely dependent on effective regulation, surveillance, training and manpower development. Chinedu Eze highlights some of measures put in place by the NCAA to improve safety in the aviation industry
Recently when the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), sanctioned some airlines for violation of safety regulations, the airlines were angry that the fines given to them were made public. However, the action made Nigerians who over the years had accused NCAA of complacency and compromise to become convinced that the regulatory authority is really checking the excesses of the airlines.
Last year, there was a report that pilots and cabin crew personnel of some airlines were suspended by NCAA, after the agency found out that their conduct infringed the rules- from taking alcohol few hours to flight time to the discovery of marijuana substances in their blood during test. Their licenses were suspended for a given time. Although industry sources said such drastic measures ought to be a continuum but there was a time "NCAA was lax and complacent, but now they have upped their game."
This week, the agency also penalised First Nation Airways and fined one of its pilots the sum of N33.5 million for violation of safety regulations. The agency explained that the pilot failed to present his medical report to its officials, who were on ramp inspection and there was no indication that the pilot had current medical certificate when he was to operate a flight as the Pilot in Command (PIC).
The authority said it ordered the airline to pay N32, 000, 000 and the pilot N1, 500, 000, totaling N33.5 million. Although First Nation Airways filed an appeal against the sanctions in accordance with the requirements of Nig. CARs 1.10, but the matter indicated the new approach in NCAA.
Last week the regulatory authority reviewed its activities last year and the plans it has in this current year, 2017, disclosing that the New Year would be approached by four-point agenda.
The Director General of NCAA, Captain Muhtar Usman described last year as a successful year with a mixed bag of fortunes for the industry, stressing however, that 2016 was another zero accident year in the commercial air transport category and it was the year the recorded the least incidents in the last three years.
During this period, air travel still recorded ticket sales worth N330, 548, 324, 796.84 from January to October 2016, a little less than N385, 909, 897, 028. 80 sold between January and December in 2015.
It was however projected that the total number of ticket sales last year surpassed that of the previous year due to high December season not yet reflected in the records.
Also, between January and September 2016, airlines airlifted about11, 344, 936 passengers.
This was slightly lower than the passenger movement in 2015, which was 11, 402, 899, during the same period.
However, passenger movement figures in 2015 and 2016 were lower than the pre-recession era when the total inbound and outbound passenger movement rose to 15 million in 2014.
Usman explained that in 2015, domestic flights airlifted 8, 130, 568 with 202, 352 flights in the given period, while foreign airlift was 3, 272, 331 with 31, 493 flights and the total number of flights for that year was 233, 845.
In 2016 domestic flights airlifted 8, 090, 816 passengers with 130, 745 number of flights, while passengers on international air travel was 3, 272, 331 with 33, 099 number of flights and the total number of flights was 163, 844.
Usman said what was remarkable was that in the past three years Nigeria has recorded zero accident and there has not been any major incident, with 2016 identified as the best year in the area of safety records.
He said there was similar volume of passengers in 2015 and 2016, while the later recorded less number of flights, adding that it is expected that there should be continuous increase in passenger volume every year.
Usman said that one of the challenges facing the aviation industry is the current economic situation, which has eroded the personal income of many Nigerians. The poor economic situation in the country has reduced the passenger traffic at a time the airlines need more money in naira value to exchange for dollars. The recession led to the significant reduction of Nigeria's currency and jerked up the prices of everything that is imported.
Another challenge is the paucity of foreign exchange, which the Director General said has made it difficult to source dollars and pay for aircraft spares, maintenance and training.
Foreign airlines find it difficult to repatriate their funds. Although Nigeria is not the only country affected by this; in fact, the Director General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Alexander de Juniac, told THISDAY last December in Geneva that the worst hit were Venezuela and Angola but foreign airlines operating in Nigeria are still finding it difficult to repatriate their revenue but they have been working with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and NCAA and substantial sum of the funds have been taken out.
But another huge challenge the airlines in Nigeria is contending with is the scarcity of aviation fuel. This has led to outrageously high fares, flight delays and cancellations and it has also eroded the operations of domestic carriers and threatening their existence. But the Director General of NCAA on Monday told THISDAY that government in collaboration with the regulatory authority is seriously seeking for solution of that intractable problem and very soon the problem of aviation scarcity would be over. The high point of the negative effect of the scarcity was in December last year when it combined with Harmattan haze to adversely disrupt flight operations. Many flights were cancelled, climaxing on December 27, 2016 when less than one percent of scheduled flights operated, leaving passengers stranded and frustrated during the Yuletide season.
As a regulatory authority, NCAA besides ensuring safety and security of air transport in Nigeria liaises with other countries and international aviation organisations on behalf of Nigeria; so these organisations review its activities from time to time to determine the safety standard of the country's aviation industry.
Captain Usman said NCAA passed the US Transport Security Administration (TSA) during the evaluation period and the Director General was elected Chairman of Banjul Accord Group Aviation Safety Oversight Organisation (BAGASOO) and during the period also, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) certified four Nigerians as security auditors, which means that they now can audit the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of other countries on security.
"This is unprecedented in any CAA in the world because officials from our authority will now join hands with other top ICAO personnel to audit other countries," Usman said.
In 2012 Ministers of Transport in African nations met in Abuja to say that in the next five years every airline operating in the continent must be IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certified. With that declaration NCAA and IATA went to work and by this January majority of Nigerian airlines on schedule commercial service have been certified.
In addition, NCAA has commenced the aerodrome certification of Lagos and Abuja airports in order to meet ICAO standard. The phase three of the certification programme has been completed and recently ICAO team came and inspected the airports.
The agency has also certified air navigation service providers; that is, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) in addition, NCAA has audited aerodromes and heliports in the country. It has also automated the obtaining of personnel licenses, an effort that attracted commendation from the National Assembly, adding that there has not been any open item during the auditing of the Directorate of Licensing by international organisations.
Nigeria scored over 90 percent in ICAO security audit and was successful in the ICAO Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP).
During the review period NCAA received 7, 281 complaints from passengers on foreign airlines in 2015; 4,343 were processed and resolved. In 2016, the authority got a total of 2, 236 complaints and 1, 792 were resolved.
In 2015 also there were 47 complaints from domestic airlines and 33 were resolved. In 2016, 71 complaints were recorded and 51 were resolved. But in 2016, NCAA noticed sharp decline in the number of complaints from foreign airlines.
Despite these achievements the Director General noted that highest point of flight disruption, as stated earlier, was occasioned by paucity of aviation fuel and harmattan haze. He said that the lingering non-availability of aviation and weather related issues grievously hampered flight services and "led to increase in delays and cancellations. This also led to increase in complaints from domestic passengers."
To ensure safety of flights in Nigeria's airspace, NCAA issued guidelines to owners and users of remotely piloted aircraft and drones in order to prevent possible collision with aircraft. The authority attained level three in the state safety programme implementation process and Nigeria is now at the same level with US, UK and major countries of the world in safety rating.
Plans for 2017
Compared to other CAAs in Africa, NCAA has gone ahead in many ways that ICAO had advised some African countries to understudy Nigeria's regulatory body, but to maintain the good standard it has achieved so far, NCAA continues to pursue improved safety regulation as it is said that safety is a process; it is not an end in itself, so it is a continuum.
In the New Year NCAA said it wants to continue with robust regulations, proficient safety oversight, increased surveillance on all certificate holders and daily ramp inspection. It also wants to continue with en-route inspections, improve the regularity of base inspections, line station inspection and spot check inspection on maintenance facilities. The aim of this is to ensure that airlines are kept on their toes, to ensure that they abide by the rules.
Training and Personnel
Captain Usman said all staff of NCAA was trained in 2016 in line with ICAO Standard and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and these include local and foreign training, and the authority in response to the prevailing cash crunch in the country innovatively domesticated some foreign mandatory training. The agency spent hugely on training last year, but Usman said the agency has world-class professionals in sufficient number, which is a major ICAO requirement.
"The aviation industry is replete with astute professionals. We have active licensed pilots of up to 2, 226; 1, 532 active licensed aircraft maintenance engineers, 543 active licensed flight dispatchers and 313 active licensed air traffic controllers. There are also 1,888 active licensed cabin crew, 254 air traffic safety electronic personnel and 100 aeronautical station operators personnel," Usman said.
The Director General said Nigeria's air transport industry retained its attractiveness as the sector recorded increase in Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA). Nigeria has BASA with 88 countries before but this was increased to 90 countries in December 2016. The additional countries include Seychelles and Bahamas and the countries that requested for additional frequencies include UAE, Netherlands, Turkey, Brazil, Qatar and Cote d'Ivoire.
Usman said there are several new applicants for air operators certificate (AOC) and up to 18 firms had applied on which their AOC certification process is on going, while nine were still at the level of intent.
NCAA said it wants to sustain zero accident in 2017, increase safety oversight and have wider and more regular surveillance, stringent enforcement and application of appropriate sanctions on erring airlines. This year NCAA will review and strengthen economic regulation and sight airlines operational books more regularly. It would also improve consumer protection and increase the motivation of officers in that Directorate with plan to have faster process and resolution of cases.
NCAA in 2017 has geared up to reinvigorate the aviation industry and is poised to give the country a more efficient air transport sector.