OP-ED: Is Nigerian Domestic Aviation on the Endangered List?

Several aircraft parked at Nigeria's Lagos terminal
Hansueli Krapf, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – Like many other nations, Nigeria has had to counter issues of rising aviation fuel costs and currency devaluation in the post pandemic period.

Typically, the Nigerian airline and aviation industry is dependent upon the US dollar and foreign currency, and the Nigerian Naira hit record lows against the US greenback early this year.

But one of the over-riding concerns in Nigeria is the lack of government oversight and support for the nation’s aviation industry. This could be one of the critical factors which will push its local airline industry to the brink of extinction.

One of its oldest airline operators Aero Contractors announced its decision to suspend passenger flights indefinitely last month, as of July 20. Aero Contractors cited factors of high costs of maintenance, fuel, inflation and forex scarcity resulting in high foreign exchange rates, as the reasons for its decision to cease flight operations.

Those same concerns are clearly being felt by airline operators not only in Nigeria, but across the globe. However, Nigeria faces additional internal problems which are compounding these general issues.

Nigerian government policy failures


At the heart of these difficulties lies the Nigerian government’s policy failures and general lack of support for its aviation industry.

Nigeria has a current outstanding debt to foreign airline operators to the tune of approximately $450 million, however the government has an effective stranglehold on these funds, which have been held in Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

Internationally, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) had expressed its concern over the the Federal Government of Nigeria’s inaction which has prevented foreign airlines from recouping these ticket sales revenues.

As a result, international carriers are cutting services into Nigeria, which in turn is pushing the country’s airline sector into dangerous territory.

Nigeria’s air operators at the same time are being forced to either increase ticket prices and/or remove low cost fares from the market. And all without strong support from their government.

The added danger of poor operating cultures


Another factor which weighs into this mix is an underlying problem of less than ideal safety and operational cultures with some Nigerian air operators.

The concern here is – when an operator is under pressure with factors like rising costs or fuel and maintenance, and dwindling passenger numbers due to increased fares, unscrupulous operators will be tempted to cut corners with safety and maintenance. This becomes a dangerous recipe, and effectively opens up the possibility of serious accidents.

Dana Air

On July 20, at the same time as Aero Contractors – the oldest and generally safest airline – were announcing the indefinite suspension of flights, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) suspended one of the country’s unsafe operators.

Dana Air’s operating licence was suspended indefinitely over the airline’s inability to conduct safe flights as well as concerns with its financial operations. This is actually the third time that the NCAA have suspended Dana Air, who have an abysmal accident and safety record.

Photo: A Dana Air MD-83 Photo Credit: Kenneth Iwelumo via Wikimedia Commons

The deadliest air crash in Nigeria’s history is attributed to Dana Air, when on June 3 2012, their McDonnell Douglas MD83 from Abuja en route Lagos crashed in the Iju area, just three minutes to the Lagos Airport.

All 153 passengers and 6 crew died as a result, as well as a number of fatalities on ground. The aircraft had suffered a double engine failure. 

A string of incidents has been recorded by Dana Air since then, including runways excursions, a runway overrun, loss of nosewheel steering, tyre fire forcing aborted takeoff, a mid-air engine shutdown and engine failure.

Air Peace

AviationSource recently reported a birdstrike incident by regional carrier Air Peace, which saw its aircraft forced to make an unscheduled return to the departure airport after landing gear was compromised by the impact.

Whilst birdstrikes are generally unavoidable by commercial aircraft, and are not the fault of the operator, what is concerning with Air Peace is the demonstrated culture of the airline with respect to safety management and maintenance.

In 2019, the Accident Investigation Bureau (Nigeria) accused Air Peace of persistent failures to report serious incidents and accidents involving its aircraft.

Some of the issues raised by the AIB included the airline’s failure to report incidents that resulted in structural damage and also the deliberate erasure of Cockpit Voice Recorders prior to reporting incidents.

Photo: Air Peace B737 Photo Credit: Anna Zvereva via Wikimedia Commons

Reports have surfaced of Air Peace failing to report aircraft damage in tailstrike incidents

Air Peace management was criticised for “wilfully failing to comply” with the AIB’s regulations, and it was further damningly stated that the management “lacks the full understanding of the statutory mandates”

This finding by the Accident Investigation Bureau seems totally at odds with the recent article in local Nigerian tabloid The Sun which gushes with praise for Air Peace boss Allan Onyeama, saying:

“Since he joined the aviation sector nearly a decade ago, Onyeama has always aimed for the best. Leveraging on his intelligence in the business, the Anambra State-born Onyeama has revolutionised air travel and reinvigorated the Nigerian aviation industry.”

Personally, this left me pondering just how exactly Mr Onyeama has “revolutionised air travel”!

An endemic problem with Nigerian safety culture?

In 2020 the NCAA was forced to issue a blanket statement to all Nigerian air operators after several investigations, warning against overwriting or erasing cockpit voice recordings, after several of its investigations were hampered as a result of the practice.

This warning followed a runway excursion incident during a landing in maximum crosswind conditions by an Air Contractors Boeing B737-500. The NCAA found that the aircraft’s Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) had been overwritten.

Overwritten CVR’s were also found in two Air Peace 737-300 investigations, and a Med-View Airlines 737-500 incident.

Summary


Nigeria is presently facing a crisis with its domestic air operations. Whilst it is up against some common problems dogging airlines generally in the post-pandemic re-opening – rising fuel costs and currency volatility – these pressures have exposed some key underlying problems.

Problems with government oversight and poor policy are seriously undermining the struggling local airline industry.

Additionally, the problem of poor safety and operational culture further rises as a dangerous spectre when air operators are under pressure, and the temptation to cut corners is great.

About the author

Len Varley

A former Chief Pilot/Chief Flying Instructor, Len has 35 years experience in diverse aviation roles. Speaks fluent Australian & English! Len is the Assistant Editor for AviationSource.

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