Aviation minister as symbol of a troubled sector

But the fallouts of the recent crash in Lagos involving an aircraft operated by Associated Airlines could have serious repercussions for the industry. The flight was conveying the corpse of a former Ondo State governor, Dr Segun Agagu, and some friends and relations, for a scheduled interment in Akure.  The Minister of Aviation, Mrs Stella Oduah, reacting to critical comments to the government’s alleged poor handling of the sector, was quoted to fired back that air-accidents were “acts of God” and therefore ‘inevitable’. Particularly disturbing is the fact that she made the remark when accident investigations had not even begun, let alone been reached a finding. It was an unfortunate turn of phrase because implicit in it is the assumption there is nothing to learn from properly investigating causes of air accidents in the country. Mrs Odua’s ill-thought response was further highlighted by the release of tapes from the accident, indicating that human error was to blame for the crash. Preliminary reports from transcripts of the tapes showed that the co-pilot had suggested to the Captain the takeoff be aborted; he declined. Even the air traffic control realized something was wrong and asked the captain to confirm that everything was ok. Seconds later the flight crashed. That is not an act of God.  The minister may be handicapped by poor communication skills, but this should not detract from the weight and consequences of her pronouncements.
The Senate’s call for Mrs Odua’s resignation or sack may appear appropriate in the circumstances, but it ignores the big picture, because it was instrumental to clearing her ministerial nomination for the specialist and sensitive aviation sector, when her training is in accountancy. More important than the unhelpful politics over Nigeria’s air safety is the opinion of experts.  In 2010, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave Nigeria an Aviation Safety Assessment (ASA) certification known as Category 1 Status, which required Nigeria to comply with international air safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
The ICAO focuses its oversight on the regulators rather than individual airlines. The federal government has consistently neglected to publish the formal record of crashes between 2005 and 2006.  Documents on three deadly crashes obtained by the wire service Associated Press appeared to show that most airlines in Nigeria have not lived up to the Category 1 standards expected of airline operators. The problem therefore is one of poor regulation.  U.S. aviation safety officials now say that although air travel in Nigeria is much safer, graft and incompetence in government have led to woeful accident record.
Apparently, the reports blamed the accidents on “pilot error” and “inadequate operating manuals” rather than “acts of God”. A 2009 study done for the World Bank concluded that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) spent more than 90 per cent of its budget on salaries, and could not fully fund training or equipment needs. Furthermore, it claimed that the NCAA was still struggling to enforce quality safety and security standards on airlines operating in Nigeria’s airspace. Although the country has full radar coverage, some reports suggest that the screens often go blank due to poor power supply.  
Other reports have also indicated that operating standards are falling because domestic carriers face increasing pressure from rising operating costs, especially fuel. All major maintenance must be done overseas as Nigeria does not have the capability to do it locally.
Regulations must be tightened and oversight functions of operating airlines enhanced to improve air safety and sustain confidence in air travel in the country.
 Politics and flippant comments such as the one attributed to Mrs Oduah should not have a place in how the aviation sector in supervised.


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