OPINION: Air Safety: A Tale of the Intangibles

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By Joe Obi

In aviation, safety is everything. Safety is considered the first, the second and the third priority. This explains why even in mundane matters as the construction of terminal buildings, the major consideration is safety. Of course, due care is given to aesthetics, delectable ambience and passenger comfort and satisfaction; yet all these are deliberately woven into the safety triangle. Policies and regulations are also guided by the overriding principle of ensuring safety and security of the airspace, the air passenger, as well as the airport user.

In the decade 2000-2010, especially in the years 2005 and 2006, Nigeria experienced one of her lowest moments in the area of air safety. Aircraft were not only described as flying coffins and literally falling off the skies like leaves in winter, but the Authorities seemed at a loss on what to do to get out of the doomed trajectory. What was more, accident reports that ought to provide the what, the whys and the how’s of that tragic era as valuable lessons to prevent reoccurrence were either hoarded, ‘sexed up’ or highly politicised! And by the time they eventually saw the light of day, they had practically lost all semblance of integrity and legitimacy. The net effect of this was that the sector, and by extension, the nation lived dangerously. But we certainly have come a long way from that deplorable era.

One of the first safety initiatives aviation Minister, Princess Stella Adaeze Oduah undertook on coming on board in July of 2011 was an ‘inquest’ into the reasons why most of the accident reports of the mid 2000’s were not only mired in controversy but never actually released. To cut a rather long and exasperating story short, the Minister caused those reports to be released as they contained very useful safety recommendations. Today, those recommendations are being rigorously implemented and the implementation closely monitored by the Accident Investigation and Prevention Bureau (AIPB). This has gone a long way in boosting the safety of the Nigerian airspace.

But unlike the airport terminals that we all see when we travel through the nation’s airports, safety infrastructure, equipment and facilities constitute the intangible essentials to air safety. They constitute the back-end components of air safety. Back-end in the sense that passengers and airport users, more often than not do not have the opportunity to see them and how they function in the safety chain or architecture. So when one hears a refrain like ‘’they’’ (meaning government) have not done anything to improve or enhance the safety of the Nigerian airspace, you can only tolerate and forgive their innocent ignorance. To be sure, the present government has done a lot; in fact more than all previous administrations put together, in the area of provision of safety infrastructure in the aviation sector.

As a consequence, the Nigerian airspace has never been safer than it is today. Oh yes, I can see you cringing in disbelief, if not outrage, questioning how anyone could make such ‘’outlandish’’ claim with the Dana and Associated airlines’ crash of 2012 and 2013. Tragic, regrettable they are, but if the safety infrastructure deployed between 2011 to date is juxtaposed against what existed pre- 2011, there is no question that the Nigerian airspace is far safer than it has ever been. A quick run-down of the State of Safety Infrastructure pre and post-July 2012 tells the whole story in graphic detail.

At the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMet) for instance, before 2011, there was no single Doppler Weather Radar in the entire nation. Today, we have two installed in Abuja and Port Harcourt, while work is on-going at the Yola and Maiduguri airports. Of course, we all know how crucial Doppler Weather Radars are to the provision of timely and accurate weather information and forecast. Pre-2011, there was also only one Low Level Windshear Alert System in Nigeria (Abuja airport). Today, there are nine (Abuja, Kano, PH, Lagos, Benin, Enugu, Owerri, Yola and Sokoto) airports.

Similarly, before 2011, NiMet had only five Upper Air Weather Monitoring Equipment but there are eight presently. The list goes on, and on, and on. The table speaks for itself and the same goes for the other agencies. Today, as a result of the heavy investment in safety infrastructure, communication between Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers which use to be a serious challenge in the past is now seamless. The Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) optimisation through the commencement of Area Radar, deployment of Airfield Lighting and other Instrument Landing Systems to all major airports, migration to Performance-Based Navigation through the World Geodetic Survey-84 (WGS-84), Multi-lateration, Ground-to-Ground Radio Trunking for all 22 airports, solar power for navigational aids, just to mention a few, are part of the improvements being brought to bear on air safety in Nigeria.

For the AIPB, the newly-acquired and installed Flight Safety Analytical Laboratory, the first of its kind in West Africa and one of a few on the African continent, speaks to the determination of the present administration to transform the safety index in Nigeria forever. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is also not left out. Apart from the review of the Civil Aviation Policy which has now repositioned the sector to properly confront present day realities, the successful deployment of Flight Tracking System, Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS), IOSA Certification, Interlining as well as the institutionalisation of the Consumer Bill of Rights, where none existed in the past, speak volumes of government’s commitment to air safety.

The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) is also contributing its fair share to the enhancement of secure and safer skies in Nigeria. As at 2011 for instance, FAAN had only 20 Fire Tenders. Today, there are 46 in the fleet. Firemen and Women’s kits that were outdated and worn out have been replaced with 450 brand new kits; and while there was no 3-in-1 (Liquids, Metals, and Explosive) detection screening equipment pre-2011, one has already been installed in MMIA, Lagos, while installation is on-going at all the remaining airports. There were also only 7 Serviceable Fire Hydrant Systems pre-2011 but the story is dramatically different today as 7 have been installed while work is in progress at the remaining airports. This is also not talking about the total reconstruction and remodelling (a critical component of aviation safety), of all 22 federally–owned airports across the country!

Perhaps most fundamentally, the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria has been repositioned to become the manpower training and development mill for the sector and for the production of aviation professionals for export. This is critical, as the entire safety infrastructure will be meaningless without the right technical skills to man, manage and maintain them.

Now, no one can behold the massive revolution in the area of procurement, installation and deployment of safety-critical infrastructure as elaborated in the foregoing and still honestly claim that ‘’nothing is being done to improve air safety in Nigeria’’. Figures, they say, don’t lie and the figures are there for all to see that no single administration, since independence has invested more in the area of air safety than the present administration of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

Tragically, much of what makes for aviation safety are back-end intangibles that the ordinary passenger or airport user cannot easily behold. This is made worse by the raucous cacophony of dishonest, selfish and self-seeking critics whose voices are daily struggling to drown the authentic voices that truly reflect the state of the industry in Nigeria.

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