Africa’s crash course on safety

It was inevitable that safety became a topic of heated discussions during November’s Annual General Assembly of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) in Cairo. While it is true that cold statistics clearly show the safety record among airlines on the continent to be considerably worse than that in other, more developed regions of the world, airline chiefs insist that this creates an entirely false picture.

Their ire is directed particularly at the European Union (EU) whose blacklist of nearly 100 African airlines has caused consternation and has been detrimental to the air transport industry, and the loss of income incalculable.

The countries with the greatest number on the banned list for flying into the EU – Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone – said AFRAA secretary general Christian Folly-Kossi are “tarnishing the whole of Africa, creating an [undeserved] perception that safety on the whole continent is poor”. Furthermore, said another leader, “most of these airlines are not even owned or managed by Africans, and it is governments that must get a grip on licensing”.

No one disputes that airport and air navigation infrastructure is badly in need of upgrading and that more modern aircraft have to be introduced. But, says Gabriel Gbenga Olowo, executive director at Nigeria’s Bellview Airlines, it is wrong to suggest that ageing aircraft are to blame for the poor safety record.

Not one of the major accident investigations has found any technical fault with the aircraft, he insists, adding that “the real problem is the human factor”. Airlines have inherited pilots and maintenance staff from the largely unregulated early days of a fledgling industry, from the failed Nigeria Airways and Air Afrique and others.

“Old pilots and engineers are complacent and unwilling to adapt to new methods and technology,” he says, “we need to train a younger generation of pilots and engineers, but it will take time.”

In spite of the negative publicity about safety standards in Africa, there are encouraging signs of progress. The more established carriers are engaging in IATA’s six-point Operational Safety Audit (IOSA). Five African airlines have already passed IOSA, three more have been audited, another eight have contracted for an audit, and 11 more are currently in negotiation with one or more audit organisations.
IOSA, says Air Mauritius chairman Sanjay Bhuckory, should be seen as a “certificate of morality”.

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