Safety compliance: Another bad year for Africa

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Africa, named for decades by the International Civil Aviation Organisation as the region with the highest aviation accident rate, has had another bad year. Nigeria witnessed two fatal crashes that took place at or close to Nigerian airports and involved locally registered jets. The two accidents killed a total 225 people.

Sudan saw three fatal accidents, all involving old Soviet-built aircraft. The Democratic Republic of the Congo suffered three fatal accidents to local aircraft on its own territory, and a further fatal accident that took place in Uganda to a DR Congo-registered aircraft. The latter event, involving a Service Air Antonov An-12 four-engined turboprop freighter, is a particularly appalling example of what sometimes happens in African aviation. The Ugandan authorities report it was trying to take off 6.5t above its maximum take-off weight, was uninsured, had no maintenance records, and there were no records of crew qualification or training.

Foreign airlines, insurers and lawyers have long had an axe to grind about aircraft that come to grief in some African countries. It is not merely that aircraft are more likely to be damaged at African airports where the runway is frequently poorly drained, unswept and/or well overdue for resurfacing, but that processing valid claims or recovering a damaged hull is made difficult or impossible by obfuscation and red tape. All foreign airlines that operate to Lagos Murtala Muhammad airport, Nigeria, for example, complain volubly about the state of its runways, but they refuse to be quoted because the fare yields from oil industry executives are so good they profit from flying there. But at the International Air Transport Association press briefing in December on its Focus on Africa programme, senior officials admitted that Lagos airport is “an issue” for member carriers. Port Harcourt airport, the biggest oil industry hub, is also “an issue”. Because it has breaches in its boundary fence, an Airbus A330 collided with a herd of cows on the runway in early July last year, causing damage that grounded the aircraft for several days. The airport reaction was to waive Air France’s landing fees, and the Nigerian federal government issued a dictat that all animals on airports should be shot.

When the Nigeria Ministry of Aviation published its final report last year on an accident involving a South African Hydro Air Boeing 747 freighter damaged by landing at Lagos in November 2003, it paints a picture of carelessness that appears to be endemic at all levels. The report says that the Lagos area controller, when first contacted by the aircraft – callsign Hydro Cargo 501 – at a range of 280km (150nm) “absentmindedly passed the airfield information to the aircraft [saying] that the runway in use was 19R”. The flightcrew, having seen a notice to airmen (NOTAM) saying that 19R was out of use because of resurfacing work, requested confirmation. The area controller knew about the work in progress, says the report, which explained that when Hydro 501 queried the runway in use “he became conscious and made the correction that the runway in use was 19L.” The pilot called again: “Ah, you gave us 19R, is 19R available?” The area controller replied: “Negative, correction, it’s 19L. You verify with approach control.” That night, according to the report, the approach and tower tasks were being carried out by a single controller. When area control told Hydro 501 to contact Lagos tower, the first mention of the runway was in the tower’s message: “501 continue the descent to 3,500ft [1.070m], QNH one zero, no delay for ILS approach to one niner right...report passing [flight level] 150”. Hydro replied: “We’ll call you passing 150 for 3,500ft and confirm we, uh, can land runway one niner right?” to which the tower response was “Affirm, cleared for ILS one niner right”.

During the landing on runway 19R, on which there were stacks of asphalt and gashes in the surface, the report says that the aircraft’s left main wing gear was ripped off, the centre main gear was severely damaged, and the aircraft slewed left with its No 1 engine in contact with the surface until the nosewheel came to rest in a drainage ditch. Tower called: “Hydro Cargo 501, your position?” The 747’s flightcrew replied: “You cleared us to land on a runway that was closed.”

The Ministry of Aviation report concluded that the cause of the accident was that the aircraft was cleared to land on a runway that was “supposed” to have been closed. Contributory factors were that the runway was “not properly closed in accordance with standard practice, the runway edge lights-– were all switched on indicating runway serviceability”. Also cited was an incomplete handover briefing between the controllers going off duty and those taking over for the watch during which the Hydro 501 approach took place. The report notes that “the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority did not know of the closure of the runway...nor was it aware of the NOTAM until the accident had occurred”. The aircraft, a total write-off, is still at the airport and the owners are still seeking redress.

In November this year, confirms ICAO, Nigeria is to be one of the first states to face the “expanded” Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP) which will examine the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority’s capability to ensure the air transport industry’s adherence to standards specified in all the Chicago Convention’s annexes. Under the new USOAP rules, when the audit and its follow-up checks have been completed, the entire report will be circulated to ministries of transport in all the 189 contracting states. Until now, only summaries have been sent to other states. During 2005 there has been much talk in the European Parliament about a pan-European airline blacklist. The expanded USOAP could perform the more feasible and useful task of creating a blacklist of nations with unsafe air transport industries.