Experts accuse DANA AIR of wilful negligence and sharp practices over its recent plane crash, and that the mishap also raises fundamental questions on the state of regulatory agencies, the airlines and the industry at large
After seeming relief from air mishaps in the country, another disaster struck in the nation’s aviation industry on Sunday, June 3. And in its wake, 153 passengers and crew members of DANA AIR Flight 9J 992, operated with a McDonnell Douglas, MD, 83, aircraft with registration number 5N-RAM lost their lives, including unidentified number of people on ground where the aircraft crashed into residential buildings in Iju Ishaga, a Lagos suburb, barely three minutes to landing.
Nigerians were quick to lay the blame of the air mishap at the doorsteps of DANA AIR. The feeling in many quarters, indeed, is that the plane crash was avoidable if the airline had kept to the rules of safe aviation. Sources at the airline told the magazine that since the aircraft was acquired in 2008, it had never been in good condition, requiring regular repairs locally and internationally. In fact, it was said to be a disaster waiting to happen. For instance, it was said that for every two days the aircraft spent in the sky, it had to go back for repairs where it spent a minimum of three days. “These are facts, not lies; the records are there except they want to misinform the public,” said the source.
An aircraft engineer with a regulatory agency recalled that sometime in October 2009, the ill-fated plane had a malfunctioning air conditioning system and had to be grounded for two days by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA. At some point, some pilots were said to have refused to fly another aircraft, MD 83 registered as the 5N-JAI, in the fleet of DANA AIR, because it was also in a bad state after it was brought back from Spain where it was taken for repair.
Although several aviation experts, including pilots and aeronautical engineers spoken to, agreed that the age of an aircraft does not count so much in aviation circles so long as it is well maintained, DANA AIR is said to have a reputation for not servicing and maintaining its aircraft adequately. This brings to mind the accusation of Nsikak Eduok, a former aviation minister, who in 1995 took a swipe at the country’s domestic carriers, accusing them of operating “flying coffins” as aircraft. “Since the aircraft was not meant to have flown in the first place, it has a maintenance problem. DANA AIR is more into making profit than safe flying; they have not taken safety into consideration. The aircraft was not fit to fly – period! The aircraft has been jinxed from day one because the original owners, Air Alaska, had series of problems with that aircraft. The aircraft has not successfully operated one week without going in for maintenance, and it is not the regular online maintenance. DANA AIR is also in the habit of not doing maintenance properly because they like cutting corners,” said the same source.
Yet, there is said to be an anomaly in the process of training personnel of the airline; one of this is the periodic training of pilots. The source recalls that several times, Clifford Wardally, the airline’s chief pilot, took pilots to Miami, United States, US, for training, even though this does not fall within his purview since he is not a trained instructor, thereby breaching the acceptable standard in the industry. Each time Wardally returned from such training trips, he was said to have given papers to Oscar Wason, director of operations, DANA AIR, to sign as if he was the one that took the pilots for the training.
DANA AIR is also said to be notorious for maltreating its staff. The structure of the airline is said not to give room for professionalism and the growth of the airline. Staff morale is reportedly very low owing to the high-handedness of the Indian owners. Less experienced pilots or other critical personnel are allegedly brought in as expatriates ahead of more experienced Nigerians, and this has led to the exodus of some of their best indigenous hands. For instance, a certain Nigerian pilot with the airline was said to have failed simulator training, whereas he never did any simulator test. According to a pilot, who preferred anonymity, the pilot and co-pilot of the ill-fated flight may have done their best to avoid the accident, but said if they had more knowledge of the Nigerian airspace, perhaps they would have avoided the crash.
Peter Waxtan, the 55-year-old American pilot of the flight, joined the services of DANA AIR on March 26, 2012, and was on his last flight schedule in the country as he planned to travel that night to his home country, US. A source said that though Waxtan may have been flying for over 20 years, his lack of adequate knowledge of the Nigerian airspace made him not to know the best option for him to take. “I heard he (Waxtan) declared an emergency and was hovering seven miles away from the airport; he had no business doing this. He should have landed the plane on the street and probably saved some of the 153 people that died. Or he should have used Ibadan Airport, or used the premises of Grail Land, Iju. DANA should be thoroughly investigated for its negligence and what I term as manslaughter of Nigerians,” the pilot said. Other top Nigerian pilots agreed that for the aircraft to have crashed with barely three minutes to landing, it means that the problem must have started at or around Ibadan. Therefore, the Ibadan Airport should have been the alternative for the pilot to land and he should not have stretched his luck further.
Given all these allegations, experts are wondering why the owners of DANA AIR are in the aviation business, knowing that it is a highly regulated industry. The belief is that the Indian owners of the airline are mainly using it for human and capital flight. They are said to employ mainly expatriates, thus creating employment for foreigners and also remit their wages to their foreign accounts. “It is a clean way of doing money laundering,” said an insider with the airline.
DANA AIR’s business plan has also come under scrutiny, further fuelling the speculation of money laundering. The airline, which started business in 2008 with two MD 83 aircraft between 17.6 and 17.7 years respectively, soon increased the number of aircraft in its fleet to four by 2011, using aircraft of 20.9 years average. This is said to connote that it has no plans of staying in the business for long, knowing that once the aircraft clocked 22 years, they would not be allowed to fly in the country’s airspace again. Another pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity, likened the use of MD 83 aircraft by DANA AIR to a new car leasing firm using Peugeot 404 in 2012 for its business.
But, the question agitating the minds of stakeholders in this unfolding drama is the role of the regulatory agencies, especially, the NCAA, which is responsible for certification of airlines in the country. Shortly after the certification of the country as a Category One nation, the NCAA announced that all airlines in the country would have to go through a recertification exercise in line with the new status of the country, using the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, standard. Except for Arik Air, which was audited by the FAA and rightly got recertified by NCAA, nearly two years on, no airline seems to have been audited using the new standard. Arik Air spent over $10 million preparing itself for the Category One certification.
Experts, therefore, believe that the regulators are also culpable with regards to the DANA plane crash. Who did the verification on the aircraft, even at the point of purchase before it was brought into the country? Were the documents falsified to say the aircraft was in tip-top conditon or did somebody just sign off to say the aircraft was okay? While no official answer could be obtained from the NCAA on these salient questions, some close sources in the agency agreed that the safety standard of DANA AIR has been a source of concern for sometime. A staff of the airline told the magazine that “the management is always boasting that forget NCAA, we know how to settle them.” If this is true, then, the sector may be returning to its old ways. Already, the Senate committee has advised Harold Demuren, director-general, DG, NCAA, to step aside pending the outcome of investigation of the crash. Eduok, in 1996, disclosed that domestic carriers bribe aircraft inspection officials to give their aircraft Certificate of Airworthiness when they knew that their planes were not airworthy.
Worrisome also is the problem of accident investigation report being held in secrecy. If the past experiences of air crash investigations in the country are anything to go by, then the families and friends of the victims of the crash may have to wait for eternity to get the actual cause of what was responsible for the untimely departure of their loved ones. This is because previous accidents involving other domestic airlines have not yet been released. John Obakpolor, a retired Air Force officer and now head of the investigation panel of Flight 9J 992 set up by government, disclosed in 1996 that he had not set his eyes on any accident report within the nation’s airspace in the 10 years preceding 1996.
Olumide Ohunayo, an aviation consultant, says pointing accusing fingers at the NCAA at this point will not be appropriate. According to him, the Accident Investigation Bureau, AIB, as the agency charged with the responsibility of looking into air mishaps in the country, has not shown enough guts to indict NCAA when it errs, as is the norm in other climes. AIB, Ohunayo says, has failed to make accident reports public. “This organisation’s (AIB) interim report takes years while the final reports hardly get published. We only get snippets from foreign websites. If they don’t release reports quickly, how do we learn and prevent a reoccurrence? Let AIB put an official seal on all these talks about the airline, then we can chop off the head of NCAA,” Ohunayo argued.
The latest plane crash has further drawn attention to the state of domestic carriers. With a crushing interest rate of about 26 per cent, domestic carriers have remained financially incapacitated to deliver quality service using state-of-the-art equipment. This is in spite of the Cape Town convention, which liberalised the purchase of new or relatively new aircraft. In other countries, airlines have access to single digit interest rates and that accounts for why they are able to place orders, even on long-term basis, for aircraft. And to remain in business, domestic carriers in the country opt for very old aircraft. Another pilot with vast experience of over 35 years told the magazine that because government set the maximum age of aircraft in the country at 22 years is not a reason for our airlines to buy aircraft of 17 years. “This is being penny wise and pound foolish, because the older the plane, the more expensive the cost of maintenance,” the pilot revealed. The federal government, under the Ibrahim Babangida administration, provided a platform for domestic airlines to purchase foreign exchange at a lower rate in a bid to assist them, but sadly, the privilege was abused by the same operators.
The pilot attributed the accident-free years the country experienced before the latest plane crash to luck, because the quality of personnel in the industry has declined, while the personnel required in some critical areas are in short supply. He disclosed that the influx of expatriate pilots into the country has its own demerits since no country would allow its best hands to go abroad in search of employment as there are ready jobs for them in their home countries. And for all the ills of the industry, many blame the liquidation of the defunct national carrier for the crisis in the industry. Were Nigeria Airways alive, our source contended, there would have been a benchmark for other airlines interested in coming to the country.
Many Nigerians are convinced that DANA AIR will never be the same again, at least, going by past experiences of airlines involved in plane crash. Aviation Development Company, ADC, Bellview, Sosoliso, EAS, and others never made it back to business after recording plane crash. This is because the compensation to be paid are always enormous, insurance premium gets very high and, importantly, the public perception changes and the flying public usually does not want to go near such airlines anymore.
While the country awaits the report of the panel and the AIB, if it will ever be made public, aviation stakeholders expect the federal government to crack down on the management of DANA AIR as a deterrent to others. It is also expected that the federal government will truly transform the aviation sector to spare Nigerians the sordid tales of air mishaps.