Two weeks after fatal DANA AIR plane crash, the pains and agonies of the victims’ relatives persist. But the incident has also come as a wake-up call for the industry
The calmness in her voice did not take away her anxiety; rather, it betrays an uneasy calm, forced not just by the demise of her brother in the DANA AIR flight 9J 992 plane crash of June 3, but the inability of the family to receive his body for proper burial two weeks after the accident happened in Iju-Ishaga, Lagos. This, Darlene Dimeji-Shopeju, whose brother, Ike Ochonogor, lost his life in the ill-fated flight, is yet to come to terms with. Also saddening is the case of family members of Jones Ifekanwa, another victim of the crash, who after claiming to have identified his body at the crash site and also at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, now have to wait for four weeks pending the outcome of the DNA result being conducted on the bodies. This is because another family also showed up and laid claim to the same body. Jennifer Enanana, elder sister of the deceased, blamed this on the decomposing state of the body. And for these families and more yet to identify their loved ones in the morgue, the waiting game continues.
Dimeji-Shopeju told the magazine that though the management of DANA AIR has tried to show compassion in the entire situation, its approach is less than satisfactory. She carpeted the DANA AIR team that visited families of the deceased to commiserate with them. “They came here to console us over the incident, but the manner of the visit was insulting. Firstly, they brought a condolence letter that was not properly signed, and then asked that we snap a picture with them as they were presenting the letter. I politely asked them to take their leave because we saw it as an insult since they were going to use the picture as a public relations tool,” Dimeji-Shopeju said, adding that in other places, the DANA AIR officials on visit would have been attacked.
Tony Usidamen, head, corporate communications, DANA AIR, did not respond to calls from the magazine on the issue. However, since the DANA plane crash, the airline has issued several press statements, some signed by Jacky Hathiramani, managing director/chief executive officer, MD/CEO, and others by Usidamen. In one of such statements, the airline management confirmed officials the airline and trained counsellors have been visiting the families to condole them, as well as to provide information on requirements for speedy payment of benefits to their next of kin. “We appreciate that no level of compensation will bring back your much loved one. Nevertheless, we are making arrangements as quickly as possible to compensate every bereaved family in accordance with the law that governs tragedies such as this, and in honour of our duty to you and others,” a letter signed by Hathiramani to the families of the deceased stated, adding that the effort could, however, not make up for the pains being felt, but rather to show that the airline was standing firmly by them in these difficult times.
Currently, compensation is being worked out for victims both on board and displaced residents. The airline’s insurers, a London consortium, as well as a consortium of local underwriters and re-insurers, led by Prestige Assurance, are tidying up the paper work for the payment of compensation to the victims on board the flight and the third party liability claims to victims on the ground and individuals whose properties were destroyed when the plane crashed into their buildings.
“The initial payment that is being offered is $30,000 and immediately they give us the forms and other information, the other processes will commence. The balance of $70,000 will be paid later. The initial $30,000 is just to carry the affected families through the funeral expenses. Some also may have school fees to pay and things like that as the breadwinners could have been victims,” Hathiramani said.
Under the revised Montreal Convention for compensation to families of air crash victims, the carrier is to pay $100,000 for each passenger who lost his or her life. The Montreal Convention, formally the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air, is a treaty adopted by a diplomatic meeting of International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, member states in 1999; Nigeria is a signatory to the Montreal Convention. It amended important provisions of the Warsaw Convention’s regime concerning compensation for the victims of air disasters. The convention re-establishes urgently needed uniformity and predictability of rules relating to the international carriage of passengers, baggage and cargo. The new convention achieves the required modernisation in a number of key areas. It protects passengers by introducing a two-tier liability system and by facilitating the swift recovery of proven damages without the need for lengthy litigation. The previous Chicago/Warsaw Convention liability was fixed at $10,000 per passenger.
However, with this crash comes greater challenge for the airline. Will DANA AIR ever recover from the crash? Will the airline ever take to the sky again? Going by previous experiences, it will be a Herculean task. At the moment, the airline’s insurance premium will become very high. Besides, the airline, which is currently grounded by the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, will have to undergo a more rigorous certification. Also, history shows that domestic airlines involved in crashes have never been able to return to operation. EAS, Bellview, Sosoliso, and ADC, have not been able to fly again till date. The closest that has attempted to fly is Bellview, but it eventually has to change its brand name to First Nation Airline. Still, in Nigeria, public perception and opinion once an airline records a crash becomes indelible and makes people develop a phobia for such airline. First Nation Airline may be currently suffering from this stigma since it came up as an offshoot of Bellview. A pointer to this was that a day after the DANA crash, passengers opted to change their already booked flight to join another airline, which they believed to be safer.
Mohammed Tukur, assistant secretary, Airline Operators of Nigeria, AON, explained that DANA AIR’s return to the sky would be dependent on a number of factors. “If DANA AIR is a member of the International Air Transport Association, IATA, and it is IATA Operational Safety Audit, IOSA, compliant, then their licence cannot be withdrawn or seized, so they can return to the sky,” Tukur explained. He said that ADC and Sosoliso lost their licences because they were not members of IATA and also not IOSA-compliant, whereas, after the Bellview crash, nobody seized its licence but the airline had to go under because of its problems on the Lagos-London route. In Nigeria, Tukur noted, only two airlines, Arik Air and Air Nigeria, meet this requirement.
DANA AIR, notwithstanding the situation, insists that safety is of paramount importance to it, and the age of its Boeing MD83 fleet does not make them unsafe, insisting that there are aircraft of a similar age operating in the fleets of major airlines around the world. The key factor, according to the airline management, is to ensure that aircraft – whatever their age – are correctly maintained at all time. The aircraft involved in the accident, with registration number 5N-RAM, DANA AIR management insist, was maintained correctly and fully in accordance with the manufacturers schedule and directives from the NCAA. 5N-RAM is 22 years old, had flown 60,846 hours and made 35,219 landings before it crashed. DANA management further explains that it has a maintenance agreement with MyTechnic – an aviation maintenance organisation, which performs and supervises all local maintenance tasks, that is, the A-checks and line maintenance at its Lagos base including the daily servicing and release of its aircraft for operations, while its heavy scheduled maintenance checks, that is, C-checks, are done by MyTechnic at its engineering base.
And the spiral effects of the crash are unfolding in quick succession. President Goodluck Jonathan has since set up a nine-man technical and administrative panel that will audit all airlines operating in the country. This comprises John Obakpolor; Austin Omame, Dele Sasegbon, O.B. Aliu, Fidelis Onyeyiri, Mfon Udom, Muktar Usman, Anthony Anuforom and Ibrahim Mshelia. The panel is chaired by Obakpolor, an aeronautic engineer, and a retired group captain, Nigerian Air Force. Interestingly, on the panel is Onyeyiri whose tenure as the NCAA DG witnessed three devastating crashes in 2005 – Bellview, Sosoliso and ADC.
Furthermore, the NCAA has now suddenly begun to charge again. Last Tuesday, the agency suspended Air Nigeria, claiming it was a routine exercise which was also necessitated by the strike action embarked upon for some days by staff of the airline; NCAA insisted that it was necessary to carry out the check on the airline before resuming operations. Sam Adurogboye, media assistant to the NCAA’s DG, said the action was to allow the regulator examine the airline. However, the suspension was lifted barely 24 hours later.
For sanity to return to the aviation industry, stakeholders insist that there is the need for recertification of all airlines operating in the country, especially with the trend that airlines now operate geriatric airplanes, which are closer to the maximum age limit approved in the country. Olumide Ohunayo, an aviation consultant, made a case for newer aircraft in the country’s airspace.
He explained since Nigeria is a signatory to the Cape Town Convention, the country’s airlines and other aviation agencies should take advantage of this to purchase newer aircraft at reasonable interest rate. The Cape Town Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment or Cape Town Treaty is an international treaty intended to standardise transactions involving movable properties. The treaty creates international standards for registration of ownership, including dedicated registration agencies, security interests, liens, leases and conditional sales contracts and various legal remedies for default in financing agreements, including repossession and the effect of particular states’ bankruptcy laws.
Jimoh Ibrahim, chairman, Air Nigeria, lends his voice to having a credible, strong and virile aviation industry. He believes that it should be mandatory for domestic airlines to be members of IATA, so as to be audited by IOSA, and checked by NCAA.
Prior to the crash, efforts made by government and the agencies, especially the NCAA, which led to the award of Category One aviation status on the country in 2010 by the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, were highly commended. Also, Tukur explained that the stability the industry had in the last six years has had a positive impact on insurance premium of the airlines, which he put at 0.1 per cent. Sadly, the DANA plane crash has put a question mark on these strides.
To curb this, Ohunayo wants government to rise to the needs of Nigerian airlines by enforcing economic and commercial regulations. Government, he argued, should implement wholesale the Air Marshal Paul Dike report on the aviation industry, which experts believe, is the only way to rescue the sector.
Mayowa Sodipo, a social commentator and stakeholder in the industry, says calling for the resignation of Harold Demuren, DG, NCAA, at this time was not necessary. “I seriously detest the idea of calling for the resignation of the DG of NCAA by the National Assembly and the subsequent setting up of a nine-man committee headed by Group Captain John Obakpolor to re-evaluate the domestic airlines,” Sodipo said. According to him, it was wrong to pre-judge the country’s civil aviation authority ahead of the report of the investigation of the accident. He recalled that the NCAA had been certified by the audit team of the ICAO, the world aviation governing body, the IOSA audit team, and the FAA auditors, which culminated in the attainment of category one status in 2011. Sodipo warns: “If we ourselves have passed a judgment that portrays our NCAA incapable of oversighting the industry how do we expect aircraft leasing companies to release aircraft to domestic operators on lease, same also goes for international lending institutions because it is an indication that the safety of their resources will not be guaranteed.”
Experts, however, agree that how the situation is handled will determine what becomes of the nation’s local industry in the months and years ahead.