Monday 14 January 2013

Opinion Ed: Joint National Assembly Report on Dana Plane Crash & Sundry Issues, Facts and Fallacies

Aviation Nigeria

As a matter of background, it is noteworthy that after successive air disasters between 2005 and 2006, Nigeria embarked on an aviation sector reform agenda.

Starting then in 2006, and until now, a tremendous amount of resources, hard work, labour and efforts have been committed to improving the sector.  While our current transformation agenda has closed many of the existing gaps, the sum total of all these years of tedious toiling is that, Nigeria’s aviation safety is record is now recognized and respected.

There is no better evidence of this than the unanimous outpouring of international endorsement of our efforts and encouragement after the unfortunate crash of Dana Airlines on 3rd June 2012.  Currently, Nigeria and this current administration have proudly attained the highest available standards in aviation.

We are currently not on the EU Blacklist, posses the ICAO Universal Safety Audit certification, and U.S. FAA Category-1 certification.   Even after the crash, our current reputation is enviable and exemplary in Africa.  Recently, ICAO sought Nigeria’s assistance with the possibility of sharing its experience in promoting safety with several other African countries.Aviation, by its nature is international.

Applicable standards and assessments are the same and centralized in internationally respected organizations such as ICAO.  In addition to this, this current administration has developed a strategic international partnership and investment focus.  As such, the Federal Ministry of Aviation has committed significant resources and time to presenting opportunities in our industry internationally and cultivating the serious interests that we are receiving.

The support of the Joint Committee on Aviation of both chambers in this aspiration and ensuring that, Nigeria is sending one clear, singular and positive message is critical and cannot be overemphasized.  The opposite is unthinkable and unimaginable.  It will at best, stagnate, but more realistically, diminish the industry and Nigeria.

Repeated published conclusions that the regulatory agencies and their officials are negligent or incompetent will carry an unintended consequence, which is not the objective of the Joint Committee.

It will undermine our national resolve and ability to accomplish the objectives we have set as a nation.  Further, it calls to question the judgment of professional, specialised and expert organizations such as ICAO, EU and U.S. FAA who have critically, analytically and professionally evaluated our sector and granted the certifications that we now enjoy.

It affects the credibility they have painstakingly developed and acquired when their assessment is that our agencies are competent and staffed by sufficiently skilled personnel, while our own elected leaders, come to a different conclusion.  This development send a very wrong signal internationally, as well as create fear and tension in the country.

I now wish to address specific Findings and Recommendations:

The Committee found that the NCAA did not comply with its own procedure for issuance of Airlines Operator Certificate to Dana Airlines.  With the greatest humility and respect to the distinguished Senators and Honourable Members, these types of considerations may be construed as political interference in safety regulations which the Senate President and Joint Committee at the beginning of it’s sitting and public hearing explicitly stated that it had no intention to do.

With due respect to the powers of the national Assembly to conduct oversight, a strict and intolerant construction of this exercise is certain to compromise our certifications and violate our international obligations.

The AOC process is perhaps the most intense, technical and comprehensive safety process the NCAA engages in.  It is a 5 phase process.  It includes flying the aircraft in demonstration flights for 50 hours without passengers in the 4th phase.

The only people on the aircraft are the crew and NCAA Safety Inspectors.  It also involves analysis of technical and other operational manuals and processes of the airline including number of crew and their qualifications and evidence of the plan or program for carrying out both light and heavy repairs on the aircraft of the airline.

The process is exactly the same for every airline.  The same process that certified Arik, is the one Dana went through.  After the crash, Dana has undergone the rigorous AOC re-certification.

The Report claims that, most NCAA inspectors are not licensed or type   rated on aircrafts.  It also recommends that the inspector who inspected and cleared the Dana Airlines aircraft that crash should be dismissed.

ICAO requirement for Aviation Safety Inspectors in CAAs is that they must posses aeronautical engineering degrees and completely aircraft manufacturer’s course on the various types of aircraft and engine operating in the country.

The NCAA fully complies with this.  These are key issues that were inspected and examined in Nigeria passing the ICAO Safety Audit and U.S. FAA Category-1.  Even persons who were previously maintenance engineers cease to be when they start working for the CAA.

The CAA’s role is safety oversight, not aircraft repair.  As a matter of fact, all CAA inspectors are prohibited from carrying out repair on aircraft or aircraft components.   Among NCAA safety inspectors include pilots type rated who flew MD-83.

Regulators are never type rated to do their work. They are type qualified after appropriate training.  NCAA has sufficient type qualified inspectors.   They are neither operational pilots flying commercially nor aircraft mechanics carrying out repairs on aircraft.

Most importantly, the practice of using Licensed Maintenance Engineers is archaic and only now limited to small and private aircraft.  The worldwide practice is to ensure that aircraft are maintained by Approved Maintenance Organizations (AMO).

For instance, Arik’s current and modern fleet is maintained by AMOs, specifically Lufthansa Technics.  Arik does not have specific employees who are licensed Maintenance Engineers type rated on Boeing 737-800.  This sometimes technical, but subtle industry nuances is the reason why there are centralized and globally accepted standards and organizations for making such critical assessments.

They are trained and experienced professionals and expert organizations who are trained Safety Auditors.  NCAA inspectors are sufficiently trained and their training empowers them to perform safety oversight.

It’s like saying a trained and qualified aeronautical engineer or airframe engineer is unqualified to speak about aircraft engine or airframe technology because he is not type rated on a particular aircraft, but the aircraft mechanic who is only trained to repair components of the engine of one type of aircraft is authoritative.

Its like saying an automobile engineer is less qualified to conduct oversight than a mechanic on a type of car or that an electrician who just wires and installs is more qualified to discuss design and compliance than an electrical engineer or that a bricklayer is better qualified on matters of structure and plan than a structural engineer or that a draughtsman who only draws plans is more appropriate than an architect on the building integrity.

Would an automobile engineer be unable to determine the efficiency or performance of an engine, because he is not certified to repair Volkswagen cars?

The Report does not fully capture and characterize the import of the law when it notes that the Director General of the NCAA is unqualified under the Civil Aviation Act, because he is not licensed or type-rated on any aircraft.

What the law requires in the section 8(2)(d) of the Civil Aviation Act, 2006 quoted is that the Director General shall be a person “who posses relevant and adequate professional qualifications, and have the qualification for at least 15 years”.

There is no provision in the law that requires the Director-General to be licensed or type-rated on any aircraft. However, and for the comfort of the distinguished and honourable members of the Committee, the current Director General is both a design, and maintenance engineer.

He is type rated on Russian aircraft, Ilushin 62, with NK-8 engines.  He has undergraduate, graduate (M.SC, Aircraft Maintenance Engineering) and doctoral degrees in aeronautical engineering (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).  In addition, he possesses professional qualifications, including senior membership of the Council of Registered Engineers (COREN) and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He is a Chartered Engineer of the United Kingdom and a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Aeronautical Society, which incorporates aeronautical engineers, helicopter association and licensed aircraft engineers.   He is also a Fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Engineering.

In addition, he holds several certificates for aircraft maintenance, airworthiness and training on a variety of engines including by Roll Royce, Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and U.K Civil Aviation Authority during a distinguished exclusive aviation safety career that has spanned over 40 years.

The Report states that Prestige, the insurance company is also owned by the Dana Group.  To the best of NCAA’s knowledge and based on our due diligence, Prestige is a legitimate insurance company.  It is an insurance company registered in Nigeria by the Corporate Affairs Commission and approved by NAICOM.  Prior to NCAA accepting the coverage to Dana as acceptable, NAICOM approved the product and for Prestige to provide it to Dana.

In addition, and for the further comfort of the Committee, there is evidence that both interim and final compensation to families of the Dana crash is in progress.  Some have not been paid because of the legal and tedious process of obtaining and verifying the appropriate personal representatives of the deceased through Letters of Administrations.

The NCAA has been providing active support in this regard and continues to interface with the relevant government authorities to expedite the issuance and verification of these vital legal documents.  Further, there was additional insurance by Lloyds of London, abundance of evidence of which exists.

The NCAA, NAICOM or DANA could have provided this evidence to the Committee if the Committee required it.  This evidence include evidence of consultations between the insurance companies and adoption of a resolution to pay the maximum liability limit of $100, 000 and evidence of payments to victims’ families.

The Report alleges that AIB and FAAN are ill equipped.  These technical determinations are also made by expert organizations that are created and trained for that purpose and posses the experience to make such assessments. There are professional organizations such as the Airport Council International (ACI) that are used worldwide for such assessments.

NCAA usually engages and liaises with these institutions for such assessments and would be happy to coordinate between the Committee and such organization to secure an assessment that is based on the globally accepted parameters.

As regulator, the NCAA is very familiar with the capacity of aviation agencies and believes there is always room for improvement, but, at the same time, they are not necessarily ill-equipped.

The Report notes that Dana Airlines had 14 air returns in almost 3 years.  Without context, this statement  could be misleading or incomplete.  Air returns are not necessarily an indication that the aircraft is not airworthy.

On the contrary, air returns are more likely to be a result of very strict safety standards that require an abundance of caution, including in situations that don’t rise to the serious failures that could fatally jeopardize the operation of flight.

It is a standard recommended safety precautionary measure.  After every single air return, NCAA Airworthiness Safety Inspectors physically clear the aircraft, before it is released back to operation.

The Report states that the MD-83 Aircraft has been phased out by the manufacturer.  The functional analogy of this is that since Toyota has started manufacturing the 2013 model of the Camry, then the 2012 model which is no longer being manufactured is phased out.

As an industry practice, aircraft manufacturers understand the business and expected lifespan of their equipment.  They always provide support for all equipment for the entire life of the equipment.  Boeing 737s started from the 200 series, and are now at the 800 series.

This lifespan has been over decades, yet the 200 series of 4 decades ago still get the same level of support as the 800s which only recently started production.   As it were, approximately 1,100 MD80 series (including MD83s) were manufactured, and over 800, of which 207 are MD-83s are still in active service today.

Specifically, MD83s are still in service in commercial airline and other fleets worldwide including, USA, Italy, Romania, Spain, Argentina, Greece, Denmark, Egypt, South Africa, Indonesia, Kenya, the United Nations and others.  Current operators range from the largest foreign and domestic truck carriers to new start-up airlines and charter operators.  Two of the three largest United States airlines; American Airlines and Delta operate MD83s currently.  American Airlines has 275 of the series in its fleet.  Delta has 117.

Further, 74 are operated by airlines across Europe. U.S Presidential candidate in the 2012 elections, Governor Mitt Romney used an MD83 manufactured in 1990 (same as Dana Air’s) for his campaign which required significant travel across the United States and as far as Europe and Israel.  

His running mate, Paul Ryan, used an older version of the MD80 series – a DC-9-32 aircraft which is 42 years old (same age as the candidate himself).  In Africa, Air Burkina and Air Mali use the MD80 series aircraft to ferry Air France passengers going to points beyond Ouagadougou and Bamako.

The Report alleges that the inspector who cleared the Dana Airlines aircraft that crashed should be dismissed for not having pre-requisite qualification.  The inspector in question’s credentials are attached.  He is qualified Safety Inspector.

He has a degree in aeronautical engineering and a Master of Science in Aircraft Design and Maintenance fro one of the most reputable schools in the former Soviet Union.

He has attended so many trainings, including training on the JT8D engine series of Pratt and Whitney which is an engine series family that the one on the crashed MD-83 had.   He is also one of a few who have succeeded in rigorous successive Boeing company trainings on a variety of aircraft  including certification on Boeing 767 which is a wide body aircraft manufactured by the same company and with even more advanced systems.

He has also had successive type qualification training on various aircraft types. The Report does not identify any inappropriate conduct by the inspector or the Director General who deployed the inspector.

Subsequent to its importation in 2008, the aircraft flew hundreds of hours and cycles, thousands of miles and carried several thousand passengers including 3 flights of approximately one hour each and several hundred passengers on the day, and prior to the unfortunate crash.

The Committee recommended that the current Director General of the NCAA’s tenure expired 3 months before the Dana crash on June 3rd. The DG of the NCAA serves at the pleasure of the President.

Further, the DG NCAA is the CEO of a major government agency with significant responsibilities, including to representing the Federal Government internationally and before other governments.  It is highly improbable that a person can serve, or continue to serve in such a sensitive position without the appropriate authority and approval of the Minister of Aviation, and the President.  

Further, during the public hearing, the chair of the Joint Aviation Committee addressed the issue of whether the Director General could properly respond to the committee’s questions as DG to the Minister of Aviation.  The Minister responded in the affirmative by clarifying that the DG is the duly appointed and current occupant of the office of Director General.

The chairman of the Committee as a senior government official and with the powers granted in the Constitution and the National Assembly Act can verify the validity or otherwise of the tenure of any other senior government official.

The chairman of the Committee has access to the Presidency and the Ministry of Aviation to secure relevant information and documentation to establish the tenure of the Director General.
The Report recommends that the Director General should be removed from office for negligence and incompetence. Gratefully, the NCAA that has been developed to a level of competence that has never been in its history.

What the Report characterizes as negligence actually demonstrates appropriate safety precautions and deployment of the right, skilled and qualified personnel in carrying out the functions of the NCAA.  The NCAA's AOC procedure is in line with regulatory requirements, international practice and ICAO standards.

Dana fully complied with these regulatory and international standards.  There is ample evidence that the MD-83 has not been decommissioned by the manufacturer.  It is currently in service worldwide including in Europe and the USA.

Finally, the entire report concludes that NCAA, FAAN and NAMA do not have sufficient well trained employees.  With respect and humility again, may we point out that expert and specialized organizations for this purpose have arrived at different conclusions.

We therefore implore the Joint Committee to support these and other agencies of the Ministry of Aviation in boosting the morale of the aviation regulatory and operational work force so that we together and in collaboration promote, not compromise safety.


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