Japanizing Nigeria's airlines: Let us share the risks!
So Nigeria suffers yet again due to another air crash disaster. Anger, grief, questions, claims, finger-pointing and shock has engulfed the nation. Although the questionable history and physical condition of the plane at the time of its purchase actually borders on the criminal (in my opinion), I shall not dwell into that. Let us rather consider that a retired Nigeria airways pilot had predicted two weeks before the crash (Vanguard, 21 May, 2012) that such a disaster was in the offing on account of the 'cutting of corners' and sharp practices that characterised many airlines. Capt. Tito Omaghomi stated that current pilots are 'forced' to report and enter faults on scraps of paper instead of the statutory log books. Such pieces of paper could then easily be discarded (without trace) if the observed anomaly may require expensive maintenance procedures.
The governor of Akwa Ibom (Gov. Akpabio) also called the Managing Director of Dana Air not long (weeks, maybe days?) before the crash and warned him about the air worthiness of their planes (Vanguard, 3 June, 2012). This warning came after the same ill-fated Dana Air plane developed a fault en-route Lagos from Uyo. The plane was said to have hovered above Lagos skies for hours before it could finally land in Lagos airport. Furthermore, staff of Dana Air have told Channels TV that the plane was forced to fly that day despite it being classified as unfit by technicians. All these events prior to the disaster of 3 June 2012, are precursors of long-overdue radical changes to the Nigerian domestic airline industry.
Lets take a look at how Japan was able to cope with a similar disaster almost 30 years ago.
When in 1985 a Boeing 747 owned and operated by Japanese Airline (JAL) crashed killing about 500 people, the incident not only shocked the Japanese to the core, it jolted them to strive even harder for perfection. Their national pride was at stake, the reputation of JAL as an efficient and dependable airline not only suffered, Japanese citizens also refused to fly with JAL. So after three different boards resigned (not to mention a suicide or two), the management of JAL came up with a brilliant air safety plan.
The integrated maintenance of all JAL planes was cancelled. Every aeroplane was subsequently allocated a permanent maintenance crew who knew the history of their aeroplane and were compelled to fly on it for every trip it made. This is a practical example of risk management. To further assure the public, the names of all the members of maintenance crew for each plane were made public. No hiding place. Nigerians can not only learn from this, but we can take it to the next level. I therefore propose the following risk management measures.
As a preamble, only brand new planes should be used for domestic operations. All airlines that have planes more than 20 years old, should have their licenses suspended until they meet the new criteria. Secondly, each commercial airline operating within Nigeria should be compelled to have a permanent engineering maintenance crew for each individual aeroplane. This would ensure continuity (and improve the quality control) of maintenance issues. It will also create jobs, by the way. Thirdly, 10% of the seats of each commercial aeroplane (and not exceeding 10 people for planes with over 100 passengers) must be reserved for the permanent engineering maintenance crew who MUST be accompanied by at least two representatives from the management side of the airline company. In other words, a flight carrying 150 people should (as an example) have 7 maintenance crew and 3 administrative staff accompanying the 140 passengers.
The rationale for this approach is simple: If an aeroplane is well maintained, the engineers and representatives of management should have no qualms escorting the passengers to their destination. In other words, let us share the risk. And we should share this risk not just with the rank and file (i.e. technical/engineering staff) like the Japanese do, but also with management staff of each Nigerian airline. Subsequently when the pilots complain of a fault or the engineers request for new parts, the management will take such complaints or requests more seriously. Those who think this is far-fetched or extreme should tell us if the lives of maintenance crew or management staff are more valuable than the lives of passengers. Besides, the Japanese Airline (JAL) has been doing this since the mid-1980s and neither the sky nor their profits have fallen as a result. If we are serious about progress and safety, lets adopt this modified version of their technique.
May the soul of the departed find eternal peace...and may the guilty be punished at the end of the Dana Air crash investigations.