By Chinelo Obogo, [email protected]
When the Nigerian aviation industry woke to a statement which emanated from the Office of the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) Capt. Musa Nuhu on March 16, announcing the suspension of the operations of Azman Air over safety concerns, no industry expert expressed any form of surprise. Some who didn’t want to speak to Daily Sun on record, said the measure was a prompt and inevitable development that many saw coming.
In suspending all Boeing 737 aircraft in the Fleet of Azman Air Services Limited, effective from March 15, 2021, Captain Nuhu cited Section 35 (2) of the Civil Aviation Act, 2006 and Part 22.214.171.124 (A) of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations (Nig.CARs) 2015.
He said the suspension was to enable the Authority conduct safety audit of the airline to determine the root cause(s) of three serious incidents that took place within in six weeks and recommend corrective actions to forestall re-occurrence.
Last week’s revelation has however brought to the fore, the importance of continuous safety inspection of airline and strict regulations. Safety audits are tools civil aviation regulators use to assess the degree of compliance with the applicable safety regulatory requirements. It is an element in safety management which subjects the activities of airline operators and service providers to critical evaluation.
The initial statement from NCAA announcing the suspension was short and didn’t go into great details explaining what happened in each of the three serious incidents that led to its decision to clampdown on the airline’s operations.
Azman had officially responded to NCAA’s directive through a letter addressed to the NCAA Director General on March 17, 2021 and signed by the accountable manager, Muhammad Abdulmunaf, saying the suspension was not based on fact and should therefore be lifted.
Curiously, on the same day that the official response from the airline was released, another message purported to have emanated from Azman and signed by ‘management’ went viral on social media. In the viral message, the NCAA DG was accused of extortion and vendetta against Azman after the airline allegedly refused to place an advert in a magazine published by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) on the request of Capt. Nuhu while he was still with the aviation body.
The official letter signed by Mr. Abdulmunaf read in part: “We write to acknowledge and receive your letter reference: NCAA/DG/AIR/11/16/300 dated 15th March, 2021 titled: SUSPENSION OF AZMAN OPSPECT. Shortly after receipt of the letter, we received a zoom conference invitation which was held between 1pm to 2pm on Tuesday (16/03/2021) surprisingly, the reason or grounds for suspension on Azman operations was not contained in the letter under reference, nor discussed at the zoom conference. In fact all Azman officials request with reasons or ground was not attended to. Instead , attempt was made by the chief host (Engr. Ajiboye) to link the Azman Aircraft wheel burst in Lagos on February 16, 2021 with 5N-SYS which occurred and with recent Kaduna wheel burst of flight 5N-YSM which happened on March 15, 2021.
“Instructively the NCAA and AIB have cleared Azman Air Aircraft to continue its operations. Similarly, the incident that happened with regard to an object falling from Aircraft 5N-SYS has technically been investigated and cleared by the NCAA with a sanction to Azman Air and its staff in Abuja on March 8, 2021. But, the Kaduna incident has not been investigated. Therefore, there is no nexus of link between the previous incident in Abuja or Lagos with the Kaduna incident. Accordingly, without prejudice, the NCAA’s use of its power to write the suspension of Azman operations not based on fact. Therefore, the management humbly request that Azman Air suspension should be lifted firstly in line with the established precedent in respect of other Airlines which had similar incidents/experiences in the past. This has particularly become necessary in the interest of justice, fairness, and fair play.”
Can of worms
Four days after a message in which Capt. Nuhu was accused of extortion went viral, Azman Air released a statement vehemently denying being responsible and vowing to investigate where it originated from.
“Our reaction to that publication is coming now because firstly, we were bemused as to why anyone would do this in the first place and secondly, we needed to undertake an in-house investigation as to where this was coming from. Who were the architects of this falsehood? What could be the reason behind it? We wish to state for the avoidance of doubt that Azman Air is ready to cooperate fully with the NCAA in its investigations of our operations as safety has remained our watchword. To this end we wish to disown that unfortunate publication as never coming from Azman. The authors have failed in their deliberate ploy and plot to discredit Azman Air and Capt. Musa Nuhu, the DG NCAA,” the airline said.
But before the airline denied responsibility, the spokesperson of the NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, released a very detailed statement to the media, addressing the allegations made in the viral message and further exposing the details of the three incidents, including the airline’s infractions.
Adurogboye said that during a routine ramp inspection at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja on February 10, 2021, NCAA inspectors found an Azman Air maintenance engineer carrying out replacement of the right-hand main landing gear wheel assembly (nos. 3 and 4) of their Boeing 737-500 aircraft with registration 5N-SYS, without referring to the manufacturer’s maintenance manual. He said this is a violation of the Civil Aviation Regulations for which both Azman Air and the engineer have been sanctioned but are yet to pay the fine.
An pilot who chose to remain anonymous because he is still active in the industry told Daily Sun that when an issue such as tyre burst occurs in an aircraft, it is against safety regulations for a single person to carry out repairs on the tyre without using the manufacturer’s manual.
“If for instance, a tyre bursts, it is very wrong for an engineer to just go to the aircraft and start changing the tyre. Aviation is not like road transport where you can just park by the roadside and change your tyre. If your aircraft’s tyre gets damaged, you have to set up your system, get the manufacturer’s manual and have at least three to four other engineers working with you who would crosscheck in the manual to ensure it is being done exactly as the manufacturer stated,” the pilot said.
Adurogboye went further to state that on February 11, 2021, Azman Air flight AZM 2318 operated with the same Boeing 737-500 aircraft with registration 5N-SYS and departed Kaduna for Lagos of which during take-off, a component of the aircraft was observed to have fallen off the aircraft and Air Traffic Control (ATC) notified the Captain, who elected to continue the flight to Lagos. Upon arrival Lagos, the Captain failed to make entry in the aircraft technical logbook.
The missing part was discovered to be the no 3 Main Landing Gear (MLG) heat shield and according to the regulator, the maintenance team neither made an entry in the technical logbook nor rectified the defect but released the aircraft for a scheduled passenger flight from Lagos to Abuja.
According to NCAA, while investigations were ongoing, Azman flight AZM 2325, with the same Boeing 737-500 aircraft with registration 5N-SYS, which suffered burst tyres while landing in Lagos, with resultant severe damage to the aircraft engine and fuselage exactly five days onFebruary 16, 2021.
“On March 15, 2021, Azman Air flight AZM 2318, operated a Boeing 737-500 aircraft with registration 5N-YMS, departed Kaduna for Lagos with burst tyres. The DG instructed NCAA Lagos office to conduct a ramp inspection of the Azman aircraft where they discovered that two severely damaged tyres had been replaced and further inspections revealed damage to a hydraulic line with resultant hydraulic leak and damage to the hydraulic reservoir. The alarming trends of tyre failures, in combination with improper tyre maintenance procedures, are a clear and strong indication of an accident chain formation in its final stages and no responsible Civil Aviation Authority will fold its arms and wait for the next incident to occur, perhaps a fatal accident, before taking action,” Adurogboye said.
Captain Nuhu denies demanding N15m from Azman
Regarding the allegation that the NCAA Director General, demanded the sum of N15 million for a publication which carried an Azman advert, Adurogboye said: “Between November 20-22, 2017, Nigeria hosted the ICAO World Aviation Forum (IWAF/3)in Abuja. The sponsorship of this event was sought from aviation organisations, including Azman Air, through a letter from the then Federal Ministry of Transportation (Aviation). The Director General, who at that time was the Representative of Nigeria on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and a key member of the organising committee of IWAF/3, delivered the letter of sponsorship to the management of Azman Air while he was on a family visit to Kano. The Chairman of Azman Air promised to revert but never did. The request for sponsorship of IWAF/3 can be independently verified with other Nigerian airlines.
“In addition, a publication, ICAO STATES TODAY, carried an Azman Air advert. The airline subscribed to the advert in 2016, in preparation for the 39th General Assembly of ICAO but till date, Azman Air has refused to pay for the advert cost of US$3, 701, despite several reminders. The invoice from the publisher of the magazine, FCM Communications based in Montreal, Canada, can be independently confirmed with the publisher. The official request for sponsorship of IWAF/3 and reminder of payment for the long overdue invoice of US$3,701 to FCM Communications, are the basis for the false claims against the Director General of allegedly demanding the sum of 15 million naira.
“The allegation of “sitting” on the request of Azman Air to hire expatriate pilots is outright falsehood. The Director General assumed office on February 24, 2020 and shortly afterwards, in late March 2020, the Nigerian airspace was closed to all flights. Azman Air applied for expatriate quota by a letter signed by the Managing Director on December 8, 2020. That was just over five months ago, and it was promptly turned down. The NCAA neither approves nor issues expatriate quota, however the inputs of the Federal Ministry of Aviation and NCAA are part of the approval process of the Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS).
“Azman Air terminated the appointments of six Nigerian pilots (three Captains and three Co-Pilots) on November 6, 2020, “due to recent happenings and developments in the company” and a few weeks later, on December 8, 2020, applied for expatriate quota for six expatriates to replace the terminated Nigerian pilots. The Director General refused to endorse their request. Finally, neither the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority nor its Director General will succumb to any blackmail and or threat in carrying out the statutory responsibility of the safety and security oversight, in addition to the economic regulation, of the civil aviation industry in Nigeria, as enshrined in the 2006 Civil Aviation Act.”