The cabin of the newly purchased Boeing 737-800 aircraft was oozing pressurized air like an overworked refrigerator with majority of passengers shutting off the air conditioning regulator atop their seats.
It was an early morning flight originating from Lagos and heading to Port Harcourt. Abraham Kubiat, who was having his first voyage on a aircraft, however, was perspering and demanding for more air. The flight was half way its course and had pierced through a discomforting turbulence moments earlier. Looking around the cabin, Kubiat found the rest of the passengers appearing calm and enjoying the flight; some reclining their seats and enjoying a nap.
“I am really so scared,” he voiced his concerns to the passenger seated next to him. “I have never been myself since this plane took off, “ he said with a hiss.
He wore a great fear on his face. “Personally, I have never had a relaxed moment flying aboard a local airline; am always nervous,” replied the neighbouring passenger. “On an international flight, I can close my eyes and sleep all through knowing that I am safe. But certainly not on a Nigerian airline. I don’t trust their safety processes,” he added.
It was a response, which, rather than assuring, weakened Kubiat’s confidence the more in air transportation.
“This happens to be my first journey on an aeroplane. And it could be my last. I prefer to go by road,” he said.
Perception versus reality
Without doubt, hundreds of Nigerian air travellers habour the phobia expressed by Kubiat and his co-passener and this happens even amid the massive infrastructural investments and the security and safety processes put in place by airlines and regulators to boost air safety in the country. It is a perception created by a series of air crashes, with attendant deaths of hundreds of passengers, that plauged the industry, particularly between 2002 and 2015. The greater harm that this negative perception has caused is that the industry is losing hundreds of potential passengers who prefer to go by road rather than air.
However, a raft of preventionist policies initiated by former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan has seen the industry operate a zero air accident record since the last Associated Airline crash of 2015. For instance, age limits were set for aircraft types that operators could fly in the country, with additional investments made to boost safety infrastructure across airports. In the same vein, the government injected massive funds into navigational, Air Traffic Control and meteorological agencies to keep the sky safe. According to the Managing Director of NAMA, Capt. Fola Akinkuotu, these investments had gone a long way to improve air safety.
“The Nigeria airspace is very safe,” he said. The reality on ground is, therefore, very different from the negative perceptions in the air. In fact, today’s local airline investors are raising the bar on safety to protect passenger and crew and mitigate accidents and the associated losses.
Aviation sector operations are, however, anchored on global safety laws or processes, meaning that there is nothing like a local or Nigerian aviation industry standard. It therefore, follows that to operate as a reputable and competitive airline, Nigerian carriers have to match their operations with international best practices.
“It is sad to say that the years when airlines were dropping off the skies, most of those operators never bothered to align their operations with global alliances or subject to international audits and certifications,” said analyst, Anthony Etim.
“International safety certifications, like airline alliances, does not only represent a very critical tool in the quest to sustain safe operations for investors who commit huge funds into the business, but it also reassures workers of their safety, attracts more passenger patronage and boosts creditor confidence, “Etim, a safety expert told Daily Sun.
Air Peace model
However, in the last five years, Air Peace Airline, has set an example on how to be local in outlook, yet international in operations.
The airline, undoubtedly the market leader in Nigeria and West Africa, recently received its third International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) certification. This means its operations, aircraft, pilots, maintenance procedures, and management are in line with global best practices.
The IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) Program is an internationally recognized and accepted evaluation system designed to assess the operational management and control systems of an airline. The IOSA audit creates a standard that is comparable on a world-wide basis, enabling and maximizing the joint use of audit reports.
The passenger who only feels safe on an international carrier has every reason not to doubt his safety and security on an Air Peace flight. That’s what the IOSA certification does once you scale through the rigorous audit.
Chief Operating Officer (COO), Air Peace, Mrs. Toyin Olajide, said it was the quest to bolster safety confidence that compelled the airline to launch out for the IOSA certification barely two years into its operations.
She explained that the recent audit was tougher than what obtained in previous years but that the airline scaled through every phase of the certification process due to the”unwavering drive to keep raising the bar in our operations.”
Olajide expressed the delight that the certification was another feather added to Air Peace’s cap and that it confirmed the airline’s uncompromising adherence to safety standards in line with global best practices.
Head of Account Management, West and Central Africa, Dr Samson Fatokun, while presenting the third IOSA certificate to the Chairman of Air Peace, Mr . Onyema noted that many airlines often start the safety audit, but find it difficult to complete the process.
“It gives me joy to present this certificate today because I know it’s the fruit of painstaking effort of your team. Scaling through this third safety audit process is a testament to Air Peace’s commitment to maintaining high safety standards in its operations. IATA’s number one priority is that for any airline to pass the safety audit, its safety compliance must be hundred percent, and Air Peace has met this prerequisite.
“Many airlines are not able to achieve this because they don’t have the discipline and hard work which has consistently earned Air Peace this safety recognition. The certificate gives the airline a global recognition as a hundred percent safety-compliant airline,” said Fatokun. Air Peace with the IOSA certificte has also opened up its operations to code-sharing and interlining agreements with other international airlines.
Local airlines, however, require continuous government and regulatory supports in their quest to adhere to best safety processes and expand the frontiers of their businesses outside Nigeria. At present, Air Peace, remains Nigeria’s only flag carrier on an international route.
And it is striving to do everything right to enable more local carriers make a foray into the international market.
Its three Boeing 777 aircraft have been deployed on the Lagos – Dubai route to crash airfares for Nigerian passengers, and even other local airlines are leasing them for their hajj operations.
The new year offers the government that opportunity to review some of its fiscal policies, multiple taxation and VAT on air transport, exorbitant cost on aviation fuel, to ease the plight of local airlines.
Rather than leave local airlines to their fate, there should be a deliberate government policy to support flag carriers to scale through international regulatory hurdles to launch into routes assigned to them by the government.
Certainly, more jobs would be created for citizens and more local airlines would fly internationally, thus reducing the over $3billion lost to foreign airlines as capital flight from the industry, according the data by the Airlines Operators of Nigeria (AON).
Government support would also allow airlines to continuously invest in safety infrastructure. Reports of accident investigations have linked most accidents to breaches in safety rules by operators. There is no denying the fact that it is only a thriving and prosperous airline that would resist attempts to cut corners or compromise safety standards in the place of profit. Encouragement is what the industry requires to sustain its zero air accident record in 2020 and beyond.