The Nigerian aviation industry was scandalized on December 19, 2015 as passengers on an Aero Contractors flight to the Bauchi Airport had to disembark using a ladder, as no aircraft staircase was available for their use. Pictures of the embarrassing incident were beamed all over the world as they immediately went viral on the Internet, bringing great shame to the country.
It has since emerged that the passengers took a chartered flight from Abuja to attend a wedding in Bauchi, with the bridegroom in tow, but could not disembark as airport authorities said the aircraft staircase was faulty. The passengers reportedly rejected the offer of the airline to fly them back to Abuja and insisted on disembarking from the Boeing 737-500 aircraft by any means possible, which led to the use of a ladder, contrary to aviation regulations.
The furor generated by the incident in the country, and online, is not unexpected as it cast a great slur on our aviation industry and the entire country. The incident has since led to the slamming of a fine on the pilot and Aero Contractors Ltd., for allegedly contravening Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority Regulations Part 9 on Air Operators Certification and Administration. Part 220.127.116.11 (b) of the regulation reportedly provides that “Each AOC holder shall arrange appropriate ground handling facilities at each airport used to ensure the safe servicing and loading of its flights.”
The airline was sanctioned in line with Part 20.2.3 (15) of the Civil Aviation Regulations. The airline, however, explained that its flight to Bauchi was approved by the Bauchi Airport authorities, which did not inform it that its aircraft staircase was faulty until it had landed at the airport. It also said that it allowed the use of the ladder due to pressure from the passengers, contrary to its wish and operational safety guidelines. The Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO), on its part, said it does not have operations in Bauchi. This fact, it said, is well known to Aero Contractors, which should have made private arrangements for disembarking the passengers. The Bauchi Airport management said it did not know that the staircase was faulty until the Aero Contractors flight had landed.
Beyond trading blames on this incident and the outcry against its posting on social media by a Kenyan journalist, however, Nigeria should see the development as a clarion call to look inwards and address the shortcomings in its aviation industry.
Good enough, Senator Hadi Sirika, the Minister of State for Aviation, has acted appropriately by setting up an investigation into the national embarrassment. The investigation is to determine the immediate and remote causes of the incident, and those charged with it have been mandated to develop measures that would prevent a recurrence of the unsafe and unacceptable procedure that exposed passengers to high risk of serious injury. This is in order.
Since the Bauchi affair, our aviation industry has witnessed another embarrassing incident which resulted in the grounding of a Turkish airliner at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. All of these go to show that our aviation sector is challenged. The supervisory authorities need to urgently sit up, if things are to change for the better.
The Bauchi State government, in particular, must take responsibility for its airport and ensure that it meets aviation safety standards. All states that are constructing new airports must do the same. A situation in which their facilities and operations are inconsistent with Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations and the International Civil Aviation Organization Standards and Recommended Practices is unacceptable.
Aviation is a highly sensitive industry in which safety standards cannot be trifled with. We must not allow Nigerian aviation to be made a laughing stock at this time that we need to maximize our potentials in non-oil sectors of the economy.
Ultimately, the appropriate authorities must henceforth ensure that approvals for new airports are given with extreme caution and that the existing ones adhere to international best practices. There is no hiding place for incompetence and carelessness in the aviation industry.