Wednesday, June 19, 2024
In DepthAfrican aviation industry grapples with turbulent safety concerns

African aviation industry grapples with turbulent safety concerns

The passengers of a recent Ethiopian Airlines flight making its way to Hawassa were in for an unpleasant surprise when a mechanical malfunction turned what was supposed to be a quick trip into a nightmare. Videos that have since surfaced on social media portray scenes of utter panic on board the jet as the fuselage filled with thick smoke, leaving passengers in visible distress.

Ethiopian Airlines flight ET154 operating from Addis Ababa Bole International Airport to Hawassa Airport on May 7, 2024, was forced to return to the runway shortly after takeoff. Oxygen masks had been deployed on the 78-seater Q400 Bombardier jet, and all of its passengers and crew made it back to the ground safely.

The carrier has since issued an official apology to the passengers and stated the incident is under investigation. Sources close to the matter told The Reporter that irregular fuel combustion was likely the culprit behind the smokey cabin, and that the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) is moving to ground the jet to undertake its own rigorous investigation into the incident.

It marks the second safety-related incident for Ethiopian Airlines in recent months. In January 2024, a flight from Addis Ababa to Mekelle’s Alula Aba Nega Airport skidded off the runway in Tigray’s regional capital due to issues with landing gear. No passengers or crew members were harmed in the January incident, which also involved a Q400 jet – one of 33 operated by Ethiopian. A similar incident also took place recently in the southern town of Arba Minch.

Sources disclosed that this month’s smoke-filled flight marks the fourth safety incident for the Ethiopian Airlines Group over the last year alone. All four were domestic flights featuring the Canadian-made Q400. 

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But concerns over air safety are not unique to Ethiopian, as incidents all over the globe have been making headlines in recent months. In January, an Airbus A350 jet landing at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport burst into flames after striking a coast guard jet that had strayed onto the runway. That same month, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 MAX aircraft saw a mid-cabin exit door panel blow out mid-flight, a few minutes after takeoff.

Aviation manufacturing giant Boeing also finds itself in hot water following allegations of corner-cutting and poor oversight at its plants. Several recent safety incidents featuring Boeing aircraft could put several airlines, including Ethiopian, between a rock and a hard place. Possible difficulties in procuring a sufficient number of aircraft for the summer season could force airlines to choose between cancelling flights or cutting back on routes.

In March, Mesfin Tassew, CEO of the Ethiopian Airlines Group, announced plans to grow the carrier’s fleet through the procurement of 70 new jets from both Boeing and Airbus. Six of the aircraft are expected to be on the tarmac in Bole Airport before the end of June, but the CEO has since alluded to the possibility of delays. Mesfin says the Group is pushing for the timely delivery of the jets despite the controversies surrounding Boeing at the moment.

In April, during an aviation trade show in Addis Ababa, Mesfin disclosed the Group is facing a shortage of spare parts for aircraft maintenance and blamed “unethical business practices” in the supply chain for forcing the carrier to ground at least three of its jets.

Manufacturers aside, aviation experts agree on the need for a more organized and systematic way to manage air safety both in Ethiopia and elsewhere.

The topic was a central theme during the Aviation Safety and Operations Summit organized by the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) on May 15, 2024, at the Ethiopian Skylight Hotel.

“The African aviation industry has always been associated with lower levels of safety standards and practices,” Mesfin said during his address at the Summit. He observes that unsafe and unsatisfactory navigation services have led African airspaces to be perceived as unsafe.

The CEO noted that some African civil aviation authorities have grown a reputation for incompetence in their ability to provide effective oversight and control over their respective jurisdictions.

Mesfin pointed out that the shortcomings of these African authorities were the subject of serious concern during an international civil aviation organization safety oversight audit.

The concerns hold true for the ECAA, where a safety audit conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) four years ago uncovered close to 75 safety-related findings.

“We’ve made corrections on 34 of a total of 73 safety audit findings,” reads a nine-month performance report from the ECAA this year. “[The corrections] will still need to be verified by ICAO.”

The Authority has managed to make full improvement on only one of the findings thus far this fiscal year.

Mesfin observes that some African airlines are operating with old and under-maintained aircraft, contributing to the low safety standards. The CEO noted that technological and other advancements made in navigations systems available to the industry have enabled airlines to carry out complex operations in safer conditions.

However, he says “technology alone can not bring the desired level of safety, both up in the air and on the ground.”

In 2012, at a time when Africa topped the world leaderboard for fatal air accidents and close to 20 of the continent’s airlines were banned from European airspace by the EU, the aviation ministers of 35 nations gathered in Nigeria and set the Abuja safety targets.

These originally included a dozen points that heads of African aviation officials saw as crucial for improved air safety on the continent. Four additional targets concerning air navigation were tacked on in 2017.

The targets include reducing accident rates, establishing and strengthening autonomous civil aviation authorities, resolving all significant security concerns (SSCs), complying with the ICAO Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USAOP) state action plans, certifying international airports, and increasing the rollout of International Air Transport Association (IATA) operational safety audits, among others.

Eyob Estifanos, associate regional program officer at ICAO’s Eastern and Southern African Office, disclosed that an overall mechanism used to track the implementation of the Abuja safety targets reveals that the number of African nations that have achieved at least 60 percent of the goals has grown from only 13 in 2008 to 31.

Data from the regional office obtained by The Reporter indicates that 19 states are still operating with standards under the targeted percentile, while only 11 have managed to achieve a 75 percent performance rate or higher.

The ICAO standards dictate that all states must attain a 95 percent performance rate by the end of 2028. South Africa, Ethiopia and Morocco are among the leading states, while Djibouti straggles at the bottom with only 50 percent. Sierra Leone has shown the greatest improvement, jumping from 50 percent in 2012 to 72 percent at present, according to the data.

More than a decade old ambitions to resolve all backlogged significant safety concerns (SSCs) by 2018 and remedy newly-identified ones within six months of their official publication by ICAO have managed some success, but challenges remain.

“There are still some SSCs that require our attention,” said Eyob.

Despite the continent’s aviation industry being able to resolve all 13 concerns recorded in 2022, new SSCs pertaining to issues related with air navigation have popped up in three countries.

“We’re working to rectify these concerns as soon as possible,” Eyob said.

On the other hand, plans to reduce the African accident rate to 2.5 per million departures from 8.6 by end of 2022 have been faced with ups and downs as fatalities from aviation accidents last year clocked in at zero last year but climbed up to three in 2024.

Data from the international Flight Safety Foundation indicates that the accident rate per million departures in the region escalated from 1.53 to 7.01 between the years 2021 and 2022, while the total number of accidents rose from one to six in the same period.

The Ethiopian CEO also confirmed that the number of accidents and incidents reported in Africa were higher than the figures from other parts of the world.

“These and other factors have led the African aviation industry into being labelled with a lower-grade safety performance,” said Mesfin.

The 2023 continental accident rate of 6.38 per million departures is well above the global average of 2.16.

A seven-year Africa accident dashboard beginning from 2017 analyzed by the Foundation discloses there were 148 events recorded, 272 fatalities, and nine ground fatalities. No less than eight incidents were recorded in the first five months of 2024.

Airports in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia, Congo and Senegal have each registered one incident, while Nigerian airspace registered two. Three of the accidents involved Boeing manufactured aircraft, while Canadian Bombardier, Brazilian Embraer, and Dutch Fokker were involved in the others. Only the accidents in South Sudan (Juba) and Senegal (Dakar) reported injuries.

Reports indicate low approach, flat tires, heavy rain, wet runways, failure to go aground, and engine failures as factors contributing to the accidents.

“Although there have been no airplane collision accidents in recent years, scenarios that constituted potential mid-air collisions have been reported,” said Henry Hourdji, director of safety and strategy at the Foundation.

Human factors, situational issues, operational workload, stress in communications centers, and inadequate technologies and systems contributed to these potential collisions.

An analysis on incidents categorized as accidents between 2008 and 2022 indicates that the human factor has played a huge role, according to the Foundation.

“There were accidents because people on the ground were seriously injured or occupied with interrupting elements,” said Hourdji.

Other factors include runway excursions, insufficient communication between pilot and air traffic control, lack of awareness of runway safety, organizational issues, absence of training on runway safety, and lack of proper vision leads.

The Director characterized shortcomings in reporting incidents and accidents as very worrying.

“Accidents and serious incidents were not investigated to the level established in a report, in determining the causes and recommendations and lessons learned,” said Hourdji.

The shortcomings are reflected in 29 separate events that occurred within the region, according to a recent report from the Foundation.

It found that 88 percent of investigations into serious incidents in 2023 were not finalized or made public. It is a trend continuing from 75 percent in the two preceding years, 50 percent in 2020, and 56 percent in 2019.

“This data is essential to identify the cause factors for analysis,” said Hourdji. “We need to collect data. Data! Data!”

The ICAO relates that only one accident related to flight into terrain was reported to it between 2015 and 2023, with three additional incidents reported thereafter. It notes two recorded loss of control in flight events in 2019, three in 2021, and one in 2022.

While mid-air collisions are rare with no incidents registered in recent years, runway excursions remain the most prevalent risk in aviation, followed by runway incursions, according to experts, who argue for the need for safety enhancement initiatives.

Hassen Shahidi (PhD), president of AFRAA and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, underscores that the absence of accidents is not evidence for the presence of safety.

Shahidi states that in moving towards a more proactive and predictive approach to safety, the African aviation industry needs to share safety data, determine risks and causal factors, implement safety solutions, and measure improvements.

“We need to try to understand the root causes, not only accidents but also potential incidents before it turns into an accident,” said Shahidi.

A 2023 report from the Foundation notes that lacking safety culture and the degradation of quality remain the biggest risks to the African aviation industry. The President also criticized shortcomings in safety data sharing.

“If we don’t know the information, we can’t act. We need to focus on the causalities leading up to the accidents,” said Shahidi.

He argued that while tighter regulation is necessary, the adoption of best practices is key towards ensuring air safety in Africa.

It is a view shared by the Ethiopian CEO. He advocates for more rigorous regulation, continuous training, and the adoption of best practices for maintaining the highest level of safety for passengers and crews.

“All players in the industry must prioritize safety in their strategic plan and embed the idea of safety into the working culture of each and everyone of our employees,” said Mesfin. 

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