It is no longer news that one of the most shameful acts in civil aviation history in modern time was performed last Saturday when Nigerian carrier Aero Contractors defied safety regulations and, according to them, of no fault of theirs, disembarked passengers with a ladder from a Boeing 737-500 aircraft.
Already the act has gone viral and as attracted the attention of the Minister of State Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika who has called for a probe into the incident in a bid to uncover the reason why such an act could take place and a readiness to punish any who has erred.
The question now in the lips of many is how did this happen? Who is to blame? And what should be done to ensure that this does not repeat itself.
Already blames are flying around as the airline has blamed itself for the safety implication the situation has, the Bauchi Airport authority, the airlines clients and even the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).
Even organisations that have nothing to do with the incident have quickly distanced themselves, like one of the ground handlers, the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (nahcoaviance), which sent a statement that it does not operate from Bauchi.
In a press conference held at Aero yesterday, Management of Aero Contractors, who spoke through its Accountable Manager and Acting Managing Director, Captain Russell Lee explained that the flight, a Boeing 737-500 with registration number 5N-BLG was chartered to take a group to a wedding from Abuja to Bauchi.
Lee read,”On Thursday 17th December 2015, a charter was booked and confirmed from Abuja to Bauchi on a Boeing 737 -500 series aircraft. The charter was booked by a group of young people, part of a wedding party, attending this important event in Bauchi.”
“On Friday 18th December 2015, confirmed arrangements were made by our Head of Ground Operations, Mr. Peter Omata for the handling of the flight through the airport manager of Bauchi, Mr. Abubakar. He confirmed on many occasions the availability of the airstairs and cost. The aircraft to be used for the flight was 5N-BLG, a Boeing 737-500 series aircraft. This aircraft was positioned into Abuja on the evening of December 18th 2015.”
“Prior to leaving Abuja, the Flight dispatcher contacted the Airport Manager to advise that the aircraft was taxing out and he confirmed that they were ready to receive the flight. At 10:42 the aircraft touched down on Runway 35 at the Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa International Airport. The controller advised the crew that due the absence of marshallers and no ramp officials of any sort that parking would be at their own discretion.”
“At 10:44 the flight dispatcher on board contacted the Airport Manager to advise him that they were on the ground, to which he confirmed that he was seeing the aircraft on taxi and that they were waiting. After parking the Captain, Captain Nikcevic Vlado reports that they waited for up to 10 minutes for the stairs to be brought to the aircraft but no assistance or stairs came to the aircraft. The Captain reported that he informed the passengers of the situation as they were beginning to get agitated. What was not known to the crew at the beginning of the flight was that the Groom of the wedding was on board the flight. The wedding was to be started in another 20 minutes.”
“At 10:57 the crew called the controller to enquire as to why there was no one to position the stairs to the aircraft and he was told then that the stairs had “just broken down” and that the Fire services are making provisions to sort it out.”
“After waiting for another five to seven minutes the passengers became furious as they were now getting very late for the wedding ceremony. The Captain went to the cabin and explained to them that he may have to take them back to Abuja as they cannot disembark due lack of stairs. The group insisted that he cannot keep them on board the aircraft and he considered that their anger was becoming potentially threatening for the crew to take them back to Abuja.”
“The alternative which the Fire services provided was a ladder which the passengers took as an option and on their own free will decided to use the ladder to disembark against the wishes of the Captain and crew. The Captain allowed this procedure in order to reduce what he thought was a volatile situation.”
FAAN’s reaction to involvement
Meanwhile, while trying to defend its airline, the management of Aero had roped in the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) stating that there was no marshaller at the airport but that was swiftly challenged by FAAN which felt slighted that it was mentioned at all to justify Aero’s call.
In a statement by FAAN spokesman, Yakubu Dati, he alluded to the fact that the Bauchi Airport is managed by the Bauchi State Government and FAAN only provides statutory services at the airport such as aircraft marshalling, aviation security services and fire cover and does not over ground handling services.
The statement read,”The attention of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria has been drawn to some misleading and mischievous reports in some sections of the press, ascribing lapses in Aero Contractors use of unauthorized equipment at the Bauchi to the Authority.”
“Without prejudice to the directive given by the Honourable Minister of State for Aviation, for immediate investigation to determine the immediate and remote causes of the unfortunate incident, we wish to clarify that Aero Contractors’ use of unauthorized equipment (ladder) to disembark its passengers does not have anything to do with FAAN.”
“The Bauchi Airport is managed by the Bauchi State Government and FAAN only provides statutory services at the airport such as aircraft marshalling, aviation security services and fire cover. The Authority does not provide handling services for Aero Contractors and therefore does not understand why it should be held responsible for non-provision of appropriate equipment for passenger disembarkation.”
“We also do not understand why the absence of marshallers on the apron, as claimed by the airline, could cause the use of unauthorized equipment for the disembarkation of passengers from the aircraft.
Minister of State for Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika probably after having an eye full of the incident on social media on Saturday had directed an immediate investigation into the use of an unauthorized equipment by Aero Contractors Airlines at the conclusion of a charter flight to Bauchi.
According to the Minister, in a statement signed by the Deputy Director, Press and Public Affairs of the Ministry, James Odaudu , the act is inconsistent with Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations (NCARs) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS).
The investigation, according to the statement, will determine the immediate and remote causes of the incident with a view to developing and implementing measures that will prevent a reoccurrence of the unsafe and unacceptable procedure that exposed passengers to high risk of serious injury.
He reiterated that if the airline is found culpable, the full weight of sanctions within extant laws and regulations would be applied on it.
The NCAA angle
However, no one seem to be talking about the regulators, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) that certified the Bauchi airport that cannot provide stairways for aircraft and has kept mum throughout the cause of this incident.
Yes the airport authority said the stay ways was broken but are they trying to say the airport built with billions of naira cannot afford to have more than one stairways? Are there no standard number of stairways an airport should have for it to even be considered operational?
In reality, the Minister need not have made the call for a probe, the NCAA should have been allowed to do its job if indeed it knew what it needed to do as situations like this fall under the regulatory authority’s purview, even their silence alone speaks volumes as they are in charge of certifying and approving airports for flight operations.
Clearly, what Aero Contractors did is a safety concern and the NCAA is supposed to be seen doing its job not waiting for the Minister to do it for them.
The incident is one of the raves of 2015 and watchers are keen to see which way the pendulum swings and what will happen after the investigation by the Minister is done and dusted.
Now giving the situation showcased on Saturday, one cannot help but ask, if any injury or bodily harm had gone to any of these passengers, would Aero Contractor’s insurance claims have covered those passengers on that particular situation? Clearly the answer is no, which begs the question why take the risk?
And how can the NCAA not look in its regulations and cite the airline for various misconduct and endangering of lives.
Giving, the airline produced an email, by one of the agitated passengers, Waziri, absolving Aero from any blame and taking responsibility for the decision of disembarking with the ladder but if anything had happened would the airline or the Bauchi airport authority not be held liable? It is after all an entirely different situation since they got out of it unscathed.