Commissioner of Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB), Engineer Akin Olateru was a guest at the League of Airports and Aviation Correspondents (LAAC) Gateway Forum, a platform used to searchlight major players and captains of industries in any field. Engineer Olateru speaks on his profession. His job as top echelon of the investigative body his drives and growing up in the streets of Ogbomosho in this interview. Excerpt
What is your assessment of the global aviation industry in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic?
COVID-19 is not new to anybody; even kids on the streets know what it’s all about. The pandemic has affected aviation industry worldwide. We are one of the industries that this Covid-19 has affected a lot in terms of revenue loss.
It’s a very expensive virus and it has crippled a lot of activities, a lot of families are out of jobs. I think Nigeria has done its best to curtail it. I give a lot of credit to the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Covid-19. They have been able to manage it very well. We just don’t have experience in this. It took us like a plague. So far, I am impressed with the way we have been handling it. I am impressed; we will make adjustments as we go along in terms of relaxation and all of that. It depends on scientific evidence available to the team.
And I believe the phase will pass; things will be back to normal, but when? It is the scientists that will come out with vaccines that will help to mitigate this risk. I believe it’s a matter of time, things will fizzle out and things will return to normal.
How is your organization addressing the challenges brought about by Covid-19 pandemic?
In terms of performance, we refused to let the pandemic affect us. We are still doing what we would do normally, Covid-19 or not. We still ensure we deliver on our mandate, we ensure we do what we have to do, but the only problem we have is funding. Covid-19 has affected our revenues greatly.
You know our source of revenue is from the 3 per cent we get out of the 5 per cent we collect from the Ticket Sales Charge/Cargo Sales Charge (TSC/CSC). So, in terms of affecting us, it’s more of less funding. But, in terms of doing delivery on our mandate, we made sure it hasn’t affected us in anyway.
Sir, how far have you gone with your plans to expand the scope of your incident and accident investigation to other modes of transportation in the country?
You will agree with me that it will start once the bill is approved by the National Assembly and the President. Currently, we are set out to investigate air accident and there is a proposed bill in the National Assembly. At the House of Representatives, it has passed the second reading; we are waiting for public hearing on the new AIB bill. At the Senate, we are waiting for second reading and public hearing. Thereafter, it will be transmitted to the President for assent.For us, when you look at what we’ve done in air transport, we have been able to mitigate so many risks; we have managed to learn from our lessons in serious incidents. You look at aviation, it is a highly regulated industry, very expensive, highly technical, the fastest and the safest means of transportation and it is because of all these checks and balances that have made it so. There is a difference between investigating for liability, criminality and safety. AIB has been investigating for safety, not for liability and it is the same we want to take to other modes of transportation. It is not about who is at fault, it is about how can we prevent future occurrence. This is our core mandate and this is what we want to focus on. That is where we are and it’s going to take effect as soon as we have the green light from the president.
Just as you know, accident investigation is a very complex assignment, what challenges do you face in the cause of discharging your duties?
When you look at it, challenges could come in, in any organization in four major areas; equipment, infrastructure, human capital and systems processes and procedures. I always say that if you score less than 7 out of 10 in any of these four areas, you still don’t have a company. If you have the best equipment and you don’t have manpower, you are not going anywhere. And if you have the best manpower, equipment, but you don’t have a good infrastructure and there are no systems and procedures to help them navigate their workings, you are not going anywhere.
So, those four areas, I will say we had a huge challenge in them when I came in. Of course, the pillar of all the four is funding, but with the support of Aviation Minister and the National Assembly, we have been able to navigate throughout that.
Sir, since your assumption of office over three years ago, how much have you expended on training of your personnel and accident investigations?
There are no two accidents that are the same; they may look the same, but there are no two accidents that are the same. Also, in terms of costing, I don’t think I have been able to break it down to exact figure. So, I will not be able to give you the exact figure, but I can describe the process for you.
The type of accident will determine the cost. Sometimes, we have to send an engine back to the manufacturer, they call it engine teardown. So, we have to factor in cost of shipping, estacodes for two of my engineers that will go with it. What we want to ascertain is the engine producing power as at the time of the crash.
So, there are several things that can push up the cost in accident investigation. It is a painstaking process, very detailed exercise; tasking and sometimes, it can be daunting because you must get it right. This is what accident investigation is all about. You must ensure whatever fact you put out there, you have enough evidence to back it up and this is why we go through so many different processes, depending on the crash. We get supports from engine manufacturers, air frame manufacturers, supports from some countries sometime because it can be very complex sometimes.
Apart from the flight safety and material science laboratories you already have, which other projects are the management thinking of embarking upon?
Currently, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved construction of AIB headquarters and AIB training school in Abuja. These projects have started; we have two laboratories – flight safety and material science. For the material science laboratory, it’s a work in progress because we want to transform the material science lab to an avenue where we can make money. We cannot charge for what we do. We don’t charge for accident investigation; we don’t invoice anybody. We can look for little areas where we can use our resources to make money. That is the way we are going so that we can be able to address the issue of funding.
What is AIB doing about information management in case of an air accident?
It’s a very serious issue and I will be honest, it can be frustrating sometimes because some agencies of government don’t really understand the need for collaboration. They don’t understand why we are pushing for this cooperation. I will give you an example, God forbid an aeroplane drops into the sea, AIB doesn’t have the capacity for sea divers to retrieve any wreckage or black boxes, but Nigerian Navy does. Since 2017, I have been pushing the Nigerian Navy to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with AIB. It is not the day that we have an accident that we will start looking for whom to call. This is the essence of these MoUs.
Recently, we signed an MoU with the Nigerian Air Force and one of the benefits of that is that aircraft could drop off anywhere; bad terrain, difficult terrain that we cannot access. Air Force can help us with the logistics. We too can be of help to the Nigeria Air Force because we have a world-class safety lab in Abuja, rather than Air Force sending down their black boxes to overseas for download, they can use our lab in Abuja to do the download and save our country some cost. At the end of the day, it is to the benefit of the entire nation.
National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), we have been on this MoU with them since 2017, we are still talking and that is what I mean by saying sometime it can be frustrating. AIB is not Akin Olateru’s company, but it is a Federal Government agency; we have a mandate. We have got some recognition from some organisations like the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), you could see the way Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA) performed during the last unfortunate accident and that is why we are taking it further to sign an MoU with LASEMA to see how we can train their staff on how we work, what we expect from them when there is a crash. We have done a lot of trainings with the Nigerian Police as the first responder. We have trained civil defense, but like the Nigerian Police, I am still waiting for the MoU to be signed.
I agree with you that it is 100 per cent important for all relevant agencies to come together and work as a team. There is no confusion as to everyone’s roles. We all have independent roles to play, but when we work together; we can achieve a much better coordinated service delivery.
You trained about 10 investigators on the use of drone recently, were you able to deploy it to the crash site of Quorum Aviation helicopter crash?
No, we didn’t. AIB is a responsible agent of government. We can’t flout any government rules and regulations. To operate a drone, you need a license and we are yet to sort that out with NCAA.
In getting the license, part of the requirements is to train your people on how to handle the drones, which we have satisfied. The operator has to be licensed by NCAA. So, we are in the process of normalizing our documentations. You will agree with me that any company or agency of government must constantly review its processes to enhance service delivery. That is one thing we do here, we see how we do it and how we can make betterment or simplify the processes or get a better result for better performance.
Did this hinder your job in getting materials from the crash?
The non-deployment of drones didn’t affect our level of material gathering. The fact is drone is extremely essential when you have a wider area of crash, when you have a crash spanning about half a mile or a mile for instance. It takes time to walk through that to gather information or evidence, but for this one, we were fortunate the crash site was a bit contained. It was not over a large expanse of land. So, that is why we didn’t really miss it, but we hope to fast-track our application with NCAA.
But, on that day, LASEMA used their drones to take some pictures, but for us in AIB, we did very well. We have and gathered the right information. Deployment of drones will happen once we have necessary permit and licensing from NCAA.
How soon will this be?
I can’t speak for NCAA. We are putting our papers together and put in our application; may be by next week. I don’t know how fast. Be mindful, this set of AIB team will probably be the first the NCAA will be licensing. So, it’s a new thing to NCAA, but I believe we will get there.
That was why we used the NCAA approved training company to deliver that training for the investigators.
How many accident investigators do you have in AIB and how much has been extended on their training?
We have 36 trained air safety investigators. We have been training at the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria. For instance, if you come in as a mechanical engineer to AIB, the first thing we want to do is to send you to NCAT to train you on aircraft maintenance engineering programme. Then, you will become a licensed aircraft engineer and from there, we will send you to Southern California Safety Institute in the United States for a two weeks course on accident investigation. Then, you go to Crowfield University for a six weeks programme on accident investigation. You will do the intermediate and the advance courses and there are other courses, which come in between and make you a better investigator.
One thing about training is that it is continuous. We do training in-house. Training is not what you can exactly put cost to because it is versed and it is a continuous process.
But, very soon, all that will change. That is why in the wisdom of FEC, they approved AIB training school to be built in Abuja. The project is ongoing. That will save us all these US dollars that we spend on training overseas. We too can train Africans, people from Europe on accident investigation and the auxiliary costs that go with it. We have drawn up curriculum from Cranfield University, Singapore Training Institute and NCAT. So, we want to make it a world-class institution because we want to push this training through so that we can earn some good money from it for the country and safe us money as well.
Is AIB thinking of how it can generate revenues like some other agencies in the industry?
Under the United Nations (UN) Charter, we cannot charge for our services, which is accident investigation and it’s our core mandate. But, there is nothing stopping us from looking at other areas. I have made mention of the material science lab, we have signed an MoUs with the University of Lagos, University of Ilorin and we are talking with a university in the United Kingdom on the things we need on this material science laboratory so that we can start earning money from this.
The training school is another way we want to earn money. Of course we as a responsible government agency, we are looking for a way and ways of improving our funding positions.
Don’t you think the coming on stream of the AIB Training School will be in conflict with what NCAT is doing at the moment?
First and foremost, we are doing this in conjunction with NCAT, we are not licensed to train, but NCAT is. We developed this curriculum together with great inputs from world-class institutions around the world, because this is new to NCAT as well.
Once the training school is built, we will move in. we want to produce world-class training with what we are trying to achieve so that we can make the best from what we are trying to do.
What is the legacy you will like to leave behind as the Commissioner of AIB?
I think I have answered the question earlier when I said the pillar of any institution is equipment, infrastructure, human capital and system processes and procedures. I will like AIB to be rated a minimum of eight in each of these. Also, I will like to make AIB an enviable place to work in. I will like to make AIB a world-class institution. These are the things I will like to achieve before I take a bow.
Can you share your growing up experience with the public?
I have a very humble background. Growing up wasn’t a silver spoon. I used to hawk when I finished from school. So, you can imagine that kind of growing up as a child. But, one thing that I can say has really helped me is the way my mother handled us while growing up. It’s about what next. She’s doing a task and you are there watching as a child, she wants you to think ahead and do the next thing. My mother didn’t have any patient for mediocrity. She will beat the hell out of you. She was a strong disciplinarian. So, that forced me to always be thinking of what next. This is why i just don’t rest. If I achieve something, I am asking myself ‘what next?’ This has really helped me to achieve discipline. It is making sure you are discipline, making sure you are honest and you don’t take something that doesn’t belong to you. She had to force so many things on us growing up and that really played a major role in who I am today.
I used to hawk boiled corn in Ogbomoso in Oyo State when I was in primary school and when people see me today, they think everything was rosy for me right from childhood, but that is not true. When you finish eating, you have to share a piece of meat with five or six of us.
We grew up where there was no wardrobe, no dining table. You sit on the floor or on a stool. There was no formality to eating. That was the kind of upbringing I had, but to the glory of God, we have been able to improve on that. That is all I can say.
When you look around the world, it is rare for people to be able to reproduce themselves. When you give your children all they need, you are taking one chunk of learning from them because you do all the thinking, you buy them shoes; they don’t have to worry about where all these things will come from, but when you make somebody hungry, then, they will appreciate the need to have good food. When you make it easy, they miss out on the big lesson of life.
So, you look around us today, the most successful people today, who was or is their father? Did you hear their father’s name? Most successful people are from a humble background. That is what really propels them. I used to go to the stream with my sister. I had to device a mean of how to help myself to carry a bucket of water on my head because two of us will go to the stream to fetch water, I will help her and there is nobody to help me. I will take the bucket to a nearby tree, I will put my foot on it, put the bucket on my knees. I just had to work things out. Problem solving; that was how we grew, but if you give your children all they need, you are doing injustice to them because you are not equipping them on how to survive.
Since you assumed office a few years ago, you have been very consistent with your goals, what motivates you on?
The first thing that drives me is valued-added. If I am not adding value to things, I don’t feel fulfilled, making positive change and impact. As I am achieving, I keep going; it is something that makes me happy. Our core mandate is to investigate accident; the question is how have we fared? Are we doing what we are supposed to do? How can we rate ourselves? I can see that in the last few years, we have performed excellently well in that regards. I want to add values, make positive change and leave a better place for people.