Recent developments in the aviation sector such as compliance of airlines has put the industry under focus. Increasingly, experts are calling on the regulator to step up its duties to improve the nation’s safety ratings. In this interview with KELVIN OSA-OKUNBOR, Captain Ibrahim Mshelia, the Chairman, West Link Airlines and owner of Mish Aviation, a private aviation training school in Ghana sheds light on the interventions needed raise the stakes of aviation.
Do you think the aviation industry is over regulated, especially given what has transpired recently?
Aviation cannot be over regulated because it has a process. It is one of the most regulated industries in the world. But it is also the normal thing. So, any aviator would readily acknowledge it is the most regulated. But to say over-regulated, I don’t think this is correct. Yes, there is over zealousness in some cases by individuals but the regulation is very clear. Before it is made, it is proposed to stakeholders, amendments are made, our voices are taken into account and then the regulation comes out.
What about the regulatory regime?
Even though the regulation needs more of our voices because when they were passed into law, there were some complaints of insufficient time given for contributions, but then it was due to an upcoming external audit or so I gathered. But aviation needs to be regulated the way it is, but whether there are lacuna here and there obviously there are is another thing.
Quite frankly, there is a Nigerian factor in almost everything we do, so we don’t say that is NCAA even, we, the operators, too, there are Nigerian factors in our attitude, but as far as safety is concerned, we would never have made the FAA category 1, if we are not doing things right.
What about the last incident with Azman? What do you think went wrong, if anything?
NCAA needs to take a knock for that, particularly those things that are meant to be comprehension issues. There is always a yardstick before you become a pilot – you have to be age 17, minimum. If you go to some schools they’d say you have to have English and Mathematics minimum, my school adopted the same and the reason is simply because flying is a science and when you know Mathematics and English, you’d be able to comprehend the teachings of aviation and aerodynamics and co. So, it makes it easier when you have that background. It’s like a foundation, but it does not also necessarily mean that you cannot achieve the same result doing it differently.
What could the NCAA have done differently ?
So, what NCAA has done in that case where they need to get a knock is because, they were complacent in certifying the key post holders, you must have post holders that are qualified and if you have a key post holders, who is supposed to be at the helm, he must comply with certain minimum standards just as ICAO says for the NCAA man to inspect you and we hammer on that, we insist that the NCAA must make sure that whoever they send to inspect must have qualifications equivalent to those they are coming to inspect or above.
Are there gaps in the system?
Now, it looks like there are lapses on their side and so they allowed lapses on the other side. To be an accountable manager or a key post holder, you have to be qualified; even go through an interview; even that interview must be in the English he understands. The duty of an Accountable manager is simplified but actually difficult as he must understand the workings and what he is expected to do with this your company. The answer is yes, they tick it, but do you really understand? There will be maintenance issues coming up, for the tyre issue.
Has the policy of banning aircraft that are over 22 years from operating in Nigeria helped develop this industry?
First of all, I am not aware of any country, including Nigeria, that based airworthiness of aircraft on age. Once the aircraft can meet the requirements for Certificate of Airworthiness (C of A), it is issued to that aircraft and owner, the certificate signifying that the aircraft is safe to fly.
It’s not scientifically correct to restrict importation on age and we have said this times without number. A professional colleague is a minister, we hope these are some of the things he will reverse before he leaves. The initial 22 years’ban were best left as politically motivated for reasons that no longer exists, so why is it still there? To give a 22-year life sentence for registration is premature. I call on the Federal Government to, please, remove that from the laws so NCAA can do their job. That’s for NCAA actually to determine and not the ministry and or the National Assembly.The 22-year ban was done during the tenure of Mrs Kema Chikwe as minister and the National Assembly of that time. Haba! It’s encouraged that laws be revised every 10 years. It’s been over 20 years and nobody seems to be making any efforts to delete this very bad anti-development law. A plane only flies when a properly trained and certified pilot is on it flying it. For a serviceable aircraft and a qualified pilot to fly, they also need a third approval to do so: It is either it is flown for commercial purposes or private use. Both require prior permits or licences before you can operate the plane(s). So, an aircraft is not like a car that you have road worthiness and drivers’ licence, then start your car and start moving!! No!, cars and planes are different kettles of fish.
What about the effect on private aircraft?
For private use, you are not subjected to rigorous procedures for maintenance and operation as the commercial where Air Operator Certificate (AOC) is required. In essence, NCAA is there to ensure passengers who pay are served safely and in accordance with approved demonstrated ability and quality. So, it’s a high risk and illegal to fly passengers for reward or payment when you are not certified. In case of accident in such cases, even the insurance will smile away because commercial passengers are only insured on airplanes operated by approved AOC holders.
Is age important when it comes to safety of aircraft operations?
Age is not a factor of serviceability. Yes, ageing aircraft programme can be more expensive, but not out of scope for operators to comply. Again, aircraft are designed to last based on material test and capabilities of air frames among other things. A non-pressurised air frame will have to be damaged or corroded before it becomes a concern for safety. The pressurised air frame, however, is designed based on tested design circles. Each time you take off and land with a pressuring air frame, you add stress to cabin as you pressurise and wings when you land. The manufacturer counts each flight (take-off and landing) as a cycle.
What about the life cycles for aircraft?
Now, some manufacturers can design air frames to go up to 60,000 cycles or more. Let’s look at a typical Nigerian airline which does an average four flights with one particular aircraft per day and Monday to Friday as weekends are usually used for maintenance and light schedule. So, we will add per cent at the end to compensate for the weekends). Four flights a day at five days per week in 52 weeks of the year will be 1,040 cycles. So, if we divide, base on say an assumed first lifespan cycle of 30,000 cycles,1,040 annual circles will be 28 years. And mind you, this can also go through a D check and be renewed again for whatever the test determines or even another 30,000 cycles etc. Don’t forget too that no plane can fly continuously back-to-back for 28 years; they will probably fly average of eight to 10 months in a year. Take an average of nine months. That should extend the first life by 28 by further three month yearly, which is additional seven years. Thus the first circle for that aircraft before overhaul will be 35 years minimum. Twenty-two years, therefore, is a far cry!!.
When do you think an aircraft is no longer serviceable?
When the manufacturer’s circles are reached and material failures cannot be guaranteed and, therefore, aircraft is unable to pass certain laid down ageing programme maintenance checks and fail to pass a C or A inspection. Then that aircraft is scrapped. Or if the owner feels like he does not want the plane anymore and scraps it. There are too many technicalities that should not be politicised. Those who take decisions don’t know and, therefore, rely on consultants. There are so many armchair “consultants” these days. A real professional will wait to be invited. Those in office should be weary of those who throw themselves at them, claiming to be experts under all sorts of names. Otherwise we will never discard some of these obnoxious rules that hinder General Aviation (GA) growth. When GA grows, everything grows!!!
Can you explain the maintenance cycle of an aircraft and if any check from A-D compensates for the aircraft hull?
The opening question has the details. Maintenance is not based on age, but hours or circles.These hours or circles take 100 years, depending on utilisation. If you are allowed say 30,000 circles as explained, the circles cannot be back-to-back and day to day. Thirty thousand circles, even when flown back-to-back, if it were possible, will occur in 28 years plus. or as late as 100 years in low utilisation. So, you see how that ban was insensitive to scientific reality. I don’t even like talking about it quite frankly. It’s a standard one would expect an FAA CAT1 country not to take at all. An accident obviously retires aircraft if the level of damage is serious like C level or bad B level damage.
How does this industry think it can develop when the financial capacity to sustain this is not available?
Well, the only way is to start general aviation, ease the process and allow more competition. That’s the most civil solution. If I have an airline flying for less, I will choose that cheaper one. But when there seems to be a gang up between the few available, then they can do what they want. You also cannot stop them. It’s a matter of choice and when a provider chooses to exploit or take advantage, then the client can choose the alternatives or cancel. More airlines are coming on stream, this will mitigate this problem. In defence of the airlines, there are many factors that affect ticket pricing in Nigeria. Aviation does not enjoy oil money anymore.
What about aviation agencies ?
The agencies have to employ people above what they need because there is pressure from all over. They also have to generate revenue to pay the staff, develop infrastructure and maintain them. Not only that, they have to contribute to the Federation Account some 25 per cent of income or so. I am not sure of the figure but I think 25 per cent or so. Airlines are faced sometimes with fuel price increase like every other day. More labour force at the agencies because they are forced to employ everyone and must pay salary and sustain them at work. How can they do these without taxing the airlines heavily? I feel those who advised the government to remove the Aviation ministry from Federal subvention should go back and re-jig the ideas and re- advise government to amend the decision. Even funding the salaries from the subvention will ease the agencies and cause a huge relief from the burden. Ideally, the number of staff are just way more than required but because we must give employment to citizens, by all means, why not? But we must also try not to over milk the cow because we may soon end up without any. It’s the government’s responsibility to provide all sorts of security, including jobs. Let them pay them directly while the agencies use them. Also, inconsistent fuel pricing, airlines paying duty for spare parts on waivers. As I speak, I still pay duty for all parts I import to service our aircraft. I don’t even know if there is anything we produce locally that we use to operate our aircraft these days besides just catering. Depending on imports for everything and yet-duty waivers granted are still being collected from operators is part of what’s making the citizens and travellers pay more. Operators have to recover their investments. They are encouraged by same system to also recover their costs.The government, therefore, holds the final say on these.