Friday, April 18, 2008

Africa's Deadly Skies


We had planned a big farewell dinner for yesterday and booked fancy hotels for our Financial Director who is moving on to greener or snowier pastures as the case may be.

Getting hotel rooms in Accra has turned in to quite a nightmare these days, with a seemingly endless flow of business, aid and trade visitors flocking to Ghana’s capital and lack of planning for this has meant that if you want a decent hotel room you must book months in advance. This time we were organised enough to know the dates that the team would be flying across from Nigeria, and booked the rooms accordingly.
We booked the restaurant venue, the gifts, the speeches – all organised.

But then we got the call from Nigeria – “our plane is delayed – no fuel”. This is common enough. Even British Airways has had to reroute flights between Accra and Lagos, en route to the UK because either of the countries has no aviation fuel available. Nigeria is the 6th largest oil producing country in the world. Yet it is difficult to organise fuel for the aircrafts…

Anyway, we expected the flight would be late so this was not a big issue. Only an hour later they called back to say that there was actually no plane on the runway, so the story about no fuel was losing credibility. A few phone calls from other Nigerians confirmed there was a much more ominous reason for the flight delay. The aircraft had actually made an emergency crash landing in Port Harcourt (a smaller town airport) the night before. Hence there would be no flight. Details of the accident are very sketchy.

Today I found an article online that lists the issue as having been the captain’s response to smoke in the cargo hold and a subsequent alarm.
Our team had considered joining the lines to try and get seats on another of the two airlines also flying to Accra but the mayhem was too much – with the pushing, shoving and general aggression they decided to give the whole thing a miss and cancel the trip. We’ll try again soon.

The question is how confident are they to travel again soon? How likely is it that the plane will not make the journey next time?

In Africa, sadly, the chances are pretty high. This was a major commercial airline. There are hundreds of smaller, less known, banned in Europe airlines across the continent that rent or purchase 20 to 30 year old aircrafts and hope for the best. In 2006/2007 there were three fatal plane crashes in Nigeria. The rest of the continent has the same frightening statistics.

Late last year a Kenya Airways plane took off from Douala in Cameroon, en route to Nairobi and fell from the sky less than 20 km from the airport. Apparently there was a serious storm but the pilot took off anyway. It took rescue crews and all police, fire and army forces over 48 hours to locate the crash site! Meanwhile I was sending e-mails in vain to a customer of ours. He had been on the flight…
Even back in 2003, the BBC ran an article called the Dangers of Flying in Africa.

Below is a brief list of examples of the crashes that have dotted the African landscape over the past 10 years. The last few years have not made the list but the fatalities continue to rise.

Just this week an aircraft took off from the airport in Kinshasa DRC, and crashed into a crowded market minutes later…

Some of the worst recent aviation disasters in Africa are:
• January 1996: More than 300 people died when a cargo plane crashed in a city market in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

• November 1996: 142 people were killed when a Nigerian jet fell into a lagoon near the country's economic capital, Lagos.
Later the same month a hijacked Ethiopian plane crashed into the Indian Ocean. At least 125 people died.

• January 2000: A Kenyan plane crashed into the sea off the west African state of Ivory Coast, killing 169 people.

• May 2002: 149 people died when a Nigerian plane crashed in to a slum on landing at the northern city of Kano.

• March 2003: An Algerian passenger craft crashed on take-off from the Sahara desert town of Tamanrasset, killing 102 people.

• May 2003: Some 200 people fell to their deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo when the door of their plane opened in mid-air.

• July, 2003: The crash of a Sudanese aircraft in the east of the country killed 115 people.

• December 2003: A passenger plane crashed in the sea on take-off from Benin, killing 139 people.

• October 2005: All 117 people aboard a Nigerian aircraft died when it came down in a swamp during a thunderstorm.

• December 2005: 107 people, many of whom were schoolchildren, died when their plane crashed on landing in Nigeria.

• October 2006: Another flight came down in Nigeria, killing 96.

• April 2007: Dozens were killed when a passenger plane crashed near Goma, in the DRC.

• May 2007: A Kenyan passenger plane crashed in Cameroon, killing 114.

• October 2007: More than 50 people died when a cargo plane crashed in a crowded district of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. - Sapa-AFP

In Africa, who investigates these crashes? Who ensures the safety standards are met? How many accidents are even reported on a broad scale?

I am headed to Liberia in a few weeks time for business. I know that most people believe ‘when our time comes, it comes’ but I must say that flying in Africa is one way to push the envelope, to really tempt fate.

Really puts a farewell party into perspective. I guess a couple cancelled hotel rooms and an annoyed restaurant manager is better than what could have happened…
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