Monday, June 11, 2012

Air travellers flood to Arik Air for domestic flights after probe discloses age of planes

Following the publication of the probable age of aircraft operated by Nigerian airlines, considerable passenger traffic has gravitated to Arik Air, which has now become the first airline of choice for airline passengers travelling on domestic and regional flights.

The report, which was published a few days after last Sunday's crash of a Dana Air plane at a Lagos suburb, showed that while the average age of other airlines' fleets ranged between 13.5 and 25.6 years, the average fleet age for Arik Air was 5.5 years.

Meanwhile, the crashed Dana Air MD 83 plane that killed 153 persons on board, and six persons on the ground, was said to have been retired by Alaska Air in 2008 after two incidents of smoke in the cabin.

But Nigerian air passengers, most of whom are erroneously equating the fleet age of an airline with safety, have embraced Arik Air, reputed to have the newest fleet in the industry, with other airlines ruing their losses.

Industry sources, for example, confirmed to THISDAY that one of the airlines, Aero Contractor, whose average fleet age was put at 19.7 years in the report, has noticed a slight decrease in load factors.

As a result of the developments, touts have cashed in on the increase in load factors being witnessed by Arik Air to extort desperate passengers who are sometimes made to pay more than double the official airfare for a trip.

Also, the makeshift facilities at the General Aviation Terminal, from which Arik Air operates, owing to ongoing reconstruction work at the terminal, is currently overstretched as passengers compete for space with touts who are mopping up tickets to resell to passengers at outrageous prices.

However, Arik's head of communications, Banji Ola, who acknowledged the surge in load factors on his airline, said that it has not altered the prices of the airline's tickets, which range from between N26,000 and N27,000 for economy class fares on the Lagos-Abuja route.

He said unlike other airlines that increased their fares based on increase in load factors, Arik hardly increased fares on cue.

"The number of passengers cannot make us increase fares. Our fares from Lagos to Abuja are about N26,000 to N27,000, so even if there are one million passengers that fare cannot change," he stated.

He said the airline could not be blamed for the activities of the touts, adding that passengers who patronised them are taking undue risks.

He admitted that because of the ongoing reconstruction work at GAT where the airline is using makeshift canopies for its ticketing and check-in desks, it would be cumbersome for some people to go in and buy tickets but the situation was beyond the airline's control.

He was hopeful that the chaos would end in the next three months when the reconstruction work would have been completed.

Ola said the airline was concerned about the invasion of the terminal by touts but remarked that it was beyond Arik's control, because the facility is managed by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN).

"I have received several reports on the activities of touts but what baffles me is why people would not follow the proper channel for buying tickets from the airlines, instead they will prefer to patronise touts.

"These touts are damaging the image of this country, but there is nothing the airline can do about it; concerned authorities should act," he added.

Against the backdrop of the report on the average fleet age of the airlines, airline operators have said the major issue about safety in air transport is the effective maintenance of an aircraft and not its age.

Operators noted that a new aircraft that is not regularly maintained was far more dangerous than an old aircraft that is well maintained.

Chairman of the Airline Operators of Nigeria, Dr. Steve Mahounwu, said in Lagos at the weekend that the publication on the average fleet age of the airlines could create psychological problems for intending air travellers.

Mahounwu stated that if an airline regularly goes for all the mandatory checks, such as the 'C' and 'D' checks, during which the whole aircraft is overhauled, "it will come back like a new one."

The Secretary-General of OAN, Captain Mohammed Joji, corroborated Mahounwu, saying that the fact that an aircraft is still relatively new was not a factor in determining its airworthiness, "but how regularly all the checks are done."

Joji who frowned upon the knee-jerk reaction of the federal government to the Dana Air crash, faulted the Senate for setting up a panel to probe the airlines, adding that aviation is a technical sector that should be handled by professionals.

Meanwhile, a report by Associated Press has indicated that the crashed Dana plane was originally owned by Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, which acquired the aircraft from McDonnell Douglas in October 1990 and later sold it in May 2007 to North Shore Aircraft LLC that operated it under lease until the aircraft was retired in August 2008.

Spokesman of Alaska Air, Paul McElroy, was reported to have said the aircraft was maintained according to the stipulation of the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States regulations and had a valid certificate of airworthiness even after the two incidents of smoke in the plane in November 2002 and August 2006.

Alaska Air was said to have operated 26 MD-83 aircraft, which it replaced by August 2008 with an all-Boeing 737 fleet.

Reacting to the tragic crash, Boeing, which bought McDonnell Douglas in 1997, said it was ready to provide technical assistance to the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority.

However, several industry experts have blamed the crash on the failure of regulation and on the airline for possibly cutting corners, but not on the age of the aircraft, because if well maintained, a 22-year-old aircraft is still considered airworthy.

THISDAY also learnt that preliminary investigations indicated that the aircraft had suffered engine failure prior to the accident while still under Alaska Airlines and on November 4, 2002, when it suffered a technical hitch which led to an emergency due to smoke in the cabin when the light ballast was overheated. A similar incident occurred in 2008.

These incidents prompted the management of Alaska Airlines to withdraw the plane from service and got it stored at Victorville, US on September 11, 2008, where the plane was sent to a maintenance facility at Miami.

It was after this that the plane was sold to Dana Air on February 17, 2009 and the registration number changed from the American code N944AS to Nigeria's 5N-RAM.

However, barely one year after delivery to Dana Air, the aircraft had an emergency landing following the loss of engine power after a bird strike on take-off in Lagos.

Recently, in Calabar, it suffered another technical hitch before it crashed last Sunday due to engine failure.

This Day

Related stories: Video - Investigation begins on crashed Dana Airliner

Nigerian government suspends Dana Air indefinitely

Video - President Goodluck Jonathan visits Dana plane crash site in Lagos, Nigeria

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