Reflections on aviation safety and international collaboration

aviationGrowth of Aviation in Africa and Nigeria’s influence in the aviation landscape
African leaders and major entrepreneurs of Nigerian descent are working tirelessly to ensure that the transformation of the African region into the economic powerhouse of the world is not only achievable but also unstoppable. These developments have profound implications for people in the aviation industry all over the world. My understanding is that within only few years, Africa can be not only the world’s largest producer of goods and services, it will also be the world’s largest consumer of them.

Africa is already the second most populous region in the world and importantly, it has a significant number of the world’s increasingly wealthy and mobile middle class; I would call them the catalyst for growth in aviation whose influence will be central to creating new opportunities. To put some perspective, we must not take it for granted that we can now travel within Africa without having to go to a European capital first before connecting another flight back to the continent like Justice Akinola Aguda used to do when he was Chief Justice of Botswana. Also, over the past few years many African carriers have emerged to challenge the traditional dominance of foreign airlines from the West, and more recently from the Middle East.

Overall, international air traffic to and from the continent has been growing at about six per cent a year over the last decade, while domestic traffic has been growing at 12 per cent, driven largely by an explosion of activity in Nigeria. In southern and eastern Africa, air traffic is growing strongly around the hubs in Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi. However, in central and western Africa, the market is stagnant, and the vacuum created by the tensions of disease, politics and insurgency in several countries in the region and the demise of several regional airlines (notably Air Afrique) remains largely unfilled. No clear hub has emerged on the west side of the continent. Lagos would be an obvious choice, but it is not currently in a position to play the role; a reality demanding sober reflection by our policy makers and every well-meaning Nigerian.

Transforming one of Nigeria’s airports into the hub in West Africa should surely be at the heart of any meaningful agenda for aviation in Nigeria. It is beyond the scope to speak here of the advantages of making Nigeria a hub for West Africa. It suffices to say that there are numerous political, social, and economic benefits for the country if we choose to conceive and properly implement this idea. Just as this region has a lot to offer us, we have a lot to offer to this region!

Nigeria has what could be world-leading aviation institutions, a multi-cultural and highly skilled workforce, a productive, open and strong presence with other international aviation partners where we could act as an honest broker to transfer knowledge and experiences to this region.

With this growth in the industry, the NCAA (Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority) as Nigeria’s aviation regulator has an important role to play in making a safer regulatory policy environment within which our aviation industry needs to operate effectively and efficiently and above all safely, at the end of the day, we are dealing with the lives of the travelling public. Therefore, the role of a safety regulator should not be under estimated.

International engagement– bilateral relationships
Nigeria has the strength that comes from a history of long standing relationships with countries in Africa. In some ways the close proximity and the diverse demographics of our country have contributed to form strong and robust relationships especially in the West African region. Therefore, our international relationships should be aimed at contributing to Nigeria’s efforts to meet its international civil aviation obligations. But equally, having strong working relationships with key aviation safety partners will both promote the development of Nigeria’s civil aviation safety capabilities and enhance the aviation safety of neighbouring African countries.

Engagement with the global aviation industry, and with aviation safety regulators in other countries, is vital in a world “shrunk” by aviation. Nigeria can achieve this through participation in international forums, particularly the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and through direct discussions and arrangements with overseas agencies.

Nigeria is a signatory to the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention), which provides for the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation. By now, Nigeria should have at least achieved and maintained a Member State of Chief Importance in air transport status in ICAO. However, to do so, Nigeria’s participation in ICAO must ensure a coordinated and consistent approach that demonstrates rigour through participation in a number of panels, working groups and other forums. We must engage in all of our international work while still taking into consideration our responsibility for aviation safety at home. A productive engagement with other regulators benefits us all, through increased standardisation and knowledge building.

Nigeria needs to take leadership in establishing contacts with key aviation safety regulators in the African region with a view to establishing arrangements that reduce the regulatory burden without compromising safety. These agreements also benefit industry and bring opportunities to work across participating states in some cases.

Our national aviation vision should be safe skies for all, and our mission should be to enhance and promote aviation safety through effective regulation and by encouraging the wider aviation community to embrace and deliver higher standards of safety. Clearly, this mission extends beyond Nigeria’s borders and remains committed to actively engaging with the global aviation community to further enhance aviation safety that will contribute to the growth of the aviation industry we regulate. The NCAA has a major role to play in this regard.

Improving safety and public confidence through the regulatory development process
Updating our regulations is part of the continual improvement of aviation safety. Rules cannot remain static, as safety knowledge and understanding improves, the rules must evolve to reflect better safety practices, new technology and scientific research. The development of new rules is not a process done in isolation by any one agency. Ideally, the development of regulatory standards is done in a collaborative process involving all stakeholders in the aviation community to ensure that the views and contributions of all participants are considered in an open, transparent, structured and disciplined manner. This combined effort has helped to address known safety risks in a cost effective manner in other climes, and the same can be replicated in Nigeria.

We all know that one of our key challenges is to maintain and improve safety. This has not changed, but the environment we operate in continues to change and evolve. The aviation sector is probably the safest it has ever been, but it takes effort and vigilance to make this happen and keep it so. This is not just the role of the regulator; it is the responsibility of the whole aviation industry. We must continue to adapt to a changing environment and we must continue to improve.

We must seek to align any new regulations as closely as practicable with ICAO standards and recommended practices, and to harmonise where appropriate with the standards of leading aviation countries, unless differences are justified on grounds of safety risk.

For the aviation industry there will be a range of benefits flowing from the new regulations. The 2009 NCARs are logically organised into clear parts. And the proposed amendments to the 2009 regulations will make it much easier for the industry to find and apply the relevant requirements. For example, specific aspects of the regulations are designed to address known and likely safety risks, and aim to further strengthen the current regulatory structure to deliver improved safety outcomes.

The aviation industry is fast moving and dynamic in nature. Nigeria must be ready to meet the challenges of the future and find ways to deliver better safety outcomes if we are going to take our place as a serious aviation nation. We must be continuously looking at ways to enhance aviation safety in Nigeria and looking at ways to share our experience with countries in this region. My commitment as airline chief executive is to deliver an aviation safety system that performs even better, with risks identified and managed to minimise accidents and incidents, so that the traveling public feels safe and assured to travel. That should be the focus of everyone in our beloved industry.
Capt. Josiah Choms (PhD) is a leader in the aviation industry and serves on the Global Board of HeliOffshore.

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