By Ehi Braimah
These are certainly not the best of times for the global aviation industry with the news of another Boeing 737 Max 8 dropping off the sky recently. An Ethiopian Airlines passenger plane, a Boeing 737 Max 8 carrying 149 passengers and 8 crew members, crashed last Sunday in Bishoftu, near Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, shortly after take-off. It was meant to be a two hours flight to Nairobi, Kenya – a regular flight schedule — that ended in a tragedy killing everyone on board and the whole world is united in grief.
CNN’s Richard Quest says brand new planes should not be falling off the skies during an interview on the global news network in the aftermath of the crash – this would be the second crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft within a space of six months. This news is not good to the ears and it must be causing Boeing a nightmare and a global PR challenge. On October 29 last year, a Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft operated by Lion Air, an Indonesian carrier, also suffered the same fate — the plane crashed into the Jakarta Sea 13 minutes after take-off from Soekarno International airport, killing all the 189 passengers and crew on board. It was meant to be a short one hour flight to Pangkal Pinang.
When I checked online resources using Google search, available information on recent plane crashes indicate that the Indonesian carrier, after taking off from runway 25L, made a climbing left-hand turn after which the crew radioed a request to return to the airport. The aircraft then showed an erratic pattern of flight and began losing altitude until it crashed into the sea, nine miles off the Jakarta coast. The flight data recorder showed the air speed indicator malfunctioned on the last four flights of the aircraft, a deeply troubling revelation and a matter of grave concern for aviation authorities and Boeing engineers. Flight ET302 also crashed shortly after take-off last Sunday, and passengers of 35 different nationalities lost their lives including two Nigerians — Prof Pius Adesanmi, a literary scholar based in Canada and Ambassador Abiodun Bashua, a former UN diplomat.
Expectedly, there have been reactions concerning the design and configuration of the aircraft from China and Ethiopia – both countries, according to media reports, have suspended the operation of Boeing 737 Max 8 which is the latest upgrade in the 737 series. A lot of travellers around the world are genuinely concerned about the tragedy because Ethiopian airlines (ET) have built a great reputation as an African airline that can be trusted especially as it prides itself as “The New Spirit of Africa”. ET was founded on December 21, 1945 but commenced operation on April 8, 1946 – 73 years ago. With a fleet size of 108 operating aircrafts and a pending order of 65 aircrafts – some owned and others leased. The airline operates the youngest fleet in Africa and most of the airline’s passengers are Nigerians with very positive feedbacks.
Back home, Air Peace, now in its fifth year and operating about 90 flights daily on its domestic and regional routes, had to issue a press statement to clarify the mixed messages on their pending order for 10 brand new Boeing 737 Max 8 aircrafts. According to Chris Iwarah, corporate communications manager of Air Peace, the airline was closely following and monitoring the developments on issues involving the aircraft that prioritises the safety and well-being of their passengers. He noted that Boeing and the aviation authorities can satisfactorily address all the challenges posed by 737 Max 8 aircrafts once on-going investigations are concluded. Air Peace is responsible for 75% of all the domestic flights to 14 cities and five regional destinations – Accra, Banjul. Dakar, Freetown and Monrovia. The airline, under the leadership of Barrister Allen Onyeama, is poised to launch its international operations with the Boeing 777 aircrafts in its fleet.
When you visit our local and international airports, what you find are Nigerians – in great numbers – who ready to board the next available flights to their various destinations. The challenges in the aviation sector in Nigeria are legendary and evident for all to see. For example, our airport infrastructures are shambolic and nowhere near what you find in other countries; some airports cannot operate at night because they do not have instrument landing systems; airport security can be better; aviation fuel and landing charges, I’m told, are very expensive! These issues among other bureaucratic bottlenecks such as the politics of relevance and power play by the regulatory authorities pose serious safety concerns and create panic attack each time passengers are at the airports for their scheduled flights. I know some people who prefer to travel by road even when you assure them that air travel is still the safest option. One of them, a former congressman, travels by road from Lagos to Abuja regularly; sometimes, he goes as far as Kaduna, Kano and Sokoto. He tells me he’s happy with the road trips because he was lucky to have missed an ill-fated flight several years ago.
To start with, our roads are very unsafe with several bobby traps called pot holes resulting in multiple accidents and deaths of road users. By the time you add the ugly experience of passengers and drivers who are constantly ‘molested’ by uniformed officers on the highways, and not forgetting the menace of armed robbers, kidnappers and ritual killers, you will discover that road trips can be harrowing. After so many years of trying, the Lagos – Benin expressway is still struggling to get a pass mark; it ought to have at least four lanes on both sides by now. You’re not even sure of the condition of the vehicles on the roads – from their engines to tyres, brakes, break lights, side and rear mirrors and so on. Speed limits are rarely observed – most accidents are caused by over speeding and when the driver sleeps off. This is the reason why air travel is still an attractive option in Nigeria for busy executives and business people.
Once the doors of the aircraft are shut and the belly lifts up and points skywards, one can only hope for a safe flight; at over 30,000 feet above sea level, there’s little you can do. When technical problems arise or when the plane flies into a bad weather – which we do not pray for but it happens – pilots have been trained to explore the best options available in the circumstance. I recall a local flight where the pilot asked the cabin crew to sit throughout the flight because of bad weather. Before we took off, it had rained cats and dogs with menacing dark clouds and intermittent claps of loud thunderstorms. When we finally landed after spending more time in the air, I remember saying to myself: did we really have to embark on that flight? Turbulent weathers come unannounced and sustained turbulence can be wreck your nerves and make you uncomfortable.
By the time the plane touches down, there’s a feeling of conquest and the phones go off the hook in a moment of excitement, as we call family, friends and loved ones to announce that the flight landed safely. Before boarding, the message would have been, “Safe flight”, but after landing, what you hear is, “Thank God for safe arrival”. May we continue to fly in safety and comfort in Nigeria and around the world.
Braimah is a public relations and marketing strategist based in Lagos