Just before 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, a passenger plane from the tiny fleet of Dana Air, a small Nigerian air carrier, began swaying erratically not far from its destination at an airport in Lagos.
The plane clipped the top of a mango tree before crashing into several buildings as it slid to a stop in the densely populated neighborhood of Iju Ishag.
CNN reports that there were 146 passengers on board, along with 7 crew members. A range of nationalities was represented on this domestic flight from Abuja, the nation's capital, to Lagos, a bustling economic hub. Everyone on board perished, as did a still-untallied number of people on the ground in Lagos.
Sunday's tragedy comes one day after another small carrier crash in Ghana; a Nigerian airline called Allied Air was carrying cargo from Lagos when it overshot the runway in Accra, hitting a bus full of passengers and killing 10 people. The flight's four crew members survived.
These incidents have renewed international concerns about Nigeria's poor record for air safety. The country has seen 110 recorded aircraft crashes with a combined death toll of almost 1,500 people since 1943, according to Voice of America.
In the wake of these recent crashes, it may seem that the Nigerian aviation industry is in a dangerous tailspin. But the broader trends make a different case; it's quite possible that air travel in Africa's most populous country is still making halting progress in a very gradual, long-term ascent toward stability.
The aviation industry began in Nigeria when the government bought out its branch of the regional West African Transport Authority in 1960, establishing a state-run enterprise called Nigeria Airways. The operation suffered from terrible inefficiencies and was ultimately too costly for the government to maintain; in the early 1980s, Nigeria opened up the market to private companies.
In those days, aviation was a high-stakes industry in uncharted territory. Air carriers are capital-intensive ventures, and the risks were especially apparent following the government's failure to run an airline of its own.
But that didn't stop scores of hopeful vendors from flooding the market. A report from the journal Lagos Historical Review found that by 1995, the number of licensed Nigerian air carriers for passenger, cargo, and charter flights had reached a whopping 144. But these carriers were often either unwilling or unable to foot the bill for necessary safety measures or even basic upkeep. Despite an uptick in air travel demand, competition was fierce and many of these companies were either consolidated or liquidated in short order.
This period coincided with a long bout of military rule in Nigeria, but 1999 saw a return to civilian government along with a push for more air industry regulations. Several new governmental departments were inaugurated in 1999, including the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), which was responsible for engineering and implementing safety regulations in line with international standards.
Even after 1999, progress was slow. Governmental corruption resulted in the inefficacy of airline regulations during the early 2000s, when safety concerns frequently took a backseat to high-level politicking and profiteering. In 2005, reported the Economist, then-President Olusegun Obasanjo recognized and condemned the situation.
The greatest bane of the aviation industry is corruption. There's a lot of corner-cutting, at the expense of precious lives of Nigerians, he said.
These troubles became manifest in 2005 and 2006, when three high-profile crashes killed a total of 320 people. In October of 2005, a Bellview Airlines flight nose-dived into the ground. Two months later, a Sosoliso Airlines plane full of children crashed due to inclement weather conditions. And in October of 2006, an Aviation Development Company flight crashed less than two minutes after takeoff.
Those three flights were run by small, private carriers, and each of those companies has since been shut down.
The tragedies merited international attention. In 2006 the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations Agency, conducted an audit of the Nigerian air travel sector and found a need to reduce corruption and increase oversight of the country's private airlines. Those recommendations culminated in the passage of the Civil Aviation Act, which helped the NCAA to operate more independently from the government and implemented increased autonomy for the country's Accident Investigation Bureau.
Those efforts have led to some improvements. More money was allocated to airport upgrades, including such simple measures as installing more fire hydrants and building perimeter fences to prevent runway incursions. Aircraft operator certifications are now more difficult to obtain, which has resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of carriers.
In 2008, the International Air Transport Association opened a new office in Nigeria. In 2010, the country was awarded Category-1 status by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, signifying that Nigerian air travel infrastructure had met ICAO standards. The most recent development was a technological one: in April, Nigerian airports began experimenting with satellite-based navigation instead of the less-reliable, often weather-dependent methods of terrestrial air navigation.
The government has also gotten back into the aviation game by partnering with Virgin Atlantic to run Virgin Nigeria Airways, which began offering commercial flights in 2005 and has since been re-branded as Air Nigeria.
Of course, this progress is not unqualified. Corruption is still endemic to Nigeria, and this spills over into the air industry despite efforts to enforce better oversight. In the very week preceding the Dana Air crash, for instance, several aviation regulatory agencies including the NCAA were accused by Senate President David Mark of collusion with foreign airlines. He and many other Nigerians have decried Virgin Airways and British Airways for gouging commercial airfare prices to London. In return for immunity from the government's aviation ministry, it is alleged, these airlines offer free first-class trips for Nigerian dignitaries.
Sweating the Small Stuff
While the air industry suffers from corruption at high levels, the Dana Air crash reveals that there is also a lack of regulatory enforcement at lower levels. There are many private airlines in the country with single-digit fleets and aging equipment, and the Dana Air incident proves that these carriers can fly under the regulatory radar.
An investigation into the cause of the June 3 crash could take months, but at this point it is apparent that the downed plane, which is now believed to have suffered an engine malfunction, should not have been in service in the first place. AllAfrica reported a Nigerian government ruling in 2010 that no aircraft over 20 years old should be allowed in the country's airspace.
But Dana Air did not meet those standards. According to data from Planespotters.net, the small carrier had five active aircraft in service before Sunday's crash. All of them were used vehicles; all of them were over 20 years old.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has now pledged to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.
This particular incident is a major setback for us. By the end of the day we'll make sure that this doesn't repeat itself in this country, he said to reporters at the site of the crash.
Such promises may sound empty, especially to family and friends of the 153 people who were onboard Dana Air flight 9J-992. But there is hope; the situation for Nigeria's air industry is not as dire as it may seem in the immediate wake of the tragedy. This is, after all, the first high-casualty crash in six years. The situation has greatly improved since the era before enhanced regulation, when fatal crashes occurred with alarming frequency.
The Dana crash makes it clear that regulations, though effective, have not gone far enough. Preventable civilian deaths show the real cost of lax regulations and governmental corruption -- this tragedy should spur the aviation industry to implement still more safety measures.
Aging aircraft are a major concern; many small carriers cannot afford to buy new planes and have been forced to purchase used ones instead. Nigeria's most pressing, immediate responsibility is to more forcefully implement its 2010 rule against all planes over 20 years old. If Dana Air's craft were all beyond the legal limit, it is likely than many other small airlines are also in violation.
Also necessary are more standardized programs for airline staff training, modernizations of local airports, increased maintenance surveys of aircraft, stronger efforts to divorce governmental oversight agencies from political interests, and an expansion of the spotty radar coverage across the country.
Hope and Tears
Nigeria should be able to find the resources to make these and other necessary changes. After all, reported the ICAO in 2011, things are going well for the aviation industry there -- even despite the global economic environment.
Nigerian airlines have fared better that the industry average during this period, benefitting from the State's enormous investments and advances in technology and infrastructure and the deregulation of its airline industry, said the report. Nigeria now represents an excellent example of an emerging market economy that has bucked the trend in the middle of a global slowdown, to the extent that last year the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria reported that air traffic in the country had increased by 31 percent.
That's no small achievement. But as with virtually every other sector in Nigeria, the real challenge is to implement policies that turn prosperity into progress. In a country that is relatively rich from oil revenues but whose population suffers widespread poverty due to endemic governmental corruption and the severe stratification of wealth, many citizens are not surprised that the aviation industry suffers from a lack of regulation.
Al Jazeera reports that following the crash, many Nigerians criticized their country's airlines for putting profit before safety, noting that technical difficulties on domestic flights are common occurrences even when they don't lead to fatalities.
The Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah-Ogiemwonyishe, was clearly shaken by the tragedy. Sworn in only last year, she represents a new face for the leadership of a government ministry that has long struggled to convince the Nigerian people of its efficacy.
At a press conference in Lagos on Sunday, dressed all in black, the aviation minister wiped tears from her eyes as she offered her condolences to the nation.
I am extremely saddened by the news of the crash and I assure the nation that investigations are underway, she said. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the passengers and the people on the ground who lost their lives in this tragedy.