Thursday, August 21, 2014

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Africa’s Aviation Record: Death By Numbers

Despite global improvements in airline safety, parts of Africa remain a cause for concern.
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Sudan Airways Boeing 737-200 landing on London Heathrow airport. Photograph by Dean Morley.

Globally, airline safety is improving. Over the past few years, the number of crashes has been reduced incrementally. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of airlines involved in accidents decreased from 2.6 to 2.4 incidents per every one million departures.

According to the senior vice president for Safety, Operations and Infrastructure at the International Air Transport Agency (IATA), Günther Matschnigg, the region with the largest improvement in safety performance over the last few years was sub-Saharan Africa with 61%, followed by the Middle East & North Africa with 25%.

Broadly speaking, however, Africa still remains an area for concern. Its safety record is nine times worse than the rest of the world. Africa had the fewest scheduled commercial flights between 2001 and 2010, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), yet an accident rate that is four to five times higher than other continents.

Although some of the reasons for Africa’s lagging performance are related to poverty, others are connected to politics. Many hope that a summer summit hosted by the IATA will encourage further improvement.

Sudan: A prime example

Sudan has a poor aviation record. In its history there have been a total of 24 fatal accidents in Sudan, killing a total 464 people.

A helicopter crash in Sudan on 19 August killed all 32 passengers on board, and proved a further reminder of Africa’s worrying aviation record. It was the second helicopter crash in Africa this year, causing the death a number of government ministers, two army generals, and the leader of the Peace and Justice Party.

In 2003, a Sudan Airways Boeing 737 on its way to Khartoum from Port Sudan crashed just after take-off, killing 115 with only one survivor - a baby.

Two years later, a helicopter crash occurred on the Uganda-Sudanese border, killing former Vice President of Sudan and President of the Government of Sudan,  John Garang, as well as thirteen others. This sparked four days of riots across Sudan, in which 96 people were killed.

There have been a total of 14 airline crashes in the history of Sudan Airways. Its turning point finally came after the 2008 crash of Flight 109 from Damascus, which crashed upon landing and burst into flames, killing 30. The gravity of this incident was acknowledged by the state and Sudanese Airlines was suspended for a month to conduct a major overhaul and undertake greater safety measures.

Causes of crashes

But the key factors resulting in these aviation crashes apply for much of Africa: poor infrastructure, electricity cuts, limited technology, bad weather, poor policing and a lack of political will. According to William Voss, President of the Flight Safety Foundation: “frequently, the authorities that are charged with overseeing aviation have very little authority.”

In May 2012, Africa’s poor aviation safety record prompted an IATA Summit in Johannesburg. Initiatives including supporting African governments, addressing the causes of "runaway excursions", introducing auditing for non-IATA member airlines and monitoring flight data in Africa were agreed upon.

Even with these new initiatives, leaders of the civil aviation community and African governments have been slow to address the continent’s aviation record. Other concerns have taken political priority and some states have accepted the causes as inherent to poor countries and blaming poor aviation records on a lack of know-how or training can hardly be seen as justifiable. For instance, the crew manning the August helicopter crash in Sudan had 17 years of experience between them.

The politics of improvement

These malfunctions are not entirely down to technical or pilot failures - they have political roots.

Of the 25 total countries with airline carriers on the European Union’s ban list, due to safety concerns, 18 of them are African. Yet some speculate that this may be due to the market dominance of airlines like Air France. However, in spite of the marked improvements the region has made, no African airline has ever been removed from the list.

In 2009 in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, a leased cargo plane lost altitude, leaving the pilot to deliberately crash into a desert to avoid the airport. The plane belonged to Azza Air Transport Company - a civil aviation company that leases aircrafts to the Sudanese government for carrying defence equipment. For this reason, it was among a list of companies included in U.S. economic sanctions, accused of “transferring small arms, ammunition and artillery to Sudanese government forces and Janjaweed militia in Darfur”.

Today, Sudanese air fleets still consist of second-hand planes, Antonovs, Fokkers and older Boeings. Carriers and airways such as Sudan Airways and Azza Air that own Boeing planes cannot purchase spare parts needed for repairs due to these American sanctions. As a result, Sudanese carriers and the government must purchase poorer quality planes from second rate carrier producers.

The IATA Summit held in Johannesburg was an important step in acknowledging that improvements must be made and steps must be taken. It is now up to African governments to follow through by making greater efforts in implementing international civil aviation codes and regulations, as well as investing in greater quality aircrafts and maintenance.

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