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Africa's deadly skies.

Flying in Africa, according to the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations, is becoming an increasingly hazardous undertaking. For the volume of traffic that criss-crosses the continent, there have been far too many accidents. Where does the problem lie?

The whole world heaved a huge sigh of relief and shed tears of joy when South Africa's apartheid regime finally came to its demise in 1994 and opened up the country to the world. Everybody suddenly wanted to fly to South Africa and the number of air lines flying the route and the frequency of flights multiplied. This is the good news. The bad news is that according to research, the more flights there are over Africa, the greater the chances of crashes. It is common knowledge, among those who operate in the African skies, that flying a plane over the continent is a bit like riding on 'bumper cars' at a fun-fair. Only the most skilled make it to the end of the ride without getting hit.

Over the last two to three years, there has been an estimated increase of 300% in traffic between Europe and South Africa. Over the last three to five years, the number of air lines operating to South Africa has increased dramatically, from about 20 to today's figure of almost 80. Alarmingly however, according to the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations (IFALPA), at least 75% of the air traffic infrastructure in Africa, "is unable to provide the services necessary for the safe and expeditious operations of flights".

This is indeed a serious indictment from a body not given to making statements without very careful consideration. Given current trends, it is inevitable that traffic, of both passengers and goods, will continue to increase in the coming years. So, what are the safety implications? It was with this question in mind that, last November, IFALPA issued a public statement declaring the African region to be "critically deficient". It stated: "IFALPA believes that this is not the time to seek a 'five-year plan' to resolve the critical problems of African airspace. In order to reverse the current situation with respect to safety of air travel in Africa, the deficiencies... must be addressed. Urgent short term measures are necessary whilst longer term plans are brought into practice so that flight safety in this region is brought to an acceptable level."

This is a broad warning and meant to be such. To be fair, not every single African state falls into this damaging category. However, in a continent which comprises 53 countries, only a handful are excluded from the danger list. The area defined as "critically deficient" includes all countries north of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, apart from Western Sahara, Egypt and Morocco. Thus the "critically deficient" area covers the vast block of the continent between the extreme north and the extreme south. This is also the area where there is a solid concentration of traversing aeroplanes.

But what does "critically deficient" actually mean?

Broadly, it means that the majority of African states fail to comply with the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS) set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Communication between controllers on the ground and crew in the air, as well as ground to ground contact, is insufficient. This is explained, to some extent, by the fact that air traffic controllers are frequently incompetent and do not receive commensurate training. Radar coverage across Africa is, in much the same vein as the other faults listed, poor.

One air line pilot, who has been flying in Africa for over 20 years, spoke to African Business. Preferring to remain anonymous, he validates IFALPA's statement. "It is no secret that air traffic control services in Africa leave an awful lot to be desired," he comments. "There's a talk frequency known to pilots as the '1269' [126.9 MHz]. Pilots all use it to talk to each other because the air traffic control can be so bad in most of Africa.

"The situation has got far worse since South Africa opened up. Not only has the demand for flights increased, but another factor has come into play. Until three years ago, South African Airways was not allowed to overfly most African states. The airline had to fly around the edge of the continent. Now it can fly up the middle, thus saving very considerable time.

"One of the major problems is that the systems in operation in Africa have not kept up with the increase of carriers in the air."

The air line pilot mentioned Zaire as a particularly hazardous country to fly in. "You can fly over the whole of Zaire without talking to a single air traffic controller for the entire duration. You get around this by 'hanging on' to the controller from the previous country you flew over for as long as possible and then try and pick up the controller in the next country you are flying into."

It sounds like a very haphazard way of negotiating air-space that is bristling with aircraft but the pilot quickly reassures you that it sounds worse than it is. "It is not that bad," he says, "most experienced crews are aware of the deficiencies and make accommodations for them. However, it does get really bad during the annual Hadj season. There is a sudden increase in east-west traffic as Muslims from West Africa in particular, go to the Middle East."

Nevertheless, in his opinion, "India and Pakistan are much more dangerous. There is a lot more traffic and the system just can't cope with it."

If this is the case, then why has Africa, as opposed to India or Pakistan, been singled out for criticism? Indeed a cursory look at the statistics might indicate that the whole saga has been blown out of proportion. But study the figures a little closer and a different picture emerges.

Last year, there was a world-wide total of 57 air accidents involving fatalities. While this figure exceeded the 1995 figure by only one, it should be born in mind that the highest number of fatalities ever recorded was in 1995.

Of the 1996 total of 57, 45 accidents occurred within the so-called Third Word and of these, 13 crashes occurred within African territory: 12 were accidents and one was the Ethiopian Airways plane hijacked from Addis Ababa before plunging into the seas and breaking up offshore the Comoros Islands. Total recorded fatalities for 1996 stand at 1,840, of which 248 were in Africa plus a further 128 on the Ethiopian Airways flight.

The statistics begin to make more sense when five- and ten-year trends are examined. Take the ten-year average (ending mid 1991) of fatal accidents defined as an accident in which a passenger on a revenue passenger flight was killed. For the ten-year average ending mid-1991 Africa experienced one fatal accident for every 500,000 flights. Compared to the same period ending mid-1996, the average was one in every 460,000 flights. These figures clearly indicate that the situation has become worse.

But to get the figures really in perspective, one must compare Africa's figures with those of Europe and America. For the five-year average ending mid-1991, recorded fatal accidents in Africa are one in every 440,000 flights; for Europe, one in every 2.7m flights; and for North America, one in every 3m flights. For the five year average ending mid-1996, Africa's record improves slightly, with one for every 460,000 flights compared to one in every 2m flights in Europe, where there is a slight increase in risk. But Africa's slightly better record pales into insignificance when set against a 100% improvement for North America, of one in every 6m flights.

"Looking at that snapshot," comments Mr Paul Hayes, Director of Air Safety for Airclaims, which provided the figures, "the loss rate [in Africa] hasn't really changed much." Indeed, hardly at all compared to Europe. However, the picture changes dramatically when you examine the revenue cargo services' accidents data. Between 1987 and 1996, there were 53 accidents, 49 of which occurred in Africa. In 1996 alone, there were 11 and every single one of them happened in Africa. Eight involved African air lines, two were partial losses and three involved planes from the CIS operating cargo for Africa.

"It does seem that a number of aircraft, higher than one might expect, have been lost in Africa. But this reflects the sort of operations that they have had to carry out and where ground facilities and landing-strips are limited." Mr Hayes explains. "Since the break-up of the former Soviet Union, a lot of Russian and other CIS operators have started operating into back-wood strips, supporting refugees. So Africa has had a lot of landing accidents, when the plane has simply run off the end of the runway."

Perhaps the worst such incident involved a Scibe Airlift Anatov An-32 which ran off the runway at Kinshasa, Zaire and ploughed through a market-lace, killing some 300 people and seriously injuring 250.

Mr Peter Quaintmere, Technical Director for IFALPA, puts the figures into even further perspective by pointing out that, although the absolute number of crashes in Africa may not seem to have risen sufficiently sharply to warrant the sudden pin-pointing, the situation has been bad for many years. And recently, things have got worse. "If you look at deaths per 1m of passengers, then in the US, 0.7m will not reach their destination. To contrast, in Africa, there are almost 15 deaths per million," he says. When you take into account the fact that there are far fewer flights in Africa than in North America, then the number of accidents relative to flights in Africa is very high.

Seventy near-misses

Pilots say that it is something of a miracle that there have not been more crashes in Africa. In 1996, for example, two carriers flying in the African region, reported a total of 70 'near misses' between January and December of that year. A near miss is defined by IFALPA as, "any incident in which the cock-pit crew believe their aircraft was endangered by the close proximity of another aircraft". Such a high number of near-misses in what is essentially a tiny pool of the total number of airlines and aircraft that fly across the continent, signifies a terrifying scenario.

But why does Africa have such a poor record in safety? The reasons are many and vary from a lack of training to deficient resources to corruption within the higher echelons of the African aviation industry.

"Obviously the problem, to some extent, is a socio-economic one. Many African states have suffered the devastating effects of wars," says Ms Cathy Bill, General Manager for Air Line Pilots' Association South Africa (ALPASA). This is the body that initiated concern on the issue following numerous complaints from pilots themselves. Mr Trevor Fox, Director of Infrastructure for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Nairobi, agrees.

"One must understand that aviation in Africa is not immune from the environment in which it exists," he comments. "For example it is important to recall that Angola is just emerging from more than 20 years of civil war. The economic situation affecting many African states within the region has, of course, played a part."

"One thing to keep in mind," points out Mr Dennis Chagnon, spokesman for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal, "is the evolution of traffic has proceeded much quicker in North America and Europe. Africa has had to start from scratch. People say it's breaking down but, in all honesty, it is building up from nothing. Indeed, if you compare civil aviation to other sectors of African economies and infrastructures, it is highly sophisticated.

"It is the same kind of situation in other parts of the world. Latin America, Asia and Africa are still using radar equipment when everybody else has satellites. Therefore, all parts of the system, especially those that have become obsolete, must be upgraded so that the whole improves."

Unfortunately, research carried out by ALPASA shows that efforts to improve and upgrade the system, as ICAO suggests, are being thwarted by corrupt Government practice. "it would seem that the fees paid by operators - we estimate $6m per month - are utilised for purposes other than those for which they are intended i.e. to provide safe aeronautic facilities," laments Ms Bill.

Likewise, a spokesman from the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA) asserts, "There is clear evidence that revenue from air navigation charges for overflights is regularly diverted to other disciplines. Minimal funds are being invested in the rightful place to ensure the proper provision of air traffic services. These charges amount to many millions of dollars annually and, if properly employed, would ensure that safety standards are approved and maintained."

Given the nature of international law, which deems individual states as sovereign territories, there is little that can be done to avert such malpractice. Neither IFALPA nor ICAO have the power to force African governments to conduct their civil aviation sectors in a more transparent manner. "We cannot do anything," explains Mr Quaintmere, "but we have brought this sorry state of affairs to international attention." In his opinion, African states require more help, particularly with aviation training, but this will be no easy task.

"African air traffic controllers simply don't gain the same amount of experience as their European and North American equivalents," he says. "In airports where the traffic-load is so light, between 12 to 15 aircraft landing a day, they don't get the opportunity to maintain their skills." To contrast, at London's Heathrow airport, air traffic control barely get the time to take a coffee-break: up to 1,000 planes fly in and out every day.

Some have suggested that part of the blame lies in the dilapidated and ageing aircraft employed by African carriers. "The types of aircraft sometimes used are possibly former Soviet Union planes," comments Mr Quaintmere. "The organisations don't service them enough. Aeroflot has now disintegrated because of the break-up of the Soviet Union and so has excess planes to go all over the world. It's difficult to know how good these craft are."

However, Mr Chagnon insists, "It is well known in the business that the age of an aircraft carries little significance as to its safety. Canada has 30-year-old planes and they are fine. It's safe to say that the machine itself is getting better and better. Indeed, today, the complexity of technology presents a multitude of problems for some countries."

So what can be done to overcome such hurdles? ICAO offers a number of initiatives and is working with a variety of African states to get funding from the UN. In 1995, it helped provide $4.5m for projects in Africa, including Botswana, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia and Uganda. The Canadian-based outfit is also organising a conference, Africa Indian Ocean Regional Air Navigation Meeting, to be held in Nigeria in May. It will aim at confronting the colossal tasks ahead. "The conference reflects an overall awareness that something needs to be done," says Mr Chagnon, "the International Community has to support, in some way, the development of infrastructure in Africa".

However, the deficiencies are by no means the same in each counter. An assessment of each state is therefore, vital. In 1995, ICAO launched a Safety Oversight Programme which assists contracting states to identify and rectify deficiencies in their respective civil aviation systems. It helps them to meet their responsibilities under the Chicago Convention, which was first signed 50 years ago but which lacks any legal obligation on the part of a contracting state. Ms Bill feels that, so grave is Africa's situation, "perhaps the time has come for ICAO to consider suspending or expelling those states which do not comply with its rules."

Perhaps it has. Indeed, better to take direct action now in the form of preventive measures, than when it is too late. At the moment, most air line carriers are continuing to fly across Africa without serious doubts. As Mr Iain Burns, a British Airways spokesman, said: "If we thought it were dangerous to fly over Africa, we wouldn't fly there. Air traffic has increased and in a number of areas, we tell our crews to maintain vigilance and use our additional procedures which are laid down to provide additional levels of safety. However, there has been no notable change in the situation".

In fact, responsibility does not rest in the hands of air lines. All accidents and near accidents are supposed to be logged and recorded and then passed on to the country in which the incident happened. Likewise, ALPASA asserts that responsibility for safety lies with none other than the country itself. Africa could be on the verge of a sharp rise in tourism. Without the structure to transport the tourists in safety, few visitors to Africa will want to risk a head-on collision.


Fatal events: hostile acts or illegal interference with flight

23 Nov Ethiopian Airlines 127 fatalities. Ditched offshore Comoros Islands, Mozambique after aircraft was hijacked en route Addis Ababa, Ethiopia-Nairobi, Kenya, due to out-of-fuel ditching.

Fatal accidents: scheduled passenger flights

5 Sept Air France 1 fatality

Severe turbulence from weather conditions. In-flight near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

7 Nov ADC Airlines 143 fatalities

Aircraft dived vertically into lagoon during descent to Lagos, Nigeria.

Fatal accidents: regional and commuter airlines

12 Jan Centravia 10 fatalities

On domestic charter between Bangui and Koumbala, Central African Republic.

3 May Federal Airlines 53 fatalities

Inbound from Wau, southern Sudan, aircraft crashed in poor visibility at Haj Yousif, Khartoum.

28 June Air Ivoire 3 fatalities

Aircraft crashed and burned near Bouafle, Cote d'Ivoire. Cause not known.

6 Oct GosNIIGA 6 fatalities

At Lucapa, Angola, this passenger/cargo flight ran off end of runway after runway lighting failed.

13 Nov Kismayo Airlines 8 fatalities

Pilot reported loss of power in one engine. Tried to return to Nairobi Wilson Airport but crashed into Ngong Hills, near Nairobi, Kenya.

Fatal accidents: non-passenger flights

8 Jan Scibe Airlift 1 fatality

At Simba Zikidi market, Kinshasa, Zaire, 300 people were killed and 253 injured when the aircraft failed to take off from the city's N'Dolo Airport and ran into the market-place.

27 Feb Air Tropical 8 fatalities

Inbound to Lukapa, Luanda, Angola, aircraft impacted ground some 35km from airport in poor visibility.

24 Apr Tanzania APr Services 1 fatality

Aircraft hit Mount Palapala, near Morogoro, Tanzania, in poor weather.

6 June Hoseba Airlines 10 fatalities

Empty aircraft came down 200m from runway after take-off at Ndjili International Airport, Kinshasa, Zaire.

24 June KHORS Air 4 fatalities

Cafunfo Airport, Angola. Aircraft suffered severe turbulence and a lightening strike. Overran runway on landing.


24 March to 4 April Coventry & Warwick Chamber

South Africa-Zimbabwe. Contact: Alan Jones Tel: 44 (0) 1203 633 000 Fax: 44(0) 1203 552 908

14-26 April Birmingham Chamber

Zimbabwe- Namibia. Contact: David Frost Tel: 44 (0) 121 454 6171 Fax: 44 (0) 121 455 8670

26 May to 6 June London Chamber

Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon. Contact: Rachel Enoizi. Tel: 44 (0) 171 203 1827 Fax: 44 (0) 171 489 0391

1-7 July Business Link Sussex

Tanzania. Contact: Peter Chester Tel: 44 (0) 1444 259 200 Fax: 44 (0) 1444 259 255

Business Link Sussex

Zimbabwe-Mauritius As above (date to be decided)
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:dangers of increased air traffic
Author:Pawson, Lara
Publication:African Business
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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