Hundreds of passengers have been stranded following the grounding of Azman Air by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) on Tuesday.
Before the decision to ground it, Azman was the leading airline in northern Nigeria, flying thousands of passengers across the region and beyond.
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It also had solid roots in some states in the South, especially Lagos, which is a beehive of activities for businessmen and technocrats from Abuja, Kano, Kaduna, among others.
With the suspension of its operation, the airline has announced the cancellation of all its flights between Tuesday, March 16, and Friday, March 19, leaving many passengers who have bought tickets stranded.
Azman’s routes in the North included Kano, Maiduguri, Kaduna, Gombe and Birnin Kebbi. The airline had also flown passengers to Benin, Owerri and Asaba in Delta State.
Altogether, the airline operated 15 flights daily and all of them had been affected by Tuesday’s suspension.
Daily Trust reports that while there are other airlines like Air Peace, Aero Contractors, Max Air and Arik Air operating northern routes, Azman was about the only airline with footprints in most of the northern routes.
Some Azman passengers who spoke to Daily Trust yesterday said the development would aggravate their problems, considering the lingering insecurity in the North, which makes travelling by road a tough decision.
Besides, there were fears of job losses following the closure of the airline.
Why Azman was asked to stop flying
The NCAA, which is saddled with the responsibility of monitoring airlines, said it grounded Azman Air because of safety reasons.
Daily Trust reports that earlier on Tuesday, the airline had taken to its Twitter page, saying it was suspending its operations due to a safety audit by the NCAA.
But it later turned out that it was the NCAA that grounded the Kano-based aviation company following a series of incidents involving its aircraft, resulting in intermittent disruption of operations.
It was learnt that the NCAA arrived at the decision to suspend the airline after its management meeting on Monday.
The director-general of the NCAA, Captain Musa Nuhu, who announced the suspension in a statement, said the decision followed a series of incidents involving the airline’s Boeing 737 aircraft and in pursuant to Section 35 (2) of the Civil Aviation Act, 2006, and Part 18.104.22.168 (A) of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations (Nig.CARs) 2015.
He stated, “The suspension is to enable the authority conduct an audit of the airline to determine the root causes of the incidents and recommend corrective actions to forestall reoccurrence.
“The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority will continue to ensure compliance to its regulations in the interest of safety, and view any violation seriously.’’
We were not fairly treated – Azman
In a statement by its Accountable Manager, Alhaji Muhammad Hadi AbdulMunaf, Azman yesterday asked the NCAA to lift the suspension “in line with the established precedent in respect of other airlines that had similar incidents/experiences in the past.”
The airline explained that the NCAA had earlier invited them to a zoom conference on Tuesday afternoon, but the issue of suspension was not discussed.
It said that during the meeting, attempt was made by the chief host (Ajiboye, an engineer) to link the Azman aircraft wheel burst in Lagos on February 16 with a Kaduna wheel burst of flight 5N-YSM, which occurred on Monday, March 15.
According to the airline, the NCAA and AIB had cleared Azman Air to continue its operations after the incident.
It added, “Also, the incident that happened with regard to an object falling from aircraft 5N-SYS has technically been investigated and cleared by the NCAA, with a sanction to Azman Air and the staff from Azman Air in Abuja on March 8, 2021.
“But the Kaduna incident has not been investigated; therefore, there is no link between the previous incident in Abuja or Lagos with it. Accordingly, without prejudice, the NCAA used its power to write the suspension of Azman operations, not based on fact.
“The management, therefore, humbly requests that Azman Air suspension should be lifted, firstly in line with the established precedent in respect of other airlines that had similar incidents/experiences in the past. This is particularly necessary in the interest of justice, fairness and fair play,’’ the statement added.
Chronicle of incidents
Daily Trust reports that prior to the suspension of its operations, passengers of Azman Air had experienced massive flight delays and cancellations, with some of them taking on the airline’s staff.
The major incident involving the airline was on February 16 when its aircraft, a Boeing 737-500 with nationality and registration marks, 5N-SYS, suffered tyre burst, resulting in the shutdown of the runway of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos.
Although this was the only reported incident in recent times, which the Accident Investigation Bureau is presently investigating, sources said there had been several other operational issues that led to the disruption of the airline’s operations across the country.
Between December 2020 and part of January 2021, there was chaos across the airline’s routes following massive delays and cancellations of its scheduled flights.
On January 15, passengers engaged the officials of the airlines in fisticuffs at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano, following cancellation of flights.
The protest turned violent, with a female staff of the airline collapsing after being hit during the melee. A passenger was also left with a bloody mouth, while another staff had his cloth nearly ripped off his body.
But the melee took a wilder dimension when passengers from Kano to Lagos learnt that the flight, which was earlier rescheduled from 7:30am to 8:30pm, found that it would not depart the airport again. It was gathered that a similar incident had happened a day earlier when an Azman 8:15pm flight from Abuja to Kano was cancelled after the plane developed a fault.
Our fear over insecurity compounded – Passengers
A passenger of the airline, Ibrahim Muhammed, who had bought a ticket to travel from Abuja to Maiduguri, expressed disappointment with the development, saying he would seek a refund for the cancelled trip.
Another passenger heading to Lagos from Kano said he was pained by what happened to Azman, insisting that it was a serious setback for the North and the aviation industry in general.
“Azman goes to Lagos two times daily, and this gave opportunities for many businessmen to travel to Lagos almost on a daily basis. But with the ugly development, it is no longer going to be possible.
“I hope this is a temporary development that would be resolved within the shortest possible time,” he said.
On her part, Salomi Musa, who planned to go to Maiduguri, said she would shelve the idea completely. “Of course I will not travel by road because of the security situation in the country. Air travel is the safest for those who can afford it, but these days, I have seen people who reached out to others to help them buy tickets. Travelling by air is no longer a luxury but a necessity,” she said.
NCAA to begin audit today
Daily Trust learnt that the audit of Azman Air by NCAA would commence today (Wednesday) in Kano, its headquarters, as well as Abuja, Kaduna and Lagos.
Confirming the development, a spokesperson of the airline, Mr Nura Aliyu, said while the auditing is ongoing, the airline would apply for the continuation of the operation. He said the recent incidents were not unusual.
He noted that some airlines had experienced similar incidents but their operations were not grounded.
“We will appeal to the NCAA to allow us continue operations while the audit is on. These incidents had happened to virtually all the airlines but their operations were not grounded,” he said.
He added that all issued tickets within the period of the suspension are still valid and could be used to any of its destinations without extra charges.
Azman overwhelmed, needs support
The Azman Airline is owned by a business mogul, Alhaji Yunusa Abdulmunaf. It is a subsidiary of Azman Group, and operates five Boeing 737 aircraft for domestic services.
It was learnt that two of the aircraft were not presently in service, resulting in frequent disruption of its operations.
Speaking on the problems of the airline, an expert in the aviation industry, who simply identified himself as Captain Yusuf, said it was overwhelmed because it made an inroad within a short period of time.
“The owner met a fertile ground in the North and started on a good note, but sadly, he found it difficult to manage his success story. However, this is not peculiar to him, it is a problem in the aviation industry.
“The aircraft he deployed are popular and are being used by other players in the industry. But then, the issue of maintenance is an entirely different thing. Also, the coronavirus has affected many airlines all over the world.
“I want to passionately appeal that the airline be salvaged through support by other stakeholders in the North. The owner should also open his doors for other well- meaning investors to join him to collectively manage the company,” he said.
An aviation analyst and director of research at Zenith Travels, Mr Olumide Ohunayo, described the action of the NCAA as necessary to sustain the track record of safety in the industry.
He, however, said the decision had reduced flight options for northern routes, majority of which were not adequately covered. He said this could also lead to higher fares on the routes.
Senate backs NCAA
The Senate Committee on Aviation has backed the suspension of Azman Air.
Speaking at a meeting with members of the committee yesterday, the director-general of the NCAA, Captain Nuhu, said the regulatory agency suspended operations of the airline because of issues relating to non-adherence to safety and maintenance of its aircraft.
The chairman of the Senate committee, Senator Smart Adeyemi (APC, Kogi), said the decision taken by NCAA might be tough, but it was better than having air crashes.
Adeyemi said, “I think we should thank you for being proactive because the particular airline you grounded was the airline of the president of the operators.
“The step you have taken might be a bit tough, but it is better than what may have happened. You deserve our commendation. We are happy that you have properly briefed us, and we want to urge you to continue.’’
Captain Nuhu told the Senate panel that inspections by the NCAA showed that there were issues with Azman’s maintenance procedures, and that guidelines were not followed.
“We invited their people to come and sit with us. We discussed and thought we had resolved the issue, but there was a fine against the airline and the captain.
“We did not want to ground them then; we had to let them go. But on February 16, the same aircraft landed in Lagos, the weather was bad and it had a significant tyre failure and damage to the engine. At that point, because of the level of damage, it became the responsibility of the Accident Investigation Bureau, which has the responsibility to investigate serious aircraft accidents and incidents.
“The airline keeps having the same maintenance issues, and it is of concern to me. It will be irresponsible and criminal negligent on our part not to take any action.
“I hate grounding any airline; it is a lot of money for the operator and it is going to cause a lot of inconvenience for a lot of air travellers, but it will be criminal not to take action.
“But I rather inconvenience people than be here explaining a different thing because, God forbid, if anything happens, in the whole of this room I would be the only person here sweating.
“I would be the only person you would hold responsible. Our action is not to kill the airline. Our action is to work with the airline to see what the problems are and resolve them so that they can become safe and we can recommend people to comfortably fly with them,’’ Nuhu explained.
He said lifting the suspension of the airline would be determined after the conclusion of a full financial, safety operations and maintenance audit.
From Abdullateef Aliyu (Lagos), Abdullateef Salau (Abuja) & Clement A. Oloyede (Kano)