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The fuss over Abuja flight diversion to Asaba

As investigation is ongoing over last Sunday’s diversion of an Abuja-bound flight to Asaba Delta State, only the true account of what transpired would put…

As investigation is ongoing over last Sunday’s diversion of an Abuja-bound flight to Asaba Delta State, only the true account of what transpired would put paid to the confusion, musings and the complexities of the incident.

The United Nigeria Airlines NUA flight 0504 which was headed to the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja but was diverted to Asaba, Delta State, has been causing disquiet and uneasy calm in the industry in the last one week.

It happened that the flight departed the Murtala Muhammed Airport Terminal 2 (MMA2) and was headed for the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja.

But passengers were confused when the flight landed and it was announced that the aircraft had arrived Abuja, the nation’s federal capital when it actually landed at Asaba Airport.

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Minutes after the information went viral as posted by Tanko Yakasai popularly known as Dawisu, former media aide to Kano State Governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, the social media space was awash with commentaries on the drama.

“Nigeria my country. We departed Lagos about an hour ago on @flyunitedng to Abuja, and upon arrival, the cabin crew confidently announced that we’ve arrived Abuja, only for us to realise that we landed in Asaba. Apparently, our pilot was given the wrong flight plan from Lagos,” Dawisu had posted.

But the Airline in a statement afterwards explained that the temporary diversion was due to “poor destination weather.”

“At all material time, the pilot of the aircraft was aware of the temporary diversion and was properly briefed,” the airline said.

It added that a wrong announcement was made by the cabin crew upon landing safely in Asaba, creating confusion among the passengers.

“Meanwhile, the aircraft has landed safely in Abuja following improvement on destination weather. United Nigeria Airlines remains committed to ensuring the safety of its passengers at all times,” said the airline’s Head, Corporate Communications, Achilleus-Chud Uchegbu.

The communication from the airline was however disclaimed by revelations indicating that the weather in Abuja was good and clear enough for flight operations, more so when other flights have been taking and landing without much ado.

So, with that in mind, it was clear there is more to the diversion than the airline made the public to believe.

However, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA)—the apex regulatory authority in the industry, intervened immediately. The NCAA which said it commenced investigation into the incident earlier ordered the suspension of the two wet-lease aircraft in the fleet of United Nigeria Airlines.

Director-General Civil Aviation, Capt. Musa Nuhu, said the authority had commenced investigation into the circumstances surrounding the diversion to Asaba and “the confusion it has created in the public domain.”

He said, “However, preliminary steps have been taken pending conclusions of the ongoing investigation. The Authority wishes to reassure the traveling public that it will leave no stone unturned as it has always done in the past to ensure continued safety of the aviation industry.”

Our correspondent reports that the airline, one of the players in the domestic airline space, had leased the two aircraft as a stop-gap measure to boost operations.

A wet lease is a leasing option where an airline (the lessor) provides an aircraft, complete crew, maintenance, and insurance (ACMI) to another airline or other type of business acting as a broker of air travel (the lessee), which pays by hours operated. There is also the dry lease option where the lessor provides the aircraft while the airline provides all the crew who are indigenous while the damp lease is a combination of wet and dry which means the lessor provides the aircraft and some of the crew while the operator would provide the rest of the crew.

But UNA has a wet lease agreement with the lessor which means the ACMI is outright foreign which is not against the regulations though.

What could have gone wrong?

Several pontifications are already flying around over the incident which the NCAA is presently investigating. Some sources said the confusion must have been created by the near similar code between Abuja and Asaba airports. While Abuja is ABV, Asaba has ABB as the code handed over to the pilot during the pre-flight planning by the flight dispatcher on duty.

Embarrassed by the development, the airline was said to have suspended the flight dispatcher pending the conclusion of investigation into the incident.

But the flight dispatchers’ association is not pleased with the suspension of its members, exonerating him of any wrongdoing in the ‘mistake.’ Also, the development has pitched the dispatchers and ATCs against one another.

Under the aegis of Flight Dispatchers’ Association of Nigeria (FLIDAN), the group through its Secretary General, Victoria Adegbe, said the dispatcher adhered to NCAR Part 8 by submitting a proper flight plan to the Tower. According to the group, the plan shows: “Departure-Lagos. Destination- Abuja, First Alternate- Enugu, Second Alternate- Port Harcourt. Time of flight: 13:00 Flight Duration: 55mins Endurance: 6 hours.”

Adegbe added that despite the favourable Abuja weather in the folder, the pilot sought clearance to fly to Asaba.

“Both Pilot and ATC didn’t follow the filed plan, implying a disregard for ‘Operational Control,’ giving the Flight Dispatcher 50 per cent joint responsibility for flight safety,” the group said.

“The airline allowing pilots to create their Operational Flight Plan breaches NCAR Part 8 regulations on Dispatch Release responsibility,” it further stated.

She said ATC should not have granted a scheduled flight clearance to depart to a destination that was not filed by the Flight Dispatcher.

“We urge the NCAA to investigate the Airline’s Operations Control, seizing Operational Control from the Flight Dispatcher, demanding scrutiny,” he said.

But the national president of NATCA, Mr Yomi Agoro, said, “They are ignorant of this fact: Are they aware that a flight plan is subject to amendment? The investigation is on course. Let us not pre-empt the exercise. They have exposed their conduct and at the appropriate time, NATCA will speak.”

But the DG of NCAA stated that the authority had to take immediate actions over the incident. Some of the actions include the suspension of the operation of the aircraft pending the conclusion of investigation, saying the actions taken so far were within the authority’s “power and authority.”

However, while investigation is still ongoing, experts are already called for a rethinking of the wet lease arrangement in the domestic operation.

This was why the minister of Aviation, Mr Festus Keyamo, after a meeting with heads of aviation agencies issued a directive that all wet-leased aircraft coming into Nigeria must have a Nigeria pilot seated on the jump seat with the foreign pilot.

On the Sunday’s incident, he stated that from the transcript produced by the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) from the tower to the pilot, it was clear that when the flight was taking off from Lagos, it was headed to Asaba instead of Abuja.

He said there was no weather problem in Abuja but a problem with a wet-leased plane where the pilot and crew were all foreigners.

“They were not familiar with the Nigerian terrain. From the transcript, we heard the tower kept asking the pilot: ‘Confirm again that you are going to Abuja not Asaba’. The pilot replied no, Asaba. Before they took off the tower asked again, and it was the same response,” the minister said.

He said the incident was purely an in-house administrative issue, disclosing that the government has asked them to interview the dispatcher who dispatched that plane “and where sanctions should apply, we should apply sanctions.”

Aviation analyst Group Capt. John Ojikutu called for a thorough investigation. He said, “From what we have been hearing so far, the pilot filed a flight plan to Abuja which he eventually changed before take-off or enroute. The questions to ask are: did he say the reason for the change or did the ATCO ask him the reasons for the change? Did the ATCO record this in the Tower/Departure Log Book for reference purposes? What happened on landing at Asaba? Did anyone embark or disembark at Asaba?”

Engr. Sheri Kyari, General Secretary of Society of Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineers of Nigeria (SLAMEN) said the minister’s suggestion to have a co-pilot as a Nigerian in a wet-lease aircraft might not be realistic, saying that is why it is called a wet-lease. “If you are wet leasing, both technical crew and cabin crew are all coming from the country of aircraft registration except of course if the aircraft is coming from US and you have Nigerians that are licensed to fly American planes and they are type-rated on that aircraft, then if the owners of the airline are disposed to allow a Nigerian pilot to sit as a co-pilot.”

However, he advised that any airline going for a wet lease plan should have an arrangement with the lessor to have at least Nigerian cabin crew to support its own crew.

“With wet lease, airlines should be able to have a little indoctrination training for such crew and they should also explore the possibility of having a Nigerian cabin crew. To that extent, if they are talking about wet leasing somewhere, they should be able to have a short training.

He said the lesson to learn from the episode was that all the players in that team should be up and doing so that things can go smoothly.

Airline reacts as NCAA lifts suspension on United Nigeria Airlines wet-leased aircraft

The Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has lifted the suspension on the operation of United Nigeria Airlines (UNA)wet lease aircraft following last Sunday’s diversion of an Abuja-bound flight from Lagos to Asaba.

The NCAA had earlier suspended the Part G operations of the airline which has to do with its two wet lease aircraft; one of which was involved in the Asaba saga.

The NCAA in a letter said investigation of the incident revealed that there was lack of “adequate liaison” between the lessor’s OCC (operation control Centre) and lessee’s OCC which has also omitted appropriate flight briefing from the point of departure.

While announcing the suspension in a letter referenced NCAA/DOLT/UNA/Vol.02523 signed by the Director of Operations, Licensing and Training, Capt. Ibrahim Dambazau, the NCAA said, “Further to the recommended amended procedures in your aircraft Part G Operations, the Authority hereby lifts the suspension of your Part G Operations Specifications. Note: You are also required to comply with the Nigeria Civil Aviation All Operators letter (DG 15/2023) referenced NCAA/DGCA/AIR/11/16/347 a copy attached with this letter.”

The airline which confirmed the lifting of the suspension yesterday however apologised to passengers over the disruption of its schedule.

“We are pleased to announce the lifting of the suspension placed on our ‘Part G’ operations specifications which affected one of our aircraft.

“We want to express our deepest gratitude to you for keeping faith with us and for your understanding during this period,” the airline said in a statement.

It reiterated that safety remains the priority of the airline and at the core of its values, adding, “and we take our commitment to passenger safety very seriously.”

The airline said, “We are aware that every time our schedule is disrupted, it is usually a very painful experience for you and for us as well because we know and understand that it affects travel plans and diminishes your trust in the reliability of our operations.

“We are deeply sorry for the inconvenience this has caused you and would want to reassure you that our dedicated team is working around the clock to resolve the backlog of flights schedules because we understand the importance of your travel plans and the trust you place in us.”

 

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