MD-83 crash came despite air safety push

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria saw its worst air crash in nearly two decades when a passenger airliner slammed into a densely-populated neighborhood in the country’s largest city, killing 153 on the plane and more on the ground, despite efforts in recent years to improve air safety and global recognition of the efforts.

Aviation experts say it is too early to tell the cause of last Sunday’s crash of the Dana Air Boeing MD-83, but they hope Nigeria will continue reforms it started after a series of fatal crashes more than five years ago.

“There’s no question that we know a lot has gone on and I think you have to attribute some of this really good record up until now to that,” said William Voss, president and CEO of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation. “I don’t know what will come out of the investigation. Were there lapses and oversights? We’ll find out.”

Both engines failed

The weather was clear and sunny at the time of the crash five miles north of Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The airplane’s pilot radioed the tower minutes before the plane slammed into the ground, saying both engines had failed on the aircraft.

Officials at Dana have said the plane, once owned by Seattle-based carrier Alaska Airlines, had no major problems before that day. In a statement Friday, the airline said MyTechnic, a Turkish company, did routine maintenance on its aircraft. The Spanish airline Iberia, now owned by International Consolidated Airlines Group, conducted maintenance on the Dana aircraft for certification until 2010, airline spokesman Santiago de Juan said. MyTechnic in Istanbul later took over that responsibility as well, said Andy Holdsworth, a Dana spokesman based in the United Kingdom.

The Dana crash was the first major commercial airliner disaster in Nigeria since Oct. 29, 2006, when an Aviation Development Co. flight from Abuja to Sokoto crashed, killing 96 people, including the top spiritual leader for the nation’s Muslims. In the time since, Nigeria embarked on an aggressive attempt to take aging aircraft out of its skies. The nation revoked certifications for all airlines, allowing new airlines to take flight under increased scrutiny by a newly formed civilian aviation body, Voss said.

The country also sought to repair its image abroad, especially as the U.S. once put a six-year ban on direct flights from Murtala Muhammed airport in the 1990s over security concerns. Slowly, international authorities began noticing, culminating in an August 2010 announcement by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to grant Nigeria its top air-safety rating, known as Category 1. That allows Nigerian airlines to fly their own aircraft directly to the U.S. Local carrier Arik Air Ltd. has direct flights to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

“That was not something that the FAA did with great eagerness or had a political or economic incentive to do,” Voss said. “Clearly, this was something that was real.”

Political pressure

Since the crash, civil aviation authorities in Nigeria have come under increasing political and public pressure. However, aviation experts like Tony Tyler, the director-general and CEO of International Air Transport Association, have cautioned against the government throwing out officials over the growing anger.

“Safety is a constant challenge everywhere in the world,” Tyler said. “In Nigeria, as elsewhere, this important work must continue without political interference.”

Though Nigeria’s moves impressed many abroad, those who live within the country always maintained a healthy skepticism of the airlines. Carriers routinely have financing problems or purported ties to top politicians and businessmen in a nation analysts often describe as having one of the world’s most corrupt governments. Engineers have been on an off-and-on strike at carrier Air Nigeria, a one-time darling of the country when billionaire Richard Branson helped create it as Virgin Nigeria several years ago. The airline continued its flights during the strike.

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