Safety in Africa is a concern. Coordinating the various programs in place could be the key to improving the continent’s safety record

Air travel is essential to the African economies but, to exploit aviation’s full potential, it must be safe for everybody. Many African carriers have exemplary safety records and those that have completed the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) have safety records 46% better than non-IOSA members. Nevertheless, the region as a whole has been at the bottom of the safety statistics for too long. 

Figures did improve in 2010. Africa had an accident rate of 7.41 Western-built jet hull losses per million sectors flown, an improvement of 25% compared with 2009. But this was still more than 12 times the world average. Such statistics are doubtless hurting the African carriers and, by extension, the African economy at large. Passenger numbers fall after an accident, particularly in the high-yield international sector, insurance premiums soar higher, and codeshare agreements grow in complexity and fall in number.

Raising the bar

There is no single solution to the African safety issue because there is no single problem. “The poor safety record results from a combination of factors,” explains Guenther Matschnigg, IATA Senior Vice President, Safety Operations and Infrastructure. “It is about the safety culture, a lack of resources, the need for skilled personnel, poor infrastructure, and inadequate safety oversight.

“Some carriers do have modern aircraft and there are experienced pilots,” he continues. “But this is not the whole story. To buy a good aircraft you just need a friendly bank manager. To run a safe, reliable operation is something else again, and requires all of the factors mentioned above to be beyond reproach.”

A closer look at the data provides clues about potential safety improvements. For example, runway excursions are particularly high in Africa. Two initiatives should prove particularly useful. In 2009, in conjunction with Flight Safety Foundation, IATA released a Runway Excursion Risk Reduction toolkit. More than 8,000 copies have been delivered to airlines worldwide and the information was backed up by 12 global workshops in 2010. As a result, IATA members have reduced their runway excursion accidents by 43% since 2008. A revised version of the toolkit, produced in conjunction with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will be released in May at a Global Runway Safety Symposium hosted by IATA and ICAO.

In 2009, IATA also launched the Implementation Program for Safe Operations in Africa (IPSOA). This is an IATA-funded Flight Data Analysis (FDA) scheme for IATA member airlines in Africa. IPSOA provides carriers with a data-driven safety management system essential for ICAO compliance. As of August 2010, all of IATA’s African members had FDA programs in place.

A recent review of IPSOA carriers indicated a nearly 40% reduction in events. Unstable approaches—where the aircraft is flying too high or too fast—are a precursor to runway excursions. Thanks to the FDA program, an airline’s safety team can focus on the precise details of an event, allowing the airline to change its training programs and operations to eliminate the problems. Identifying specific answers can go a long way to improving overall safety, with more than 100 different flight safety events tracked in the FDA program.

Workshops to review IPSOA and FDA performance are ongoing. It has already been noted that the airports with the least number of unstable approaches were those that had implemented Continuous Descent Approaches, or similar precision techniques, as recommended by IATA through its environmental campaign. These improvements marry safety with efficiency. The next steps involve working with the airports and air navigation service providers to tackle all contributing factors to unstable approaches.

“We are also looking more carefully at safety management systems,” says Matschnigg. “SMS has now been added to IOSA, which has been a condition of IATA membership for a while. But more can be done to help carriers in the SMS implementation phase and ensure that they fully understand the capabilities of the system.”

All of this follows on from the improvements resulting from IOSA. “Clearly, such comprehensive safety programs form part of the solution,” Matschnigg notes. “Governments must make use of IOSA to boost the region’s performance.”

United approach

Despite these efforts Matschnigg believes there is still more work to do. The main focus, he insists, has to be coordination and reaching out to those airlines not currently covered by IOSA.

The United States Department of Transport has had a Safe Skies for Africa program in place for a number of years. IATA itself has done a lot of work as has ICAO and the European Union. And there is a plethora of organizations in Africa working on a country, regional, or pan-continental basis. “The programs are usually good but it obviously presents a very complex picture to an African carrier,” says Matschnigg. “Whose guidance should they follow? Where do the programs overlap?”

Africa needs one action plan and a strong commitment from all parties, including African carriers. They must get involved and buy in to the one action plan concept. African governments and service providers must also be proactive in forming a single coherent safety strategy and following it through on an agreed timescale.

Cobus Toerien, Manager Flight Safety for South African Airways, agrees there needs to be greater transparency. “Safety issues involve all the carriers operating in the same airspace,” he notes. “IATA has helped enormously but we must continue to emphasize a safety reporting culture.”

One action plan doesn’t mean one size fits all. Rather, Matschnigg suggests there could be a modular approach, allowing the strategy to be tailored to individual needs. The fact that the overall scheme is coordinated will ensure any work dovetails perfectly within the carrier itself and in a broader context.

“IATA is serious about safety in the region,” concludes Giovanni Bisignani, IATA Director General and CEO. “We are also constantly improving IOSA, raising the bar for safety. We have many programs to assist our members in meeting all IOSA standards, including a new set of Safety Management Systems (SMS) requirements. Flying must be safe everywhere—including Africa.”

Skills shortage

Africa is facing a shortfall in pilots and skilled staff as traffic increases. Africa produces plenty of highly skilled pilots and aircraft engineers but market forces have pushed many trained personnel towards other regions, such as the Gulf States, where better rewards and perhaps greater career opportunities, such as the potential to fly bigger aircraft, are on offer.

Although this has to be acknowledged as a problem, it is by no means insurmountable. Making African aviation attractive would certainly stem the flow. “And that starts by making it even safer,” says Guenther Matschnigg. “The region would then be seen for its many advantages, not only its faults. Africa is a fascinating part of the world and aviation is crucial to its development. Presented in the right way it could attract the best people in the industry.