It is no secret that Africa’s civil aviation lags behind the rest of the world (and the industry average) by some distance. The continent falls short in areas such as infrastructure, security, resources, regulation, skilled workforce and safety. Of all these, Safety is so far the standout issue and it gets lots of mentions. In my view “Regulation” and “Skilled Workforce” deserve special attention too because they directly influence and magnify the other problem areas mentioned.
Putting Africa’s Apparent Safety Gap into Perspective
To put the magnitude of Africa’s safety gap into perspective, we will take the number of accidents involving western built jet aircraft as a measure and compare the number of accidents occurring for the industry as a whole to the number of accidents involving African operators on that measure. While the overall industry average in 2012 was one accident for every five million flights, Africa’s average was eighteen. That is eighteen times the industry average!
It is not ALL glum though. Africa’s score improves significantly when the context is changed just a bit. When only the IATA certified and professionally run Commercial Airlines in Africa are considered, Africa’s accident statistics improves to match the overall industry average! These IATA certified airlines subscribe to and are under the regulation of internationally recognized safety and operations standards such as IATA’s Operational and Safety Audit (IOSA) and Safety Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO) among others.
The two Worlds of Civil Aviation; the Regulated and the Unregulated
On the basis of the immediate preceding observation, the apparent huge gap between Africa and the rest of the world that gets mentioned all the time can literally be rephrased as the gap between the “Unregulated” and the “Regulated” worlds of Civil Aviation. As the rephrased statement points out, regulation plays a critical function in ensuring safety in aviation. Africa’s poor safety record is squarely a regulation and oversight problem.
The Airline Industry’s Primary Safety Oversight Body
Even though IATA also plays a significant role in promoting safety as we have seen courtesy of the standout safety record for Africa’s IATA certified commercial operators, the industry’s primary safety and oversight body is the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). ICAO was formed purposefully to promote the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation worldwide. It sets standards and regulations necessary for aviation safety, security and efficiency among other measures. ICAO works to achieve its vision through the cooperation of its signatory member states. ICAO requires its member states to implement its civil aviation goals. From ICAO’s perspective of the performance of the civil aviation function, regulation is a critical role and it falls in the domain of the State (Government). Africa’s safety can therefore be attributed to the failure of African States to effectively enforce ICAO’s standards and regulations within their territories. Inadequate financial resources, lack of skilled manpower, inadequate legislation and outright refusal to accord aviation the priority it deserves are some of the reasons that have been put forward as the factors behind the dismal performance by African states in discharging their regulatory and oversight role on the industry.
The Africa Strategic Improvement Plan
Driven by their concern over Africa’s safety record, ICAO joined hands with IATA to develop the Africa Strategic Improvement Action Plan which was finalized and tabled in July 2012. The plan aims at enhancing safety by addressing deficiencies and strengthening the function of regulatory oversight. The seven point plan was developed after analyzing accidents in Africa between 2006 and 2010. Its key recommendations include the establishment of independent and sufficiently funded civil aviation authorities, implementation of effective and transparent safety oversight systems and IOSA certification for all Carriers. The plan also aims for quick resolution for all outstanding Significant Safety Concerns (SSCs) for African countries.
A Role for Africa’s Up-to-Standard Operators
Even as IATA and ICAO do their part in efforts to turn around the industry’s safety performance in Africa, I also believe that the elite group of IATA certified African operators whose safety standards are at par with the rest of the world should chip in with a significant role. Africa’s aviation success stories such as Kenya Airways, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways can positively influence the industry’s performance and development in the continent. Their influence can be pushed through technical programs sponsored through Africa’s aviation trade association AFRAA or directly in strategically arranged technical partnerships with state and regulatory authorities and other airlines and industry stakeholders. These African operators of intercontinental repute are the “carriers of hope” for the industry in Africa. They can help ICAO, IATA and AFRAA to successfully push through the enforcement of industry’s safety and operational regulations and standards in Africa.
Partnerships for the Development of Skilled Manpower
Development of skilled manpower is one critical area where the aforementioned technical partnerships can be applied. This would have tremendous impact on the industry’s problems since skilled manpower would positively impact the entire system, regulation included. Strategic partnership arrangements between the elite African operators and all the industry stakeholders in the continent for the purposes of skills development and transfer would do the industry a lot of good.
ICAO is already addressing the manpower issue through its capacity building efforts aimed at the establishment of the Association of African Aviation Training Organization (AATO). AATO is expected to ensure standardization and harmonization of training and training requirements in Africa. It is ICAO’s hope that this will result into improved skills that will eventually translate into safe and secure aviation operations in Africa. The elite carriers can play a significant support role to ICAO in this effort.
The Future looks Bright
In conclusion, we can confidently project a bright future for Africa’s aviation industry. The mere fact that the industry has been constrained means there is potential for improvement if the constraints can be dealt with.
The continent’s current trend of strong economic growth, favorable demographics and the oil and mining discoveries combine to provide a base that can enable the industry deal with all the constraints that have been holding it back. As economies take off, the excuse of inadequate financial resources which states have blamed for their inability to effectively implement ICAO’s safety standards and regulations will no longer be justifiable. Stronger financial performance of the industry should also support improved investment in human resources resulting in improved skills and retention of skilled manpower. Last but not least, unwavering efforts by ICAO, IATA, AFRAA and Africa’s “carriers of hope” such as Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways can and will push Africa’s aviation industry to the next level, putting it at par with the rest of the world.
The job is halfway done as the case of the IATA certified operators in Africa proves. All that remains is to bring the “unregulated” portion of the industry (in Africa) under regulation.