Physical planning approach to reducing fatalities and managing aircraft disasters in Nigeria

By Olapeju Olasunkanmi

Social networking sites and their paraphernalia of smart phones have once again proven to be most effective in the delivery and sharing of facts; real time data; half truths; falsehoods; political mudslings,and cyber spatial assaults ,in the unfortunate Dana Plane mishap that happened last Sunday. From the eerie pictures, real time video files, tweets and re-tweets of the names on the manifest of the crashed plane to the very revealing details of John I. Nnorom-a former Executive Director for finance at Air Nigeria who warned Nigerians to stop flying Air Nigeria until they were sure its planes are properly maintained, the information appetite of a highly dynamic blogosphere population that will no longer wait to get its news from the dailies of the following day was satisfactorily met.

A rescue worker walks past the wreckage of a plane in Lagos, Nigeria on Monday, June 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
A rescue worker walks past the wreckage of a plane in Lagos, Nigeria on Monday, June 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

But shallow and mischievous minds will not rest. They will take advantage of the insufferable and curious mind state of the public to reducing the significance of the national introspection that should attend such national disasters to mere politics. This morning, the tweets I woke up seeing dominating the cyber space centered on the alleged closure of the nations’ airspace for Madam Goodluck Patience on that fateful Sunday. They are obviously the handiwork of such elements that do not know beyond politics. Unfortunately, the toxic tweets will spread more virally and linger more on walls, despite the fact that disclaimers have been logically written to refute them. My grouse with such misinformation is that they add to the toxic content in the minds of the ignorant and devilishly potent in hypnotizing professionals and technocrats who should rather be thinking of how to dispassionately but creatively fashion out solutions to our present challenges beyond regurgitating the old stories we are used to.

Now, let me state clearly that this piece is not about holding brief for the Government of Goodluck Jonathan,whose general performances in office have been short of expectations, for obvious reasons that mostly border on sabotage and the everlasting corruption endemic in our development delivery procedures across all tiers of government. It is rather about x-raying the problems of the aviation sector-especially aircrafts accidents beyond the platitudes of human errors,technical faults and systemic corruption that have been mainly established as the causative factors of air plane crashes in Nigeria,and presenting a wider professional perspective in fundamentally ameliorating the aviation challenges that appear to now abide with us forever.
In a recent study by commercial aircraft maker Boeing,of the 364 plane accidents that globally occurred between 1998 and 2007,87 were caused by technical or human error while landing,and 11% of the total 5147 fatalities were due to accidents borne out of problems in landing. According to the report titled ‘’statistical summary of commercial jet air plane accidents’’,1959 -2008,about 12% of plane accidents take place during takeoff,while 8% during the plane’s initial climb and 12% between the period of climb and cruises, accounting for 45% of total fatalities. While descending ,there were only 5% of mishaps whereas 10% of accidents occurred during the flights initial approach, and 9% during the final approach before landing,resulting in about 27% of total fatalities during the observed years.

The foregoing is to make the point that plane accidents are not only restricted to technical deficiencies that result in crashes during cruising, but that accidents due to taking off and landing of aircrafts are also statistically significant. This is of course is a major consideration in the locational criteria for airports in saner climes. It is definitely the strategic rationale behind the siting of 45 of the 50 busiest airports in the USA in locations that are contiguous to water bodies. Here in Nigeria,airports are sited without recourse to considerations about environmental impacts that relates to noise,resonance effects,and collateral damages and destructions that attend plane crashes. They locate in the heart of the cities,while coastal areas are left to either erode,and sometimes reclaimed by the rich to erecting posh buildings that dot littoral skyline,and command incredible market values.

What am I saying? There is a provable chance that we would have had survivors in the last Sunday’s Dana air mishap had Agbado –Iju,where the crash occurred, which is just seconds away from MMA, been within the radius of a coastal catchment for MMA. Global airplane water crashes statistics corroborate my reasoning. The story of the 155 passengers and crew of Airbus A320,a US airways flight that remained intact after crashing into the Hudson river,in Newyork on 9th January 2009 still remains a legendary testimony that owes more to rational planning and pilot’s ingenuity(let me be generous). We also have fair survival rates of 20 of 39 on board and 59 of 50 on board for Tuninter 1153(an ATR 72,which ditched off the silicon coast after running out of fuel in 2005) and Garuda Indonesia flights(a Boeing 737 which ditched into a river in Java island) ,respectively. As a matter of fact,a recent study done in the US puts ditching(intentional and controlled water landing of an aircraft) survival rate at 88%,though factors like the size of aircraft,type of waterbody for landing,and the speed at which the pilot eases the craft into water also account for survival rates.

Like in many cases that we wound around the person of the President whose face we don’t like anymore,despite our knowledge of the fact that they have existed long before he came on board, the problems in the aviation sector are beyond superficial political dressings . The absence of a viable framework for national physical planning over the years, and the unseriousness of state governments in proactively preparing and implementing regional,urban,local,and subject plans in times past(since the supreme court judgment In the case between Lagos state and the FG now makes the monopoly state governments have in respect to land management and control lucid)is what is responsible for proliferations of major incompatible land uses and indiscriminate construction of buildings in special areas in our cities.

While we wait for the outcome of the black box investigations, and ruminate on how to improve aviation regulation and quality control, and reduce corruption in that sensitive sector, we should also consider the re-ordering of airport locations in ensuring better disaster prevention and management. It is not enough for planning authorities to merely restrict planning standards within a particular radius from airports to building heights regulation and telecommunication mast control. Rather, approval order for airports should emphasize strictly on littoral locations and several miles radius away from built up area. The coastal habitats and mangroves that will be left if such an approval order is sustainably implemented could also represent a gain in environmental management, eco-system and biodiversity protection, and afford the banking of vegetation-carbon sinks to help mitigate global warming. Planning authorities must be empowered to ensuring that their development control powers are not compromised. While government should seize this opportunity in facing the issues squarely, and achieving spatial re-engineering of our cities, the public should also be more sensitized that urban management is not just about scoring political points and making huge tax gains, but chiefly about the greater good of public safety, health, and environmental sustainability.

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