‘Some government agencies don’t understand need for safety collaboration’
Akin Olateru is the Commissioner and Chief Executive Officer of the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) Nigeria. In this interview with WOLE OYEBADE, Olateru x-rays the workings of the industry in an age of pandemic, efforts to deepen safety, challenges and prospects.
The COVID-19 has brought enormous disruptions to the business world. What is your view of its effects on the global aviation industry?
COVID-19 is not new to anybody; even kids on the streets know what it’s all about. The pandemic has affected the aviation industry worldwide. We are one of the industries that this pandemic has affected a lot in terms of revenue losses. It is a very expensive virus and it has crippled a lot of activities; a lot of families are out of jobs. I think Nigeria has done its best to curtail it. I give a lot of credit to the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19. They have been able to manage it very well. I am impressed. We will make adjustments as we go along in terms of relaxing the lockdown. More so, it depends on scientific evidence available to the team. I believe the phase will pass; things will be back to normal. But when? It is the scientists that will come out with vaccines that will help to mitigate this risk. I believe it is a matter of time; things will fizzle out and things will return to normal.
How is your organisation addressing the challenges of this pandemic?
In terms of performance, we refused to let the pandemic affect us. We are still doing what we would do normally, COVID-19 or not. We still ensure that we deliver on our mandate, but the only problem we have is funding. COVID-19 has affected our revenue greatly. You know our source of revenue is from the three per cent cut that we get out of the total of five per cent Ticket Sales Charge/Cargo Sales Charge (TSC/CSC). So, it is more or less a problem of funding. But, in terms of delivery on our mandate, we made sure it hasn’t affected us in any way.
There is a plan to expand the scope of incident and accident investigations to other modes of local transportation? How far has this plan gone?
That will start once the bill is approved by the National Assembly and the President. Currently, we are set out to investigate air accidents and there is a proposed bill in the National Assembly. At the House of Representatives, it has passed the second reading. We are waiting for a public hearing on the new AIB Bill. At the Senate, we are waiting for a second reading and public hearing. Thereafter, it will be transmitted to the President for assent.
If you look at what we’ve done in air transport, we have been able to mitigate so many risks. We have managed to learn lessons from serious incidents. As you know, aviation is a highly regulated industry, also very expensive, highly technical, the fastest and the safest means of transportation. It is because of all these checks and balances that have made aviation what it is. There is a difference between investigating for liability, criminality and safety. AIB has been investigating for safety, not for liability, and it is the same we want to take to other modes of transportation. It is not about who is at fault, it is about how we can prevent future occurrence. This is our core mandate and this is what we want to focus on. That is where we are and it’s going to take effect as soon as we have the green light from the president.
What challenges do you face in the cause of discharging your duties?
When you look at it, challenges could come in four major areas in any organisation: equipment, infrastructure, human capital, and systems’ processes and procedures. I always say that if you score less than seven out of 10 in any of these four areas, you still don’t have a company. If you have the best equipment and you don’t have manpower, you are not going anywhere. And if you have the best manpower, equipment, but you don’t have a good infrastructure and there are no systems and procedures to help them navigate their workings, you are not going anywhere.
So, in those four areas, I would say we had a huge challenge in them when I came in. Of course, the pillar of all the four is funding, but with the support of the Aviation Minister and the National Assembly, we have been able to navigate through that.
Apart from the flight safety and material science laboratories AIB already has, which other project is the management embarking on?
Currently, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) has approved the construction of AIB headquarters and AIB training school in Abuja. These projects have started. We have two laboratories – flight safety and material science. For the material science laboratory, it’s a work in progress because we want to transform the material science lab to an avenue where we can make money. We cannot charge for what we do. We don’t charge for accident investigation; we don’t invoice anybody. We can look for little areas where we can use our resources to make money. That is the way we are going so that we can be able to address the issue of funding.
Under the United Nations’ (UN) Charter, we cannot charge for accident investigation. But, there is nothing stopping us from looking at other areas of generating revenue. I have made mention of the material science lab. We have signed MoUs with the University of Lagos, University of Ilorin, and we are talking to a university in the United Kingdom on the things we need in this material science laboratory so that we can start earning money from this. The training school is another way we want to earn money. Of course, we as a responsible government agency are looking for a way and ways of improving our funding positions.
How will you ensure that AIB’s Training School will not duplicate or be in conflict with the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT)?
First and foremost, we are doing this in conjunction with NCAT. We are not licensed to train, but NCAT is. We developed this curriculum together with great inputs from world-class institutions worldwide, because this is new to NCAT as well. Once the training school is built, we will move in. We want to produce world-class training with what we are trying to achieve so that we can make the best from what we are trying to do.
Accident information management remains a problem in this part of the world, as also observed during the recent helicopter crash in Lagos.
It is a very serious issue and I will be honest with you. It can be frustrating sometimes because some agencies of government don’t really understand the need for collaboration. They don’t understand why we are pushing for this cooperation. I will give you an example, God forbid an aeroplane drops into the sea, AIB doesn’t have the capacity for sea divers to retrieve any wreckage or black boxes, but Nigerian Navy does.
Since 2017, I have been pushing the Nigerian Navy to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with AIB. It is not the day that we have an accident that we will start looking for whom to call. This is the essence of these MoUs. Recently, we signed a MoU with the Nigerian Air Force, and one of the benefits of that is that aircraft could drop off anywhere; bad terrain that we cannot access. The Air Force can help us with the logistics. We too can be of help to the Nigeria Air Force because we have a world-class safety lab in Abuja, rather than the Air Force sending down their black boxes overseas for download, they can use our lab in Abuja to do the download and save our country some cost. At the end of the day, it is to the benefit of the entire nation.
For the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), we have been on this MoU with them since 2017, we are still talking and that is what I mean by saying sometimes it can be frustrating. AIB is not Akin Olateru’s company, but it is a Federal Government agency. We have a mandate. We have got some recognitions from some organisations like the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), you could see the way Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA) performed during the last unfortunate accident, and that is why we are taking it further to sign an MoU with LASEMA to see how we can train their staff on how we work, what we expect from them when there is a crash. We have done a lot of training with the Nigerian Police as the first responder. We have trained civil defence, but like the Nigerian Police, I am still waiting for the MoU to be signed.
I agree with you that it is 100 per cent important for all relevant agencies to come together and work as a team. There is no confusion as to everyone’s roles. We all have independent roles to play, but when we work together; we can achieve a much better coordinated service delivery.
In terms of capacity, how many accident investigators do you have at AIB?
We have 36 trained air safety investigators. We have been training at NCAT, Zaria. For instance, if you come in as a mechanical engineer to AIB, the first thing we want to do is to send you to NCAT to train you on aircraft maintenance engineering programmes. Then, you will become a licensed aircraft engineer and from there, we will send you to Southern California Safety Institute in the United States for a two weeks course on accident investigation. Then, you go to Crowfield University for a six weeks programme on accident investigation. You will do the intermediate and the advanced courses and there are other courses, which come in between and make you a better investigator.
One thing about training is that it is continuous. We do training in-house. Training is not what you can exactly put cost to because it is vast and a continuous process. But, very soon, all that will change. That is why in the wisdom of FEC, they approved the AIB Training School to be built in Abuja. The project is ongoing. That will save us all these U.S. dollars that we spend on training overseas. We too can train Africans, people from Europe on accident investigation and the auxiliary costs that go with it. We have drawn up a curriculum from Crowfield University, Singapore Training Institute, and NCAT. So, we want to make it a world-class institution because we want to push this training through so that we can earn some good money from it for the country and save us money as well.
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