The pilot pressed a flask-sized bottle of vodka to his lips and swallowed deeply before piloting his geriatric aircraft down a jungle runway in eastern Congo.
The Antonov flying valuable tin ore and two passengers out of the war-battered region made the trip safely that day. But many others don’t. Citing safety concerns the European Union banned 92 airlines Wednesday from its airspace. Most of the airlines are from Africa, where planes are six times likelier to crash than elsewhere and travelers swap tales of crises averted.
In announcing the ban on virtually all aircraft overseen by civil aviation authorities in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Equatorial Guinea, Swaziland and Congo from landing at European airports, EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot labeled many of the planes “flying coffins.”
Wednesday’s ban and earlier similar orders rankle many Africans. They point out that most of the banned airlines—like Thom’s Airways from Congo—no longer operate and never fly to Europe anyway, while Africans have little choice but to use them to hop around the world’s poorest continent.
The deputy director of the civil aviation in Sierra Leone, which had 13 airlines banned, said his country had not had a safety audit by the main aviation-industry oversight group since the end of the country’s brutal 1989-2002 civil war.
Still, “every state has sovereignty over its airspace,” said Badara Allieu Tarrawallie.
The troubles in African nations are the same stymieing its aviation industry: poverty, conflict and poor governance. With little oversight, safety audits go undone and small problems are left unattended.
In Nigeria late last year, two planes flying domestic routes crashed within seven weeks of each other killing 224 people, including dozens of schoolchildren heading home for Christmas holidays. The causes of those crashes have not been determined, but Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has referred to an intelligence report detailing safety problems involving Nigerian airlines, including planes experiencing landing gear trouble.
In December, Obasanjo blamed corruption for some of the troubles in his country’s aviation industry and called in international experts for a safety review.
A continentwide trend of economic liberalization may be fueling faster-than average passenger growth as former state-owned airlines go private amid new competition—even as poor governments fail to adapt and oversee the growth.
“You’ve got the general problem of poverty and lack of government capacity. In Africa, everyone is encouraged to privatize, but there is a very important role of the state, strengthening oversight and regulatory mechanisms as you open up the economy,” says Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, currently a Council on Foreign Affairs fellow. “We’ve gone far in one way, but not the other.”
Even many of Africa’s larger airlines fly secondhand aircraft purchased from overseas.
Many other airlines, particularly in vast Congo, fly rickety old jets or propeller-driven planes, including some old military aircraft converted to passenger aircraft with the addition of plastic patio-style chairs.
Stories proliferate of outrageous misfortune—like presidents’ wives commandeering entire sections of the now-defunct Air Afrique for shopping junkets in Paris, stranding paying passengers behind.
One solution might be banning castoff aircraft from former Soviet-bloc nations. Spare parts can be hard to obtain and some of the aging planes’ maintenance documentation has been lost.
“We’ve witnessed accidents in countries with conflict, like Congo, Angola and Sudan,” says Elijah Hingosso, an official with Nairobi, Kenya-based African Airlines Association. “Many of these flights took place in areas outside of government control, so there’s no oversight. We’ve also tended to notice in the past that many aircraft come from the former USSR.”
“We’re urging governments to stop getting these old aircraft,” said Hingosso, who says the number of passengers is growing at between 6 and 7 percent annually—slightly higher than the global rate.
There are bright spots, including South African Airways, Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines. Many African pilots who have honed their skills on the continent’s cracked runways are known as skilled navigators of crisis zones. A South African crew runs a route between Amman, Jordan, and Iraq’s Baghdad, where the plane approaches the runway in a tight downward corkscrew to avoid ground fire.