There has been an average of an aircraft mishap every month within the Kenyan airspace in the past 22 months, according to a report, as the general safety of the country’s aviation industry comes under intense scrutiny.
This comes even as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) rates Kenya’s air safety record as ‘commendable’ with a 78 per cent score in the last released results of 2017.
The score ranked Kenya at position 67 globally and seventh in Africa after South Africa, Mauritania, Togo, Egypt, Gambia and Madagascar.
Beneath this seemingly good record is an industry that insiders say continues to threaten the safety of passengers as regulators, airline operators and the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) look the other way on issues that could be the difference between a safe flight and an accident.
Angered by the state of affairs, Parliament on Friday summoned Transport ministry officials, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) and Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) for grilling in the wake of increased aircraft incidents.
“We want them to explain what they are doing on air safety because we cannot have one incident after another and assume everything is right,” Transport Committee chairman David Pkosing told the Saturday Nation on Friday.
KCAA director-general Gilbert Kibe said the recent incidents “are isolated and investigations have been launched”.
However, both the Transport principal secretary and KCAA officials did not turn up for the session with MPs.
MPs now claim the KCAA boss was prevented by unnamed powerful elements in government from appearing before them to give an update on air safety in the country.
According to Mr Pkosing, the chairman of the National Assembly Committee on Transport, Public Works and Housing, Mr Kibe was ready to appear before the committee before things took a dramatic twist.
“Take it from me, the KCAA boss had confirmed the other day that he was coming and yesterday [Friday] morning he called me to say that he was actually on his way to this committee. It’s only him who can explain what happened,” Mr Pkosing said.
The KCAA boss had been invited alongside Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia and the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) management after two planes belonging to Silverstone Airlines recorded emergency landing incidents in a span of three weeks.
With KAA managing director Alex Gitari being the only official who honoured the committee’s invitation, it meant that MPs could not proceed with the meeting.
Nevertheless, Mr Gitari told the MPs that Ksh350 million ($3.5 million) had been budgeted to refill the gaping potholes on the runway at the Wilson airport in Nairobi.
But as Mr Pkosing made the claims, a letter from KCAA to House Speaker Justin Muturi indicated the management was ready to appear any other date apart from Friday.
Interestingly, the letter was copied to National Assembly Clerk Michael Sialai and Leader of Majority Aden Duale but Mr Pkosing was left out, prompting members to protest. They wondered whether the ministry was serious with the safety of air transport as the December festive season approaches.
“This committee will never be intimidated on the safety of the people,” Mr Pkosing noted as he rescheduled the session to November 12.
The frequency and sometimes the casualties involved put the aviation sector regulator, KCAA, on the spot over the quality of inspections they do and the extent to which they enforce laws and regulations regarding acquisition of Air Service Licences and maintenance of the aircraft.
According to a report the Saturday Nation has obtained, there were 28 reported incidents and accidents from January 3, 2018 to October 29, translating to an incident or accident every month.
Two of the accidents involving an aircraft operated by EASAX (5Y-CAC Cessna Caravan) and a private aircraft (5Y-BSE) resulted in a combined 15 fatalities over that period.
The EASX aircraft had left Kitale in western Kenya on the fateful day—June 5, 2018—to Nairobi but crashed in the Aberdares, killing 10 people after the crew changed route due to bad weather.
On the other hand, the private Cessna aircraft killed five people. “The aircraft was found to have crashed in a rural area in Londiani on the edge of a plain, fenced, slightly downward-sloping farm field,” the report notes.
The state of aviation safety in the country has drawn renewed interest after recent incidents involving Rudufu Air, Silverstone Air Services and Safarilink, budget airlines that operate several domestic routes from Wilson Airport.
On October 11, a Silverstone aircraft (5Y-IZO) that was departing for Lamu crashed at Wilson Airport. It had five crew and 50 passengers. There were no fatalities. There was another incident on October 27 when a Silverstone aircraft (5Y-SMT) clipped an EASAX aircraft at the ramp at Wilson Airport.
On October 28, another Silverstone aircraft (5Y-BWG) lost a wheel on take-off from Lodwar. The aircraft made an unscheduled landing at the Eldoret International Airport where it had been diverted.
A day after the latest Silverstone incident, a Safarilink aircraft, a Cessna Caravan, veered off the runway.
On October 11, a passenger plane, operated by Rudufu Air, skidded off the runway and got stuck in the mud at Takaba Airstrip in Mandera West.
Mr Kibe had not responded to our questions about the new figures of aircraft mishaps over the past two years by the time of going to press.
However, an operator at Wilson Airport who spoke to the Saturday Nation in confidence heaped all the blame on KCAA.
“The regulator is asleep. Given the number of incidents we have had, it is now for you as the ticket buyer to make a choice between safety and affordability,” the operator said.
According to the report, while most of the incidents have involved budget airlines, most of which carry out their operations from Wilson Airport, the national carrier, Kenya Airways, from its base at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), has had the highest number of incidents, together with Silverstone.
KQ, as it is popularly known, has experienced three mishaps in the period under review. On February 12, a KQ flight from JKIA to Johannesburg, South Africa, with 142 passengers and 10 crew, was diverted to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, after the left engine overheated, forcing the crew to shut it down.
On June 17, a KQ plane from Mombasa to Nairobi suffered yet another engine shutdown. “The aircraft returned to Mombasa for a safe landing about 25 minutes after departure.”
Then on October 4, a KQ flight from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam had oxygen masks released and the plane returned to JKIA some 45 minutes after departure.
Safarilink, Phoenix, jetways, EASAX and Fly540 have had two incidents/accidents each over the period.
With regard to air safety in the country, KAA for instance has been accused by operators of neglecting the condition of runways in the small airports.
Last Monday, a plane belonging to Rudufu Air got stuck at Takaba Airstrip in Mandera following heavy rains. In August, a Fly 540 plane aborted take-off after one of its wheels got stuck in a pothole at Manda Airstrip in Lamu.
Insiders however say that due to cut-throat competition in the cargo and passenger business, some airlines have resorted to shortcuts in the maintenance and operation of their aircraft.
Saddled with huge maintenance costs due to the advanced age of aircrafts on local routes, some operators have opted not to hire all their crew on permanent or contract terms. They instead pay them per trip on a model that is very similar to what happens in the matatu (public bus) industry.
Mathira MP Rigathi Gachagua, a member of Transport committee in the National Assembly, wondered why KCAA was quick to jump to the defence of Silverstone.
“The guilty are always afraid. We did not call KCAA to discuss Silverstone Airlines but whether the aircraft they have licensed meet the country’s safety expectations,” he said.
West Mugirango MP Vincent Kemosi accused the individuals behind Silverstone Airlines of canvassing to cushion themselves from appearing before the committee.
—Reporting by Walter Menya, David Mwere, Vincent Achuka and Sarah Nanjala.