Kenya Places Emphasis On Improving Air Safety

By Denis Gathanju | November 2, 2018
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Mount Kenya

Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa.

Kenya today boasts one of the most developed air-travel systems on the African continent. The country has some of the best developed aviation infrastructure and operates one of the largest airlines on the continent. Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) is the de facto regional aviation and logistics hub for both passenger and cargo movement in the region.

This is further underlined by the launch of the first direct flights between the east coast of Africa and the east coast of mainland United States thanks to the newly launched direct flights by Kenya Airways now flying daily from Nairobi’s JKIA to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The aviation industry in Kenya has, over the past few years, undergone serious audits from both the FAA, in view of the launch of Kenya Airways’ direct flights to New York, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). According to Capt. Gilbert Kibe, director general of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), the audits from both the FAA and ICAO had more than 1,300 protocol questions combined. The questions probed everything from aviation regulations to air crash investigations.

“This underscores the rigorous security and safety checks that we had to undergo to ensure that our airspace met global air safety standards,” he said. “Out of this audit, Kenya ranked at third position after Togo and South Africa on the continent.”

The KCAA is a government agency mandated under the Kenya Civil Aviation Act to regulate and oversee aviation safety and security within the Kenyan airspace.

James Macharia, Kenya’s Transport and Infrastructure Cabinet Secretary, noted that Kenya’s score and ranking under the ICAO audit was higher than the previous score, and this greatly helped the country attain and solidify its Category I status under FAA aviation guidelines.

“An ICAO downgrade under this audit would have resulted into an FAA downgrade and consequent cancellation of our Category I status with the FAA,” Macharia said. “We seek to improve upon our air safety measures as per our current score.”

Air safety has been one of the biggest hindrances for Kenya to gain a Category I status from the FAA that would allow national carrier Kenya Airways and U.S.-based airlines to commence direct flights between the two countries. Kenya Airways has for more than a decade tried to launch direct flights from Nairobi to the mainland U.S., but repeatedly has been denied access due to a poor score from its safety and security audit. In 2009, Delta Air Lines canceled the much-anticipated direct flights that were meant to link Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Nairobi’s JKIA. The flights were canceled at the last minute by the U.S. government.

Direct flights between Kenya and the U.S. are viewed as a catalyst to trade and investments between the two countries, whereby Kenya stands to benefit through ease of travel of American tourists coming to Kenya and the region. The U.S. is currently the largest source market for tourists to Kenya. The flights are also seen as a great benefit to Kenya’s thriving floriculture industry. This means that cut flowers from Kenya will get to the U.S. quicker and still fresh as opposed to the current arrangement whereby the flowers have to transit through Europe or the Middle East.

Air Crash Investigations

With such a detailed audit, the state of the aviation sector in the country has not only been thoroughly vetted, but has been critical in identifying critical elements of air safety that the country needs to urgently and thoroughly probe and enhance its capabilities. While Kenya continues to make giant strides in the regional aviation sector, the country has over the recent past faced challenges, especially in the field of air crash investigations, as exposed by the FAA and ICAO audits. Kenya has a commendable air safety record in Africa, but a recent air crash investigation audit shows that more emphasis needs to be placed on this department. According to ICAO, Kenya scored 78 percent when it comes to air safety in 2017. The score ranks Kenya at the 67th position globally.

The ICAO Universal State Oversight Audit Program categorizes a country’s air safety based on eight parameters that include civil aviation organization, aviation legislation, air navigation services, aircraft operations, personnel licensing and training, aircraft airworthiness and air crash investigations. While Kenya scored impressive marks on most of the seven parameters, it is the air crash investigations aspect that the country scored a measly 40 percent. This is attributable to lack of proper training of air crash investigators who generally are unable to effectively launch investigations in a timely manner as well as unable to secure essential evidence at air crash sites and consequently manage air crash investigations.

According to data from Kenya’s Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, there have been a total of 111 crashes recorded in the last eight years. These range from minor incidents on the runway, aprons to serious aircraft crashes with recorded fatalities. The incidents have been recorded from pilot training flights to both commercial passenger and cargo flights to private jets. Of the recorded 111 incidents, 14 were fatal that resulted to the deaths of 38 persons. The deadliest year in air safety incidents in Kenya was 2016 when 26 aircraft incidents and crashes were recorded while 2014 followed with 18 recorded incidents. The year 2018 has witnessed at least 10 fatalities from a light aircraft that crashed in the Aberdares Forest in central Kenya.

According to data from the KCAA, more than one third of the recorded incidents occurred on the runway during takeoffs and landings as a result of either faulty landing aircraft gears, runway intrusions or aircraft overshooting the runway. Aircraft engine failures contributed a fifth of the incidents recorded while aircraft crashes into obstacles contributed about seven percent of the recorded incidents, but responsible for more than 50 percent of recorded fatalities.

The Air Accident Investigation Division of Kenya (AAID), a department under the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, is the body responsible for investigating air accidents and serious incidents in Kenya involving both local and foreign aircraft. The AAID also participates in overseas investigations of accidents and serious incidents involving Kenyan aircraft, operator or citizens. It is this department that greater emphasis needs to be placed not only in terms of resources, but personnel training as well.

Within Africa, there are calls to enhance air safety by increasing funding for training and acquisition of equipment. Within the East African region, the governments of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda have given autonomy to aviation regulators to safely man their respective airspaces.

There are also calls for enhanced cooperation between nations within the vast African airspace to not only enhance safety and security, but to also foster air connectivity within the continent under the open skies agreement. Currently, there are only 23 countries in Africa that have ratified the open skies policy.

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