Why the Crash of a Mozambican Plane in Namibia Matters

On November 29, 2013, flight 470, an Embraer 190 of Linhas Aéreas de Moçambique (LAM; Mozambique Airlines), crashed in a remote area of Namibia en route from Maputo to Luanda, killing all 33 on board. This event barely registered in world media. And maybe this a good thing.

Of course, we know the pattern of Western under-reporting about Africa: an event in Africa does not exist in the Western media unless it is related to atrocities or terrorism or it directly impacts Western interests. On the same day a police helicopter crashed into a pub in Glasgow, Scotland, killing eight. That accident was on top of the news in the US for two days.

Aside from the loss of human life, the accident is tragic because Africa urgently needs to expand its air transportation infrastructure in order to develop economically and become more competitive in international business. A report by Mathias Haufiku and Fifi Rhodes on the allAfrica.com web site explains the connection: “The accident took place at a time that African countries are working hard to shed off the negative reputation of accident-prone African airlines, the majority of which are still banned from flying over European Union airspace due to stringent EU safety standards. Currently there are only five African countries and their airlines, which are permitted to fly over European airspace, of which Namibia is one.”

The African Airlines Association (AFRAA) claims that the EU bans most African carriers by deeming them unsafe in order to block African airlines from competing in highly profitable routes connecting Africa and Europe and thus to give European carriers an unfair competitive advantage. For example, the European Union withdrew landing rights not just from LAM but from all airlines based in Mozambique in 2011. In other words, EU restrictions hit an entire country due to perceived deficiencies in its regulatory system, not just a single airline that happens to have an outstanding safety record–until last week that is. As a consequence, LAM had to give up its Maputo to Lisbon route. Today, a TAP flight to Lisbon is the only direct flight to Europe.

This is one of the reasons why it is difficult for African airlines to be competitive on the global market–aside from lack of capital and a very small domestic customer base of businesses and affluent individuals. Governments often protect their airlines through regulatory schemes–which removes the pressures to be competitive. But heavy regulation also turns out to be a huge impediment for air travel. National airlines like LAM still have monopolies which make air travel very expensive.

LAM

Embraer ERJ-190AR of Linhas Aéreas de Moçambique at Nampula airport (2012).

Mozambique tried to escape this vicious cycle. LAM leased a Boeing 737-500 and purchased a brand-new Embraer 190–the very plane that crashed last week–in November 2012 to bring the total of planes operated by LAM to seven. At that occasion, Paulo Zucula, the Mozambican Transport and Communications Minister, announced that Mozambique’s air space was being liberalized. Just two months before, his deputy Manuela Rebelo had stated that the liberalization of Mozambique’s air space had to wait until LAM  could “receive new equipment as it is currently unable to withstand competition.” But Zucula insisted that the two new planes now satisfied this criterion and that LAM was strong enough to compete in the market. But this now is very much in question.

Reliable, safe, and inexpensive air transportation is essential for Africa’s economic development by enhancing trade relations, helping to cultivate personal ties, and promoting tourism. Distances in Africa are vast, road infrastructure often poor, and rail infrastructure spotty to largely non-existent. Air travel still is the domain of a privileged few in most African countries which has a negative impact on the mobility and productivity of their populations.

On a trip to Mozambique in 2012 I had the option of a bus ride of over 48 hours on partly unpaved roads or an expensive two-hour plane ride on LAM from Maputo to Nampula–and back to Maputo. My decision was quick and easy, and the credit card took care of the rest. But for the middle class in Mozambique, this would not have been a likely choice as the ticket was expensive even by Western standards. The flights were highly uneventful–on-time departures, professional service, perfect take-offs and landings. But then I had no idea how well the pilots were prepared for emergency situations and how well the plane was maintained.

Regardless of the cause of this plane crash, airplane safety standards in many African countries are still not up to acceptable standards, and even though the cause of the crash has not been determined at this writing this crash may have “cast fresh doubts over Africa’s aviation safety record.” But many African countries have made great efforts to improve the safety of their air transportation systems. And the US government has tried to improve the air transportation infrastructure in a number of African countries through its “Safe Skies for Africa” program, launched by President Clinton.

Most African airlines are still not ready to be exposed to competitive pressures, including competitive pricing which is a prerequisite for developing a mass market. This is why the 2012 launch of Fastjet, the first African budget carrier with a hub in Dar es Salaam and Western capital support, is a real opportunity for Africa.

Unfortunately, the crash of LAM 470 creates a setback, in terms of demonstrating a sustained safety record in Africa, in terms of capacity to raise capital for new and innovative airlines,  and in terms of developing a market for airline seats, both domestic and international. LAM always could boast an impeccable safety record. This has changed now, with potentially serious consequences for the viability of LAM and for air transportation in Africa. This is why it is perhaps a blessing in disguise that this accident went largely unnoticed in the Western world.

 

Update 12/22/13: The preliminary investigation indicates that the pilot locked himself into the cockpit when the co-pilot had temporarily stepped out and intentionally crashed the plane. While this may point to a problem with pilot screening and training, this does not change the basic thrust of my argument.

3 thoughts on “Why the Crash of a Mozambican Plane in Namibia Matters

  1. Thomas Hess

    Dear reader
    Yes there are good reasons why airlines with a low or even no standard are banned from flying into europe. Not only african but also east european or asian airlines are banned. It’s not only the problem of the airline itself, a lot of times it’s a regulator issue of the place of origin of an airline. Across the world there are a lot of audits ongoing. For example regulator from one country are checking regulators from other countries and vice versa. The same happens between airlines within the IATA and within the partner organisations e.g. ‘OneWorld’ or Star alliance’. And last but not least regulators checking and supervising the airlines in their countries, if there is a regulator existing.
    A lot of airlines are banned because one of their aircraft was checked in a turn around somewhere in europe with major findings. Believe me, not just stickers for the emergency equipment in the cabin where on the wrong position, no, reason for a grounding an aircraft are for example that directions of the manufacturer of the aircraft were not followed, or potential hazzardous parts were not exchanged. Other findings are, that the crew was unable to speak english…
    An other question is what is the background of those pilots who are flying the airliners like in Mozambique?
    A lot of them are coming from the military sevice and a few are coming from somewhere around the world as immigrant worker. Imaging you’re having a former colonel on the left hand seat as captain and on the right hand seat a former major as copilot. Or an south american macho style captain together with not to lose the face acting asian copilot. All in sudden human factors plays a prime reason when it comes to an incident or to an accident. It doesn’t matter how modern your equipment is…

    Reply
    1. Peter Hess Post author

      Thanks for this post. I did not mean to imply that safety is not a huge issue in African air traffic. As I pointed out in my post, just because my flights on Mozambique Airlines went well does not mean that there are not serious safety risks–and you correctly point to deficiencies in pilot training, plane maintenance, and regulatory schemes in many countries. I am not an expert in the area of air safety and cannot assess the real risks of flying with LAM–or any other airline. And we still do not know why LAM 470 crashed.

      What I am trying to say is that from an African perspective, the actions by the EU seem punitive. So it is an issue of perceptions which does not make the EU look good even though technically speaking their rulings seem legitimate. And in an age of globalization, perceptions matter as much as facts do. Yet, Africa cannot lift itself out of poverty without a more reliable and viable air transportation system. So what are the solutions? The Chinese are moving into Africa big-time, creating all kinds of transportation infrastructure, and they are definitely willing to cut corners. This is why it is in the interest of the EU and the US to help African countries develop their air transportation systems–because if the West will not do it the Chinese will on their own terms. European airlines could profit as well from the increased availability of safe domestic air travel. There have been fledgling programs set up by the US (“Safe Skies for Africa”) and by the World Bank, but there have been few tangible results.

      Reply

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