Kenya Airways had such an enviable safety record that it won the 1999 title as African Airline of the Year. So when Flight 431 plunged into the sea off Ivory Coast last Sunday, airline officials were nearly as devastated as the relatives of the 169 who died in the crash.
"This is our first accident," said a shaken airline spokesman, Koome Mwambia.
No one expected such a tragedy to befall a Kenya Airways passenger jet. But industry experts were not surprised the first major air disaster of the year happened in Africa, although the second occurred off the coast of the US within a week.
More airline accidents per takeoff occur in Africa than anywhere else in the world. In the past decade, there were 12.6 crashes for every 1 million Western-built transport planes to depart from airports in Africa. In the US and Canada, that ratio was a mere 0.5.
Although industry insiders say there have been vast improvements to Africa's aviation systems over the past three years, they say there is much more to be done. And with a tremendous increase in the number of flights over Africa, there's a groundswell of initiatives to improve safety - from airplane pilots' recommendations to President Clinton's Safe Skies for Africa program.
In 1996, the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations (IFAPA) warned of poor safety and air-traffic control over large portions of the continent. It declared 90 percent of the African airspace as "critically deficient." The label still stands.
"That doesn't mean planes will fall from the sky," says Capt. Karl Jensen, a South African pilot who's flown Boeing 747s for 21 years. "I wouldn't do this if I was scared. But flying in Africa is not for sissies ... I don't have the trust in air-traffic controllers that one would have in a first-world country."
Most experts agree.US transportation officials have said only five countries on the continent meet the safety and security standards set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization -South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Morroco.
In some African countries, training of air-traffic controllers is inadequate. In others, airports do not have functioning runway lights. Or, navigation beacons are permanently out of service.
"Most airports lack basic infrastructure," says Peter Quaintmere at the London-based IFAPA. "But the worst thing is that, in the majority of Africa, there is a total lack of communication between pilots and ground-control centers."
Radar is non-existent beyond South Africa.Limited technology forces pilots to rely almost exclusively on high-frequency communications - often hindered by static and congestion on the air. The result is that pilots are frequently unable to give air-traffic authorities their flight-plan details, so air traffic is not coordinated.
Shoddy radio communication was named as the cause of a 1997 accident in which a US military plane crashed mid-air with a German transporter off Namibia.
South African co-pilot Gavin McKellar, who routinely flies to Europe and heads his union's accident committee, has experienced the problems first-hand. "Sometimes you just see the airplane strobe lights, and there is a plane flying past."
In 1996, South African pilots alone reported 77 so-called "near misses" between their planes and other aircraft over African skies.In 1999, there were 44 such incidents. The numbers are much higher when airlines from other countries are taken into account, but international associations representing the pilots and airlines refuse to release the statistics.
"It gives the impression we missed each other by a whisker," says Trevor Fox at the Nairobi office of the International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines. In fact, a near-miss rarely means two airliners came close to crashing.
But pilots agreed among themselves years ago to reduce the hazard by making continual radio announcements on a specified channel. Still, not everyone complies with the so-called In Flight Broadcast Procedure. It makes for a stressful night when pilots from South Africa cross the entire continent to reach Europe.
"They fly through thousands of miles of airspace, looking for planes, listening for radio transmissions, constantly surveying," says Quaintmere of the pilots association. "Then, when your body is most tired, you arrive in European airspace - some of the busiest airspace in the world."
As of Jan. 1, it became mandatory for airliners to carry Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS), which tell a pilot when another plane is within 40 miles.That gives pilots 10 minutes to climb or descend to avoid crossing paths.
Thanks to the TCAS, a South African Airways plane averted a collision with another aircraft by 100 feet in 1997. The following year, it saved a London-bound jet from crashing with a plane over Chad.
But many of the older cargo planes and Russian transporters in use throughout Africa - some ferry arms and ammunition into war zones - do not have transponders that send out the necessary signals. "They may not be carrying passengers," says Mr. Jensen. "But they are up there in the sky, mixing it up with the airliners."
At the same time, a dramatic increase in air traffic over Africa has brought the fragile aviation infrastructure under pressure like never before. While just 20 airlines operated out of South Africa before the end of apartheid in 1994, more than 80 fly here now that the country is attractive to tourist and trading partners.
Airlines are especially frustrated. They pay millions of dollars to African countries each year in over-flying fees - money that governments are supposed to spend on improving aviation infrastructure.
"But it goes directly into general treasuries," says Mr. Fox. "We have no direct evidence, but the suspicion is that the money is misused."Pilot Jensen says it could be spent on schools or guns, or end up in private pockets.
Fox notes the air transport association has now begun to collect revenues on behalf of African countries to "make sure they have resources to provide essential aviation services."
Part of the problem is the International Civil Aviation Organization is a United Nations body that has no power to enforce its regulations."It is a question of sovereignty," says spokesman Denis Chagnon.
But Mr. Chagnon joins the many industry insiders who say there's reason to hope the situation will get better. For a start, Mr. Clinton's Safe Skies for Africa initiative was announced during his historic visit to the continent in 1998. Under the $1.2-million plan, US transportation officials will assess aviation systems in eight countries and give local authorities the technical assistance they need to fix problems in airport security and air navigation.
The team of advisers has already completed reviews in Kenya, Tanzania, and the Ivory Coast and plans to conduct assessments in five other countries - Angola, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Mali, Zimbabwe.
The international aviation organization is also starting to conduct safety audits. Countries that refuse to fix identified deficiencies will be named in reports that are distributed to all other member nations.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society