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Air Transport Group Targets African Flight Safety

The International Air Transport Association chastised four African countries Monday for their poor airline safety records, and warned it would withdraw membership to airlines who failed new safety audits.

Last year was the safest ever in terms of airline accidents, but not everywhere. Even as the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, boasted only 1 accident for every 1.3 million flights worldwide in 2005, it noted some regions of the world have worrying accident rates. Topping the list are countries in Africa, which accounts for only four percent of world air traffic, but 25 percent of all accidents last year.

For the first time ever, the airline trade association is requiring members to pass new audits, even as it took several African countries to task. Anthony Concil is spokesman for the IATA.

"There are some governments that stand out for their poor safety records. And we named four countries - Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone and Swaziland," said Anthony Concil. "And a big part of that problem is the use of flags of convenience."

In other words, these countries issue licenses to airlines based on extremely low safety requirements. Experts say that in some cases African officials accept bribes in exchange for easy certification of airline companies that could never pass safety checks in other countries. The International Herald Tribune reported that Swaziland was a case in point, with dozens of airlines receiving certification. The country announced it was trying to improve its certification process.

This is not the first time African countries have been censured for airline safety. In March, the European Union issued a blacklist banning 92 airlines from operating in the region for failing to meet international standards. Most of those airlines are based in the four African countries censured by the IATA Monday.

Last November, Gambia's top airline regulator was arrested and lost her job on allegations of misusing public funds. But a number of international experts reportedly believe she was removed because of her efforts to improve airline safety in Africa.

Still, other African countries are trying to improve their records. The World Bank recently announced new grants to countries who agree to work on their airline safety, while cutting funds for those who do not. Four countries recently qualified for the new World Bank funds - Burkina Faso, Mali, Cameroon and Guinea.