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Airline Safety, Security Come Under Scrutiny in Africa - 2004-01-05

Two recent passenger plane crashes in Africa have raised fears about inadequate airline safety and security standards on the continent. Airport officials in the region are becoming increasingly jittery and cautious.

A Senegalese plane that had been grounded in Mali since last week because of safety concerns was finally allowed to leave the capital, Bamako, but without any passengers.

All its wheels had blown out on arrival, and Malian officials decided they did not want to risk putting passengers on board the aircraft, operated by Senegal's Sunuair. About 50 European tourists waiting in Timbuktu in the Sahara desert for a return air trip were forced to travel to Bamako by car instead.

Meanwhile, a French-bound Senegalese plane was prevented from leaving Dakar on Sunday. No official reason was given.

These incidents follow the second deadly passenger plane crash in Africa in two weeks, when a Paris-bound charter jet operated by Egypt's Flash Airlines crashed into the Red Sea shortly after takeoff Saturday, killing all 148 people on board.

On December 25, a Beirut-bound plane crashed in the Gulf of Guinea, shortly after leaving Benin's airport, killing at least 130 people. The plane, purchased in Afghanistan, was operated by UTA, a company owned by Lebanese immigrants in West Africa.

The exact causes of the crashes remain undetermined, but appear to have been caused by mechanical failures.

New airlines are multiplying in Africa, many with uncertain safety and security standards. UTA had been denied an operating license in Lebanon, but was granted one in Guinea. Meanwhile, Flash Airlines was banned in Switzerland more than a year ago because of safety concerns.

The director of the British-based global aviation security training company Green Light Limited, Philip Baum, said there are concerns that standards are lower in Africa than anywhere else.

"Unfortunately, accidents take place on a fairly frequent basis on every continent around the world, so people are understandably concerned about these incidents," said Mr. Baum. "What is known about what goes on within Africa or certain parts of Africa - I do not think one can generalize the whole continent - is that sometimes the safety and security checks are not necessarily done to the level that they are done elsewhere around the globe."

Concerning security and terrorist threats specifically, Mr. Baum said high levels of corruption could make Africa an easy target. "There is no doubt that security in African airports is not on a par with those in western Europe for a whole variety of reasons," he explained. "The level of pay afforded security staff in Africa is not going to prevent them accepting possible bribes by organizations. I mean, corruption is to a certain extent part of life in certain parts of Africa."

Industry analysts also say African airlines have trouble remaining in business, so they are often suspected of trying to save money on aircraft maintenance and passenger checks.

In Ghana, officials from the beleaguered Ghana Airways deny they compromise on safety and security. But the result is that flights to the United States from the capital, Accra, are sometimes delayed for several days.

It could be a case of "better late than never" for Africa's airlines.