The tragic crash of Kenya Airways 507 in Cameroon enroute from Abidjan to Douala has sparked a wave of articles in international media reminding readers of the dangers of flying in Africa. Reuters Africa, while speculating that the crash won’t fiscally damage Kenya Airways in the long run, notes: ” The accident has compounded Africa’s already bad record as the most dangerous continent to fly in. It has the highest rate of air accidents in the world, while accounting for just 4.5 percent of traffic.”
African bloggers were out in front of the story, responding to the news with challenges to the view that all African carriers are unsafe and defending the safety record of Kenya Airways. Mental Acrobatics, in particular, was all over the story, pointing out that Kenya Airways is one of four African carriers registered with the IOSA (the IATA Operational Safety Audit), the gold standard for carrier safety, that the plane involved was a brand new Boeing 737-800, and that African airlines have a significantly better safety record than airlines in the former Soviet Union. While Reuters assertion about continent-wide records is correct, the IATA statistics cited by Mental suggest that airlines in the former Soviet Union are twice as dangerous as African carriers.
That said, Mental acknowledges that there’s a lot not to like in the African skies, including 92 carriers banned from European airspace due to safety concerns: “The ‘blacklist’ includes 50 airlines registered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 13 from Sierra Leone, 11 from Equatorial Guinea, 6 from Swaziland and 3 from Liberia. (Yes that was FIFTY from the DRC!)” The reason there are so many carriers in the DRC points to the importance of aviation in Africa – the vast DRC has less than 2,500km of paved roads, which means that most commerce and transit between the east and west of the country requires air links. In countries where road and rail infrastructure is underdeveloped, air travel is disproportionately important. There are hundreds of small carriers who run ad-hoc and opportunistic routes, connecting places that would otherwise be largely unconnected.
Kenya Airways is emphatically not one of these carriers. It’s a modern, comfortable, well-run carrier that’s had a great run in East African stock exchanges. I’ve held shares in the company, have flown it in the past, and plan to fly it again next month. The success of the carrier, the part-ownership by KLM, and its high standards for quality and safety have been a source of pride for many Kenyans.
There’s no definitive information about the cause of the crash of flight KQ 507, but it would not be surprising to discover that weather played a factor as there were major storms in the region at the time of the disaster. Some commenters on a thread on Global Voices have wondered about the role of control towers, aircraft controllers and reliable weather data in flying West and Central African routes.
One of the individuals reported killed in the crash was AP correspondent Anthony Mitchell, a brilliant journalist whose spirited and insightful coverage from Ethiopia led him to be kicked out of that nation. My friend Andrew Heavens offered a tribute to Mitchell’s reporting last year when he was throw out of Addis. My condolences to his family and his journalistic colleagues.