The Nigerian airline involved in a June crash that killed at least 163 people resumed domestic flights Thursday, even though officials acknowledge they still don't know what brought the aircraft down and that the families of the dead still haven't received insurance settlements.
Government authorities cleared Dana Air to again fly the same type of planes involved in the crash, despite public outrage over the disaster in a nation with a long history of airplane tragedies. Meanwhile, passengers still nervously board flights, even though the country's aviation industry remains mired in financial problems and is governed by lax oversight.
Smiling staffers stood Thursday at empty check-in and ticket counters at a domestic wing of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, as only a few passengers paid for seats on its 4:20 p.m. flight Thursday to Nigeria's capital, Abuja. The private airline planned to have a flight Friday morning carrying local celebrities, government officials and journalists to the capital and back as a sign that the carrier was again open for business, said Tony Usidamen, a Dana spokesman.
The carrier was offering tickets as cheap as 14,400 naira ($90) one-way to the capital, about half the price of its competitors, as a means of luring back passengers. However, Usidamen said the carrier planned a limited flight schedule for the coming weeks and acknowledged it would be a while before its flights were full again.
"It's going to take time to publicize the resumption of flights and to regain the public's confidence," the spokesman told The Associated Press.
On June 3, a Dana Air MD-83 twin-engine jet crashed in a crowded neighborhood on the outskirts of Lagos, killing all 153 people onboard and at least 10 on the ground, authorities have said. The pilots told air traffic controllers that the plane lost power to both engines just before the crash. The reason for the power loss remains unclear. Crash investigators in Nigeria have said the flight data recorder on the plane melted in the ensuing fire.
Dana will fly its remaining stock of five MD-83s, airplanes built by McDonnell Douglas, which was later bought by Boeing Co. The aircraft series is a mainstay of airlines around the world, with a large number still flown by American Airlines, owned by AMR Corp. Joe Obi, a spokesman for Nigeria's Aviation Minister Stella Oduah, pointed to that when asked if authorities had any concerns about Dana continuing to fly that model.
"Until we are sure what caused the crash, we can't make a decision on the MD-83," Obi told the AP.
Federal officials have given Dana Air a two-month window to complete insurance payments to the bereaved, Obi said. That could prove difficult, as Usidamen said the airline's insurers have made full payments to only five families of victims so far. Usidamen blamed the delays on families not getting needed documents from probate courts.
Nigeria has suffered a series of plane crashes over the last decades, with authorities never offering clear explanations for why the disasters happened. Obi said Nigeria's government planned to immediately publicize the cause of the Dana crash as soon as it knew, but the government has previously declined to publish the causes of other crashes.
Other airlines in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, have collapsed or faced dire financial straits over the last year.
Air Nigeria, the nation's second-largest carrier, collapsed in September amid allegations of financial mismanagement. Arik Air Ltd., the country's largest and perceived safest carrier, recently halted domestic flights after its management alleged Oduah had a financial interest in seeing the airline fail. The carrier later resumed its flights, but raised its prices as authorities halted other smaller carriers from flying due to financial and safety issues.
Air travel, despite its perils, represents the quickest way for those who can afford it to travel across Nigeria, a nation twice the size of California and with decrepit and dangerous roads. However, experts say Nigerian aviation authorities remain overworked and safety regulations are laxly enforced in a nation where bribery is an epidemic.
The Dana Air crash represented the worst airline disaster in the country since Sept. 27, 1992, when a military transport plane crashed into a swamp shortly after takeoff from Lagos and killed all 163 people onboard. The worst air disaster in Nigeria happened in 1973, when a Jordanian Boeing 707 crashed at Nigeria's Kano international airport and killed 176 people.
Dana Air: www.flydanaair.com
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .