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Standing Room Only

All airlines overbook. I believe the figure is about ten percent, which they say caters for no-shows and last minute cancellations. The practice means empty seats are not wasted, and standby passengers can get a seat. Occasionally, the aircraft is truly overbooked and some passengers have their trip shifted to a later flight. The airline will usually offer some recompense to those ejected few.

Not always so in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The only practical way to travel in the DRC is by air unless you have unlimited time on your hands to get from one side of the country to the other. At the time this event occurred, there were a few choices of carrier available, and I had to assess the safety standards of the most likely ones that my client would use.

The principal airline in the DRC was Hewa Bora Airways, which commenced operations in 1998 and had its operating certificate removed in 2011 after its latest accident. The carrier’s accident history is notable: 2008 – the crash of Flight 122 into the market at Goma – 40 killed and 111 injured, most of whom were on the ground; 2010 – a burst tyre on the take off of Flight 601 damaged the port engine and the nose gear failed to lower resulting in the subsequent landing accident – no casualties. HBA blamed the runway, but no fault was found with the runway; 2011 – Flight 952 crashed on landing at Kisangani killing 74 people, while many more suffered burns.

Incidentally, if you doubt my word on these things, you can look up Hew Bora Airways on Wikipedia for verification and learn the name of the Foreign CEO.

I had the dubious distinction of conducting a safety audit of HBA before these accidents happened. By the time I had finished the first morning’s work, I had concluded that HBA was an unacceptable risk for my client. In the afternoon I went to see the CEO, who appeared to run the operation from a sort of command centre in his house. There he proudly showed me how he tracked where each of his aircraft were on his computer monitor. After he’d finished telling me how technically advanced the airline was, I outlined some of the problems I’d unearthed.

There were many serious safety concerns, but the only one relevant in this letter is that of overbooking. What was happening was that booking agents, particularly in the outstations, were accepting cash for tickets irrespective of whether seats were available. That’s fraud, I suppose, but the real problem came when even if there were no seats left, those that had paid for one were allowed on board. If they were refused (as they would be anywhere else) violence was a very real prospect. The mindset seemed to be that the aircraft was no different to a bus or a train – you’ve bought a ticket so you’re entitled to squeeze yourself on board – there’s no such thing as overbooking.

Without enough seats for too many passengers, the airline allowed the overflow to sit in the flight attendants’ seats and the crew had no option but to stand or sit on the floor without safety harness. Children were often placed two to a seat under one seat belt. The paperwork, of course, didn’t show the excess bodies on board, so the pilots never knew the actual take off weight of the aircraft, which was another safety concern.

Can you imagine taking a flight on any airline you would choose in which passengers and cabin crew are standing or sitting on the floor during take off and landing? Other than an evacuation from a war ravaged country, that is.

Before I’d finished telling the HBA CEO why I wasn’t going to allow his substandard outfit to carry my client’s staff, he told me I was lying, trying to discredit him, working for his opposition, and that I was not welcome and should get out. That was fine by me, to see such appalling breaches of elementary safe practice made my next stop the hotel bar.

I don’t know, but I may be the only aviation safety auditor who has been thrown off an audit by the operator. A dubious distinction of which I’m quite proud.


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