Accident prone airline Fly 540/SAX continues to attract bad press following latest revelations by a whistleblower on the poor state of the planes they’re flying putting in danger the lives of passengers and crew.
In an email to the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) and seen by Kenya Insights, the airline has been accused of getting away with numerous illegalities and irregularities putting the regulator in check for not taking action against the airline.
During their recent AOC audit, CANADAIR CL-600-2B19 REGIONAL JET(CRJ) crew was grounded due to lapsed training. It was found that the crew were flying without required training.
However, the whistleblower alleges that the aircraft is back on air and flying with unqualified pilots, “to our recent knowledge the CRJ has been flying with freelance pilots whose training records needs to be checked.” Part of the email reads.
“Furthermore, the aircraft left for a charter flight to Kigali via Moputo and the first officer in that flight hasn’t flown the CRJ for over three years let alone the last time she did training on type. All this was known by the chief pilot Nimit Patel and with complete disregard to regulations authorized for that flight and crew.” It continued.
The whistleblower is raising an alarm on the aircraft saying it is in bad state, “the CRJ 5Y-BXC is in deplorable state it had multiple snags yet still flying and with an airworthiness certificate.” It reads.
Its alleged that the aircraft has cracked windshield, one reverser only, no Auxiliary Power Unit that provides compressed air for engine starting on the ground, no Flight Management System (FMS) that integrates numerous engine, aircraft, and navigational systems to provide overall management of the flight and that the plane doesn’t have an autopilot which has been unoperational for over one year.
Despite the snags having been flagged, nothing has been fixed. The chief pilot is also put on the spot for threatening to force one of the grounded first officers to fly while lying that it had been cleared by KCAA.
KCAA has been put on alert as well concerning the aircraft, “we need the regulator to look into all this as a matter of urgency before we have an incident.” The email warns.
The aircraft is scheduled to land in Nairobi on Thursday 25th early morning with Captain Waweru Thuku and first Officer Sabina Ngumu.
KCAA has been challenged to respond to the red flags and we will be keen to find out the measures they’ve taken against the airline.
However, the regulator has been previously accused of giving a blind eye on issues raised on the airline giving rise to accusations that they’ve been compromised by the deep pocketed CEO of Fly 540 Don Smith.
Don is said to have have reportedly infiltrated the KCAA inspection licencing system to control entire directorates apparently with the consent of Director General.
A development that has been alarming industry players who say the practice is negatively impacting their businesses and even worse compromising air safety over Kenyan skies.
Fly540 Aviation and FlySax are both owned by Briton Don Smith, and are both reportedly receiving preferential treatment at KCAA ahead of other operators despite a worrying compliance record by Fly540 and FlySax which has led to increasing concerns on safety and reliability.
Nothing illustrates KCAA’s complacency and corruption like the recent near mid-air collision over Kenyan skies which raised global alarm and brought sharp focus on the activities at KCAA and it’s Director General Captain Gilbert Macharia Kibe.
KCAA was seemingly caught napping when an Ethiopian passenger jet and an Italian Neos SpA leisure plane only avoided mid-air collision after the Ethiopian Airlines pilot climbed 1000 feet to escape and avert what would have been a horrific collision between the two aircraft, all flying the same converging path.
Don Smith. [PHOTO/ COURTESY]
Accidents and near misses aside, KCAA poor management is also costing Kenyan tax payers heavily.
Due to incompetence and corruption, the Supreme Court recently ruled that KCAA must pay a private airline Sh1.3 billion for irregularly suspending its licence, though misrepresentation and irregularities.
An undercover probe by this publication has uncovered how the unscrupulous Don Smith has pocketed top KCAA executives who bend backwards to ensure applications submitted by Fly540 and FlySax are processed expeditiously and without following due process.
The investigation also uncovered severe cases of non-compliance that pose serious air safety risks. It is not uncommon to observe apprehensive passengers praying while on board Fly540 aircraft.
Equally confounding is the slow pace of investigation into accidents involving Fly540 and it’s subsidiaries.
When he appeared before the National Assembly Transport and Public Works Committee, KCAA CEO Capt Kibe had promised to produce accident report of the investigation into the FlySax accident that killed 10 persons last year, but to date no report has been forthcoming.
The Fly540 CEO whose citizenship in Kenya is questionable, has total control over the Office of the Director General and counts Captain Gilbert Macharia Kibe who also acts as the CEO of KCAA as one of his closest friends.
Smith is also close to KCAA’s head of the Directorate of Aviation Safety Standards and Regulation (DASSR). This is the all important KCAA wing that ensures aviation safety, security oversight, and undertakes economic regulation of the industry.
This function is discharged through seven departments Flight Operations, Airworthiness, Personnel Licensing, Aviation Medicine, Aviation Security, Aerodrome, ANS and Meteorology, Air Transport, and Aviation Consumer Protection.
Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) are also governed by international conventions through agencies like the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).
Due to relations between Don Smith and Capt Kibe, many of Fly540’s safety procedures are overlooked so as to give the airline undue advantage with faster turn around times but with great risks to safety.
One example that recently stood out was when Don Smith irregularly reconfigured a VIP aircraft into a passenger carrier and the KCAA issued promptly issued an airworthiness certificate without subjecting the plan to compliance tests.
To make it worse, Fly540’s poor safety record received global recognition when the carrier was ranked among the world’s most dangerous airlines by AirlinesRatings.com, the world’s only air safety and product rating website, which was launched in June 2013.
AirlinesRatings.com is a joint project between The West Australian and the Aerospace Technical Publications International whose rating system is based on audits from the industry’s governing bodies and governments, plus an airline’s fatality record.
So far, Fly540 is the only Kenyan airline on the list but Capt Kibe of KCAA continues to put passengers lives at great risk by refusing to order a comprehensive audit on the airline. No tourist or discerning will risk flying low cost locally for as long as Fly540 is given preferential treatment by KCAA.
Despite such glaring airworthiness discrepancies, Fly540 enjoys Capt Kibe’s patronage and are therefore facing relaxed standards in order to gain licences for its aircraft and pilots through a leniency of standards.
As CEO, who is in charge of the daily management and administrative duties at KCAA, Capt Line also serves as the Principal Advisor to the Cabinet Secretary responsible for Civil Aviation on matters affecting civil aviation development and practice.
However, many industry players view Kibe as a political appointee who is incompetent and unqualified to effectively manage KCAA.
Smith who believes he’s untouchable due to his connections and deep pockets has been accused of mistreating pilots and withholding their salaries for months.
The company has been facing a backlash from customers after being involved in several accidents unlike other flight companies.
In 2018, a FlySax plane (operated by Fly540) crashed at the Aberdare forest. Later reports emerged that the accident was caused by poor communication and professional negligence.
It is reported that during the maintenance of the plane, Don Smith, the Fly540 CEO fired the engineers who were doing it and issued warning letters to others, hence distracting them from work. It is reported that the plane was not fully serviced.
Before that, in 2011, another Fly540 plane crash landed in a cassava plantation near Wilson Airport in what was reported to be a failed take off. It is reported that after this accident, journalists who arrived at the scene were paid not to paint the image of the company in a bad way. They were also ordered to leave the scene, hence little is known about the accident.
In August 2008, a Fokker F27 freighter aircraft belonging to Fly540 crashed in Somalia’s Mogadishu killing the three crew members on board.
This accident was kept out of the limelight , with money exchanging hands.
In a similar accident, the main wheel of a Fly540 plane CRJ100 got off while taxing at the jomo Kenyatta International Airport in 2018. The crew were notified of the same but ignored.
Another one, 5Y-BXD, of the same company was operating using a faulty engine despite several warnings from flight engineers to the management who chose to ignore. Later, the plane was forced to turn back on its way to Juba, with one failed engine.
We learn that some of the accidents are caused by human factors like fatigue and frustrations. Most of Fly540 employees report to work as early as 4am without proper transport arrangements and working hours. Sometimes shifts are extended by more than three hours for the fatigued workers, who may make errors during their line of duty.
It is also true that some shifts end as late as 1am, and with lack of proper transport plans they opt to spend the rest of their nights at the place of work only to report next day extremely fatigued, unable to execute their duties properly.
Don Smith is said to be running his company with an iron fist and would rather risk lives and make money than comply with aviation safety guidelines. He has been accused of holding employees hostage by using dark tactics. The company or let me say Don Smith fails to submit NSSF, NHIF, tax and contribution to the staff SACCO even after deducting them from their salary. It is insane that the government has turned a blind eye on this open crime that has been happening.
Despite the inhuman treatment of Don, there’s a fear amongst the staff to sue him given the industry is small and words fly fast. Don Smith can fire at will, he knows very well that if you sue the airline, news will spread and the other airlines will most likely not accept you. So you are to do as the airline tells you to do, even if its clearly wrong and put the lives of people at danger. Some have resigned and have been fired for their conscience cannot allow, but most are hanging there as this is the only source of income.
Main concern is for how long will KCAA allow Don to run things the way he wants while putting many lives in danger with his poorly managed airline and what’s the need of having a regulator who’s easily compromised to overlook the dangers posed to passengers and crew. EACC and DCI ought to investigate the relationship between Don and KCAA management that makes him get away with the irregularities, the airline need an audit and possibly grounded until they adhere to highest standards. And to demonstrate lack of competence, Fly 540 was recently suspended by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) from its electronic Billing and Settlement Plan (BSP) over unprofessionalism.
Will KCAA step up this time are will they be pocketed again to remain silent as they await an incident now that the aircraft has been flagged as air unworthy.
Fly540 has a fleet of five aircraft: two CRJ100LRs, and one DHC-8-100, DHC-8-200, and DHC-8-Q300.
Headquartered in Nairobi and operating from Jomo Kenyatta International and Wilson Airports, Fly540 Kenya flies to Eldoret, Kisumu, Lamu, Lodwar, Malindi, Mombasa and across the border to Juba and Zanzibar. We believe that our passengers should not only enjoy affordable, safe and comfortable air travel, but also consistent and excellent customer service.
Fly540 Kenya was established in 2005 by Don Smith (CEO) and Nixon Ooko (Operations Director).