How ‘tipsy’ pilot and fallen insurer dealt Global Airlift airline millions in double losses

Plane crash

The scene of an aircraft accident.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The pilot took alcohol on the night of February 16, 2014, just hours before the ill-fated flight.
  • Global Airlift in its response demanded that Mr Amur take personal liability and settle $750,000 (Sh104.47 million) damaged aircraft

At exactly 11 am on February 17, 2014, a cargo aircraft operated by Kenya’s Global Airlift Limited took off from Juba International Airport in South Sudan destined for Robkona Aerodrome, which is less than an hour away to the northwest of the country’s capital city.

But all did not go well as planned. The plane crashed while landing at Robkona at 11.45 am disintegrating on impact, killing one crew and injuring three others as well as destroying some property on the ground.

The flight was under the control of Captain Naim Abdallah Amur who was among those injured in the accident and later repatriated to a Nairobi hospital for specialised treatment. Mr Amur was discharged from the hospital two months later on April 16, 2014, with a medical services bill of Sh6,954,354. 83.

He was, however, aggrieved that Global Airlift only footed part of the bill leaving a balance of Sh2,000,662.65 at the hospital, and also cut work links with — triggering a heated blame game and counter lawsuits that exposed shocking details of how the pilot took charge of the flight under suspected influence of alcohol while the aircraft’s insurer went burst after the mishap, leaving the airline with huge financial losses above Sh130 million due to the crash.

From court proceedings, it emerged that Mr Amur may have been drunk at the time of the accident, which investigators blamed on pilot error.

Tool alcohol

The pilot took alcohol on the night of February 16, 2014, just hours before the ill-fated flight—raising serious questions about lapses in the airline’s operations that could have allowed an unfit crew to handle the aircraft.

Exhibits presented in court included a receipt that showed Mr Amur bought seven bottles of Heineken beer and a bottle of Gilbeys Gin from the popular Juba Raha Restaurant.

“The claimant took to the skies while under very strong suspicion of inebriation. He had purchased no fewer than seven bottles of Heineken beer and one bottle of Gilbeys Gin, in what appears to have been, a few hours to the flight. He conceded that he probably took the drinks,” Employment and Labour Relations Court Judge James Rika said.

“It is indicated, and the claimant confirmed, he did not sit at the restaurant to take his drinks; he took them away. He did not say at what time he consumed the drinks, but given that his flight was at 11.00 a.m. it is not likely that he gave himself sufficient time to sleep and recover from the effect of the alcohol, before taking charge of the flight out of Juba,” the judge added. Mr Amur in his submissions, however, maintained that he was entitled to compensation by the airline including clearance of the balance of his medical bill and reimbursement for claims costs he continued to incur as a result of the accident, as well as general damages for pain, suffering and loss of amenities caused as a result of his disabilities.

Global Airlift in its response demanded that Mr Amur take personal liability and settle $750,000 (Sh104.47 million) damaged aircraft whose insurer had collapsed before it could settle any claims. The aircraft is owned by Seven Four Eight Air Services Kenya Limited but operated by Global Airlift. The airline said besides the lost aircraft, it sustained repatriation costs of $129,163.19 (Sh17.99 million) and $57,606 (Sh8.02 million) to indemnify owners of properties destroyed during the crash.

Justice Rika in his judgement last week said Mr Amur was negligent in his duty as a flight captain and did not merit any compensation from the airline since investigations pointed to human error as the cause of the crash.

Probable intoxication

“The court would agree with the respondents (Global Airlift and Seven Four Eight Air Services Kenya Limited), that on the balance of probability, the accident was attributable to the claimant’s negligence, and probable intoxication. It was attributable to pilot error. His prayers for general and special damages arising from the accident have no merit and are declined,” the judge said.

He said Mr Amur shouldered the biggest responsibility of ensuring the safety of the flight.

“He was the captain of the crashed aircraft. He was the senior-most. The buck stopped with him. The crash occurred on February 17, 2014. He was reasonably experienced. He was familiar with operating procedures. A pilot must be alert during flight. Take-off and landing are the most technical times in the process. A pilot must be sober. He must be attentive. He is not allowed to take alcohol. There could be a pilot error if the pilot is not sober,” justice Rika said.

The court further said Mr Amur did not qualify for compensation for a purported job loss from the airline since he was a freelance pilot.

“He was not able to show evidence of salary paid to him or produce a pay slip showing that he was subjected to statutory employment obligations such as PAYE (pay as you earn). He did not show that he was paid other employment benefits, beyond what he says was a monthly salary of $6,500 (Sh903,468.93). Most of the facts placed before the court suggest that the claimant was indeed a freelancer, an independently contracted pilot,” justice Rika said.

The court also reprimanded the airline for seeking compensation from the pilot for the lost aircraft saying it was to blame for not covering the plane with a reputable insurance service provider.

“The second respondent (Global Airlift) did not insure its aircraft wisely, having taken up insurance coverage with a shaky insurer, who went under, while the second respondent needed it most,” justice Rika said.

“Aviation insurance caters for damaged aircraft. The second respondent would be expected to have insured its aircraft, under the Civil Aviation [Insurance] Regulations 2009, pursuant to the Civil Aviation Act, Cap 394 the Laws of Kenya. There is no legal basis for demanding that the claimant (Mr Amur) pays to the second respondent the value of the lost aircraft, at $750,000,” the judge added.

The court ruled that neither Mr Amur nor the airline would draw compensation from each other.

“The parties ought not to burden each other with legal obligations, imposed by the court, arising from their freelance relationship, which unfortunately, ended tragically,” justice Rika said.