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Season of deaths as metaphor for dysfunction in domestic airspace

By Wole Oyebade
28 November 2021   |   4:14 am
Aniekan Effiong was in great fettle when he left home last Sunday. He had made a sumptuous dinner, ate, and left some for roommates as he departed for night duty at National Abuja Airport.

Port Harcourt International Airport

Most air travellers rarely get to see or know what air traffic controllers do in the aviation sector, yet they play some of the most critical roles that guide aircraft movements on the ground, while airborne, as well as play an immense role in a safe landing. But with poor infrastructure, poor welfare, personnel burnout and deaths right behind the controls, air travel in the country is perhaps getting riskier than we all know. WOLE OYEBADE reports. 

Aniekan Effiong was in great fettle when he left home last Sunday. He had made a sumptuous dinner, ate, and left some for roommates as he departed for night duty at National Abuja Airport.

As an Assistant General Manager, Operations, and in charge of the Terminal Approach Radar Control (TRACON), he occupied an unusual office located in the Abuja airfield. All night, he processed departing and approaching aircraft within its space. Some three hours to the end of his 13-hour shift, something got wrong- he slumped.

Caught in-between air movements and an in-office emergency, colleagues tried to resuscitate Effiong, but to no avail. Deep down the airfield in the wee-hour of 4 am and no vehicle in sight, the situation only got uglier.

About an hour later, an evacuation vehicle arrived, but aviation security personnel allegedly barred it from entering the highly restricted airside in fulfilment of administrative bureaucracy.

“The guys on duty insisted on getting clearance for the vehicles, saying they were under instruction not to allow unofficial vehicles into controlled areas. It was a back and forth situation between the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN),” said an eyewitness.

On arrival at the Air Force Base Clinic, about a kilometre from the TRACON station, Effiong was confirmed dead. He was the ninth member of the Air Traffic Control (ATC) family to die in active service in the last two years, “due to stress-related health complications, which appear to be associated with poor working conditions and inadequate staffing,” at stations nationwide.

This eerie statistic, the departed colleagues insist, signposts the dismal state of affairs and rot at the peak of aerodrome services, to which concerned authorities have allegedly consistently ignored in the last couple of years thereby putting the entire sector in dire straits.

Unseen Hands Behind Flights
There is a whole lot more happening behind the scene as far as air movement is concerned than passengers get to see. It is behind this scene that the air traffic controllers find critical relevance, which is round the clock.

In very simple terms, Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) simply work to avert a collision, organise and expedite the flow of air traffic, and provide information and other support services for pilots to have safe travels. Doing this is one of the most complicated tasks, as it involves a network of operations.

Traffic flow is broadly divided into departures, arrivals, and overflights. So, while some air traffic controllers work in tall glass towers at airports, many controllers like the deceased Effiong toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility, or at a routing centre, which may be located far away from airports.

Airspace management has different, even though coordinate sections. The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then gets under the control of the approach controllers (TRACON).

TRACON controllers usually control the plane during ascent and descent. When an aircraft reaches an altitude of above 18, 000 feet, the route centre controller takes over, using radar to guide it at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent, at which stage the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller, who guides the plane’s landing.

Decrepit Facility At The Peak
NIGERIA has 26 airports dotting its landscape, and some of their control towers reek of administrative and complicit negligence. The Guardian learnt that the trio of Kaduna, Katsina and Mallam Aminu Kano International Airports still lack a proper tower to date. Others lack basic amenities/infrastructure like chairs, safety gadgets and even convenience to make workers comfortable and at ease.

A top air controller confided in The Guardian that the work environment, which has been deplorable for a while, has now reached the nadir in apparent defiance of whatever interventions made by the airspace management agency.

“It has always been a running battle to get NAMA to provide basic facilities for its workers. The Kaduna Airport does not have a control tower. What they are using (as a control tower) is a watch room for firefighters. It was not built for that purpose (control tower), and we have been calling on the government to do something. In Sokoto, once it rains, controllers need umbrellas to sit in the control tower to work. What can be more horrible than that?

“Some of the control towers attached to the terminal buildings were ceded to the FAAN while those standing alone were for NAMA. We have approached the two organisations, but NAMA will be waiting for FAAN to put it in order, while FAAN always claims that it is NAMA staff that are working there. It is because of that bureaucracy that controllers continue to suffer.

“We are still battling with terrestrial radio frequency, communication here and there. The Margaret Ekpo International Airport in Calabar is there, and there is no airport today that you can conveniently say that things are working 80 per cent. Do you know that if you get to some control towers across the country we have to beg for chairs to sit? I am talking about controllers that will work for between six to 12 hours. These are people that have to climb several stairs because elevators are not there. Where they are, they are not working. It’s not ideal,” he said.

Though pilots attested to investments in navigational facilities and some improvement, an ex-pilot, Emmanuel Essiet, noted that poor ground-to-air communication remains a major problem to date.

Said he: “I have seen and heard of pilots that are flying blind and deaf in parts of our airspace; no communication whatsoever. When it rains in Lagos, for instance, you lose radio communications after 200 nautical miles. Yes, the Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) is available, but you always hear them saying, ‘we have problems logging on.’ Sadly, that is where we are now.

“The previous administration invested heavily (N27.9b) in the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) to see all aircraft in the airspace. Of what use is seeing aircraft when you cannot talk to them? The government awarded a contract that I will call foolish to a company that has never executed any aviation contract in the world. NAMA has paid the firm up to 95 per cent of the sum and no single satellite node has been installed. How can you have effective communication? That is why our ATCOs are getting stressed out.”

The pilot confirmed that the Performance-based Navigation (PBN) is on the ground, but noted that many local airlines, unlike their foreign counterparts, are still not Global Positioning System (GPS)-compliant to use the facility.

“I have been hearing of CAT II and III Instrument Landing System (ILS) for indigenous airlines for 12 years. But it is yet to happen. Coming to Lagos and Port Harcourt, we have ATCs that are trainees. The Lagos-Abuja flight, which should take 52 or 53 minutes now takes almost one hour 10 minutes because controllers are being trained on the job.

“As a pilot, you will often hear the controller shouting things like, ‘Oga, where is the radar control?’ They (ATCs) were not properly trained before coming to the tower. The extra 10 to 20 minutes of fuel usage, who is going to pay for it? These are the issues.”

Dearth Of Qualified Hands
GEORGE Nkambo, ATC communicator, who monitors aircraft movement and communicates with pilots via radio, also decried equipment and personnel shortfall that have made efficient services almost impossible.

Earlier, the National Air Traffic Communicators Association of Nigeria (NACAN), had hinted that at least five airports located in Jalingo, Bayelsa, Bauchi, Kebbi and Jigawa states have no air traffic communicator on the ground, while the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos, the busiest in the country is facing personnel shortage too.

Nkambo, who is the president of the association, said it was frustrating that his members report for duty, but are unable to perform assigned responsibilities due to no fault of theirs.

“When you come to work, you see the backlog of messages that ought to have been transmitted, but not transmitted (due to poor equipment). This gives room for laxity as if personnel are not ready to work.”

Besides fixing the equipment, he also urged NAMA to address the shortage of manpower in the department, just as he observed that his unit has about 300 personnel deficits, which are needed to complement the 176 on the ground to cover airports nationwide effectively.

“With equipment (aircraft) coming into Lagos in their numbers, and only two persons being on a shift, it will be difficult to offer their functions at the terminal, receiving data from Kano or Abuja stations. We have e-flight plans and messages coming from airlines. In Lagos, we have several flights between 11 and 12 midnight. All scheduled flights turn in their plans for transmission and you require communicators to do that. So, our people get overworked to the detriment of their health.”

Nkambo’s counterpart at NATCA, Abayomi Agoro, acknowledged that NAMA only lately employed more hands, but less of the skill-sets required of such critical service providers.

Agoro said: “We should have at least 600 to 650 ATCOs to fill our manpower deficit because there is no point having just one controller on duty in a tower. It is dangerous and we must say it. While a station like Kaduna has less than six ATCOs, definitely they will work only one staffer per shift, but I can tell you that NAMA has close to 4, 000 staff.

“Even in some departments, you see them drawing a roster, which at some point reads, ‘If you come this week, don’t come next week.’ The issue is that they have brought so many people into the agency that are not meaningfully engaged. All they just do is to sit down, and we are talking about a critical area where we have gaps,” Agoro said.

Agoro’s deputy, Ahmed Bello, hinted that Katsina tower is one of the most difficult to work in.

“In Katsina, where you have a one-man watch, there is no facility for him to ease himself. But he is a human being. If he descends the tower, he is in breach of his professional ethics. So, what do you expect that person to do? Kano has a fine building, but that is all. Unfortunately, the facilities inside are failing.

“If the system demands that I put my whole life into it, I expect the system to provide me with appropriate tools for me to be able to discharge my duties. I did not spend close to two years ab initio in the training school just to qualify as a professional and be frustrated by a system that does not want me to give my best,” Bello said.

Risky Enterprise
THE pressure on ATCOs is therefore not farfetched. As officials that are responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress globally.

Experts maintain that the diversity of the task makes it more challenging. At any given time, the ATCO may be directing the presidential jet or other VIPs, sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft that may be attempting to enter the airspace without approval.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic like the pandemic lockdown can be tedious and dull, bringing on their sheer boredom that wear out the ATCOs.

A former air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, United States, Bob Richard, after more than two decades, in 2011, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found out that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increased the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

The most common sources of stress reported by air traffic controllers are connected with both operational aspects and internal organisational structures.

According to findings, sources of stress related to the operational aspects include peaks of traffic load, time deficit, operational procedures (often limited and need to be adapted), limitation and reliability of equipment, and abnormal/emergencies.

Sources of stress related to organisational aspects are shift schedules (night work in particular), management, role conflicts, and unfavourable working conditions.

The Managing Director of NAMA, Captain Fola Akinkuotu, acknowledged both “sacrifices” and the risks that ATCOs get exposed to in the line of duty.

Akinkuotu, at the NATCA Day celebration in October, said: “The ATCOs have all-year-round been keeping passenger and cargo aircraft moving safely.

“These are people we rarely see. Yet, they move millions of people and cargo safely. During COVID-19 lockdown, we were all locked up in our houses, but ATCOs are on duty. Gentlemen, I salute your courage.

“My heart bleeds to say that the death rate among them is high. Yet, they are not committing suicide and I pray they don’t. But the stress level is enormous. Therefore, the management of NAMA fully appreciates the conditions of the ATCOs. NATCA would wish for us to do much more, and I wish to do much more, but bear with your management, day-by-day, more issues are getting solved,” Akinkuotu pledged.

Mere Promises Not Good Enough
FOLLOWING an emergency meeting that rounded off in the wee hours of last Tuesday, NATCA declared the demise of Effiong as “avoidable” and due to “unavailability of an operational vehicle to move him to a hospital in record time.”

The ATCOs agreed that besides the need for better coordination in the aviation sector, there are immediate needs, grouped into 11 demands, which NAMA’s management must address within a two-week timeframe.

The demands, as stated in a communiqué, include the provision of dedicated operational vehicles for Air Traffic Control at Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano airports, and to any other airport where an ATC operational vehicle is critically needed.

It also stated that ATC Operational rooms be provided with adequate and quality ATC operational chairs and headsets. That at least 500 ATCOs be recruited to address the critical dearth in ATC manpower within the next two years starting with 70 recruits within the next three months.

Furthermore, the communiqué added that “NAMA management should approve and implement a 500 per cent upward review of the annual ATC medical allowance to enable ATCOs to carry out comprehensive medical assessment among others, adding that“all air traffic controllers be enrolled in an enhanced comprehensive health and life insurance scheme that will meet their health needs.

“That standard medical emergency kits be provided at all ATC units and a yearly Health Safety Environment (HSE) training programs for ATCOs be conducted. That all ATC communication facilities and equipment, most especially, the VHF radios and SATCOM links be holistically rectified to address the perennial communication problems encountered in Nigerian airspace.

“That all appropriate managements should immediately approve promotion and implement an upward review of the remunerations of contract ATCOs to make for them to earn Aerodrome and Approach rating allowances. That the appropriate management should immediately liaise with the Federal Ministry of Aviation, and relevant government bodies to ensure ATCOs retire with their full monthly salary as a pension.

“Consequent on the above submissions, the association gave an ultimatum of two weeks for the above demands to be addressed. Otherwise, we cannot guarantee industrial harmony. We want to advise all our members to remain calm as no stone would be left unturned until our demands are fully addressed,” the communiqué read in part.

From Whom Much Is expected, Much Should Be Given
THE Secretary-General of the Aviation Security Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), said all concerned parties should be worried about eerie developments emanating from the aeronautical end especially.

Ojikutu said the complaints were similar to those of 2005/2007 “when aircraft were falling off the sky almost weekly,” and that should worry the regulators more.

“What we found out then (between 2005 and 2007) was heartburning. First, NAMA had a deficiency of over 300 ATCOs and therefore, no controller mans radars on weekends – Fridays to Mondays. That explained why most accidents at those times occurred at weekends.

“The questions to ask the responsible authorities in NAMA, NCAA, Ministry of Aviation, National Assembly (NASS) committees on aviation are, what action did they take on the various reports of the ministerial and presidential committees on the implementations of the safety recommendations on Airspace Management and NIMET? How many controllers have been employed to fill the gaps and how many have retired or resigned within the period of the reports and today?

“The 19 Annexes to the Chicago Convention are meant specifically to save the lives of the crew, passengers, ground staff and the public and not for buying of equipment – modern or aged, moderate or sophisticated, without supporting them with ‘skilled manpower in sufficient numbers,” the former NCAA director-general, Dr. Demuren, had said.

“Again, how often does the NCAA conduct audits on the governed public agencies in the sector (FAAN and NAMA) as they do on the private operators? How often do the NASS committees on aviation carry out oversight on the government public agencies in the sector outside the budget appropriations? I would expect the NCAA to begin auditing all airports in the country to shut down control towers that operate below the standard approved for its operations and procedures. The audit must include FAAN,” Ojikutu said.

Apparently in agreement with Ojikutu, aviation consultant, Olumide Ohunayo, called for a shift in policy and structure in NAMA to address workforce disparity between core professionals and administrative staff, among others.

Ohunayo said the bloated administrative overhead, which is more political than operational in nature, has made welfare inadequate for the ATCOs.

“I also think it is time to look at the airfield operation and control. Here was a man that collapsed and they could not get a vehicle to transport him to the nearest medical facility because they needed FAAN’s permission before an ambulance could get into the place. It has been a ding-dong affair over who has control of the airfield.

“I think it is time that NAMA is given full control of the airfield area to improve the quality of service, welfare and control of operations around their areas of competency. Also, the need to recruit needed hands must be given serious attention. ATCOs having to bring back those that had retired is not tidy enough. They should look at the staffing and welfare of the ATCOs as quickly as possible,” Ohunayo said.

All fingers are indeed crossed, waiting for NAMA’s response on the charges and demands that ATCOs have laid on its doorsteps with a two-week ultimatum. Neither one nor all demands would bring back Effiong and eight others that have died in the struggle, but it will save hundreds of their colleagues and deepen air safety for all Nigerians in a fitting tribute to the departed.