Deplorable facilities raise safety concerns at international airports
•We’re working to address situation, FAAN, NAMA pledge
About two years after a similar report on deplorable facilities was released, nothing appears to have changed in the fortunes of both aeronautical and terminal infrastructure at major international airports nationwide.
More disconcerted than before, concerned aviation workers have raised the alarm that the state of aeronautical facilities has worsened and could barely guarantee safe flights, even as global aviation anticipates traffic boom soon.
The Guardian learnt that the Kaduna International Airport still lacks a proper control tower, ditto for Katsina Airport and Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport, Kano.
In Lagos, at the weekend, the check-in system at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport shut down over alleged indebtedness and expiration of contract between the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the airport automation company, Societe International Telecommunication Aeronautiques (SITA).
FAAN, saddled with terminal infrastructure, and Nigerian Airspace Management Authority (NAMA) that oversees aeronautical equipment, have both admitted ‘gaps’ in the critical aviation infrastructure, saying efforts were being made to fill them.
In 2019, The Guardian drew attention to the decrepit infrastructure at some of the airports. Most disturbing were the conditions of control towers at Kaduna, Maiduguri, Ilorin, Yola, Sokoto, Benin and Katsina.
Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) that use the restricted aeronautical facilities, to communicate between pilot, aircraft and airport for safe operations, said not many of the airports have improved.
They said while none of Nigerian airports has up to 80 per cent equipment optimisation, towers at the likes of Katsina, Kano, Sokoto and Calabar remain an eyesore.
Air Traffic Controller, Abayomi Agoro, said his colleagues have continued to bear the brunt of both dilapidated infrastructure and gross shortfall in trained personnel.
Agoro, who also doubles as President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), affirmed NAMA’s efforts to increase workforce to over 4000, but regretted that barely 400 of the lot are core professionals.
He said: “The work environment is becoming more deplorable. As I am talking to you now, some airports do not even have functional equipment. Even Kaduna 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 is that?
“Some of the control towers attached to the terminal buildings were ceded to 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 will say it is NAMA staff that is 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. Calabar airport is there. There is no airport you will go to today that you would say things are working 80 per cent,” Agoro said.
Indeed, aviation agencies, including NAMA, had been in dire straits striking a balance between income generated and emerging infrastructural needs in the pre-pandemic era. Except for foreign airlines, local airlines are often alleged to owe service providers in billions of naira.
The outbreak of the coronavirus, massive global disruption and self-imposed lockdown simply worsened the general lot. The agencies had to keep the facilities operational though with little or no revenue in return. NAMA, insolvent, had to be bailed out by the Ministry of Aviation to pay workers’ salary last year.
Agoro said notwithstanding the revenue dip, the agency should have done better with little.
“Do you know that if you get to some control towers, we have to beg for an ordinary chair to sit for controllers that will work six to 12 hours? These people have to climb several stairs because elevators are not there or don’t work. It’s not ideal.
“We should have at least 600 to 650 ATCOs 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. ‘If you come this week, don’t come next week.’ The issue is that they have brought so many people into the agency who 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’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 the working tools to be able to do that. I’ve not spent 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.
In Lagos, automated common user check-in platforms went flat at the weekend, with foreign airlines conducting a volume of passenger facilitation by improvising with alternative platforms to check-in passengers and conduct necessary screening. The system shutdown led to chaotic scenes in all the four international airports – Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano.
It was learnt that the foreign automation company, SITA’s 10-year contract with FAAN expired in May 2021.
The Federal Executive Council (FEC) recently approved N10 billion to Airlington Security Nigeria Services for the automation of Common User Terminal Equipment (CUTE) in five international airports – Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Kano.
General Manager, Corporate Affairs FAAN, Henrietta Yakubu, appealed to airlines and passengers to be patient with the development.
Yakubu said: “FAAN has already mobilised necessary resources to address the challenge, and all hands are presently on deck to restore normalcy in passenger facilitation.
“To avoid flight delays, the Authority would like to advise passengers to leave their homes early, so as to complete all check-in formalities in good time,” she said.
Managing Director of NAMA, Capt. Fola Akinkuotu, also told The Guardian that the infrastructural issues were being addressed.
“Largely, the towers are not in NAMA’s turf, but we are resolving them together,” Akinkuotu said.
Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is the apex regulator of the industry and also overseas activities of sister agencies. Director-General of the body, Capt. Musa Nuhu, said the outbreak of the pandemic fully exposed perennial problems of the sector.
Nuhu said while the challenges were not peculiar to Nigeria, it has become paramount for players in the industry to develop strategies that would lead to development.
Speaking at a webinar, he noted that technology was an ongoing issue, which a lot of the airlines had keyed into, but noted that for the agencies, such changes would be a bit difficult because of regulations.
Aviation stakeholders, however, said the failing infrastructure have both safety and economic consequences for the imminent traffic boom after the pandemic downtime.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) lately urged governments to invest more in automated screening technology in lieu of the new projections that air travel would return to pre-COVID-19 traffic demand between 2022 and 2023.
Secretary General of the Aviation Security Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said all concerned parties should be worried about the eerie alarm coming from the aeronautical end especially.
He 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 (2005/2007) was heart burning. First, NAMA had a deficiency of over 300 ATCOs and therefore, no controller man 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 and buying of equipment – modern or aged, moderate or sophisticated, without supporting them with ‘skilled manpower in sufficient numbers’, to quote Dr. Demuren (former NCAA DG).
“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 the airports now and shut down control towers that are below the standard approved for its operations and procedures. The audit must include FAAN,” Ojikutu said.