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Flight disruption looms over obsolete navigation equipment

By Wole Oyebade
04 December 2018   |   4:27 am
Massive flight delays and cancellations await local travels later this month due to near obsolete navigational facilities at airports nationwide. The facilities, including Instrument Landing Systems (ILSs), VHF Omnidirectional Range...

Plane on the runway for takeoff

• Airlines, pilots unaware of NAMA’s ILS upgrade
• NCAA warns of adverse weather

Massive flight delays and cancellations await local travels later this month due to near obsolete navigational facilities at airports nationwide. The facilities, including Instrument Landing Systems (ILSs), VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR) and Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) are at sub-optimal working condition and unable to ensure safe operations during harmattan.

The concerned body, Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), had disclosed efforts to upgrade equipment in readiness for the season, “but nothing significant has changed in the last 12 months,” said operators. The implication is that several routes, excluding the Lagos-Abuja-Lagos stretch, could be closed down again later this month and in January, to forestall weather-induced accidents. Also, the revenue of airlines, already struggling to survive, could plummet further.

Harmattan haze, late 2017 and early 2018, led to the shutdown of local flight operations for some days, with horizontal visibility dropping below the stipulated minimum of 800 metres. While local airlines were forced to reschedule or refund fares to restive passengers amid attendant losses, their foreign counterparts with advanced onboard technology operated unhindered by the weather.

In August this year, NAMA disclosed that CAT III equipment were being installed to replace CAT II at Lagos and Abuja airports, to boost operations and safety at the two busiest airports in the country. Similarly, in May 2017, the Federal Government reportedly deployed new sets of Instrument Landing Systems (ILSs) to 18 airports nationwide.

An ILS enables aircraft to land even if the pilots are unable to establish visual contact with the runway due to haze, fog and snow. It does this via transmitted radio signals. The Managing Director of NAMA, Capt. Fola Akinkuotu, recently explained that seamless operations during harmattan depend on the equipment on ground and on the operating aircraft.

Findings however showed that NAMA is struggling with keeping the equipment functional at all airports, including Lagos, where regular power supply is not a guarantee. An operator and a former director at NAMA, who did not want to be mentioned, confirmed the sub-optimal situation. He told The Guardian that ILS is clunky, very expensive and difficult to maintain, especially with its need for regular calibration and power supply.

“The reason we cannot go beyond CAT l in most of our ILS systems in Nigeria is not because of the equipment itself but because we cannot guarantee power supply. So, we are all CAT II capable but all of these have been downgraded to CAT I.”He recalled that this type of “amazingly expensive” terrestrial equipment emerged after the Second World War. He said the world has since moved on to better and more advanced options that are cheaper to purchase and easier to maintain.

“But whenever you want to change, you will come against vested interests. For a complete ILS, we would probably buy ours for $2 million. But that is about $1 million elsewhere. Everything bought by government in Nigeria tends to cost more. So, tell them about a technological leap that will do more for a few hundred dollars and nobody – those selling and those buying – will seem to be interested.”

A former managing director of NAMA, Capt. Roland Iyayi, said a CAT III ILS would ensure an aircraft could land blind at zero visibility, granted that the aircraft is equipped and the pilot is trained.

“Now, what we have are CAT II ILSs and they have their limitations. If you cannot see the runway at 50 feet, the position you hold as a pilot is to go around. As I speak, I am not aware that our ILSs have been upgraded to CAT III. I am aware of CAT ll. The foreign airlines are different because they have their onboard standard, which is CAT III, and their personnel have been trained to land at zero-zero. It is up to NAMA to tell us if the ILSs are up to CAT III and the airlines are not.”

Iyayi said further that that there are advanced technologies Nigeria must obtain, to put an end to weather-induced disruption. “The discussion about Future Air Navigation System embraces the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) because you would be using GPS approaching system. More so, the accuracy is higher. NAMA is developing some now, and once that is done, then all the ILSs become backup, in case the Russians or the United States need to downgrade their satellite,” Iyayi said.

Chris Iwarah, the spokesperson of Air Peace airlines, the leading local carrier with over 30 aircraft in its fleet, said the airline is still unaware of any navigation facility upgrade for airlines to keep operating at poor visibility. Iwarah said: “The argument of our chief pilot is that there are procedures for such upgrades. Where such had been done, it is expected that the certification would be communicated to operators; you can’t just tell the airlines to take off or land at poor visibility by mere word of mouth. They have to complete the procedure. That is why I said that we are not aware of any upgrade.”

Efforts to hear NAMA’s perspective proved abortive as several phone calls and text messages to the managing director were not returned as at press time. Meanwhile, local airlines would have to put up with the disruption, which could worsen their plight. Already, the fact sheet of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) says about three out of every four flights are delayed even without harmattan.

In the first quarter of this year, the NCAA recorded 8,825 cases of flight delays across the eight airlines. Statistics released by the Consumer Protection Department of the NCAA shows that 14,633 flights were operated by airlines during the period under review, while 208 flights were cancelled for various reasons.

In the first six months alone, NCAA recorded about 19,323 delays. According to data released recently in Lagos, domestic airlines posted 16,880 delays, while their foreign counterparts accounted for 2,443 issues during the period under review. In local operations alone, it means over 90 flights delayed per day. Iwarah explained that an airplane can do six schedules a day, but once one is delayed, all others are affected, which accounts for the high number of current delays.

“But, we are stepping up our game this December with the deployment of smaller Embraer aircraft, because the days ahead will be very interesting but we are prepared for the challenge,” he said. Apparently in response, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has warned airline operators and their pilots to be wary of imminent “dangerous” weather changes as harmattan approaches.

The Spokesperson of the NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, said pilots are expected to be cautious and uphold Standard and Recommended Practices (SARPs) while conducting flights during hazardous weather associated with dust haze.

“This haze comes with a dry and dusty wind that blows southwards from the Sahara across Nigeria in the months of November to March. Consequently, pilots should note that air-to-ground visibility might be considerably reduced due to the dust haze. In addition, aerodrome visibility may fall below the prescribed minima in severe conditions; dust haze can blot out runways, markers and airfield lightings over wide areas. This makes visual navigation extremely difficult or impossible.

“Pilots should obtain adequate departure, en route and destination weather information and briefing from NIMET, prior to flight operations at all the airports. The flight crews/ operators and Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) should ensure adherence to aerodrome operating minima. Operators are therefore advised to ensure necessary measures are put in place to cushion the effects of flight delays or cancellations on their passengers in accordance with Nig. CARs, Part 19.

“All passengers are required to be patient, understanding and exhibit exemplary conduct during flight delays and cancellations as safety is paramount in flight operations. Similarly, stakeholders are expected to ensure strict compliance with this Advisory Circular as the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) will view any infraction very seriously,” the directive reads in part.