Foreign airlines shun Nigeria’s airspace over safety concerns
• Operators blame poor communication, unqualified traffic controllers
• We are restructuring airspace to end challenges, says NAMA
• House of Reps tasks aviation agencies on standards
Safe travel in Nigeria’s airspace is in jeopardy despite efforts by government at improving navigation infrastructure. Pilots are increasingly getting worried about poor communication between cockpits and control towers, a persistent problem that has now worsened. Experts also expressed fear over the increased possibility of near misses and collision between two or more operating aircraft.
The Guardian learnt at the weekend that many foreign airlines, perhaps for safety concerns, now bypass the country’s airspace, which is a natural and geographical short cut to global air connectivity.While the development translates to more operational costs for the foreign carriers, it denies the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) revenue to maintain and upgrade critical facilities.
Air Traffic Control (ATC) is a service provided by ground-based air traffic controllers, who direct aircraft on the ground and through controlled airspace, and provide critical safety advisory services to aircraft in non-controlled airspace. The primary purpose of ATC worldwide is to prevent collisions, organise and expedite the flow of traffic, and provide information and other support to all aircraft in its airspace.
Though pilots attested to investments in navigational facilities, a captain with one of the local airlines said poor ground-to-air communication remains a major problem.“We (pilots) now fly blind and deaf in some 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 pilot confirmed that the Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) is on 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. Lagos-Abuja flight which should have taken 52 or 53 minutes almost takes 1:10 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 (ACTs) 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.”
Apparently in agreement, Arik Air pilot, Capt. Jide Bakare, said though the navigational service has improved from what it was 20 years ago, it still has a long way to go. He regretted that radio communication is difficult when airborne and pilots have to relay communications through other flying pilots.
“Very few airlines can use the current facilities. The airlines certainly are not getting what they are paying for, even as it is most difficult to approach the service providers and get a good feedback,” said Bakare. A former director at the airspace management agency, Ifeanyi Nwankwo, explained that the communication glitches are not new to the Nigerian airspace, in fact, they date back to 12 years ago.
The previous administration invested heavily (N27.9 billion) in the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) to see all aircraft in the airspace. “But 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 up to 95 per cent of the sum and no single satellite node has been installed. How then can you have effective communication? You are not going to have it,” Nwankwo said.
Cyber security expert, Ifeanyi Ogochukwu, said the narrative could have been different had NAMA been more strategic in deploying navigation infrastructure nationwide.The reality is: “We still have communication blind spots such that a lot of foreign flights now try to avoid our airspace. They come in through Lome or Accra. That is revenue loss to NAMA.”NAMA’s Director of Operations Matthew Pwajok however tried to clear the air. According to him, foreign airlines were avoiding the airspace partly because of higher comparative charges by Nigeria and the flight plan of some airlines.
He said with NAMA’s recent intervention, an airline like British Airways now re-routes its Cape Town flights via Kano, and that the structure of Nigeria’s airspace exposes operators to deficiencies in communication.“In 1994, when the structure of the existing communication system was deployed, some or the new routes like Abuja and Port Harcourt were not existing. So, these gaps are based on the routes that were not then captured.
“NAMA will now restructure the airspace in accordance with the capacity of the communication system. We have identified Lagos as very large to be captured by one means of communication. What to do is have new area control centres in Port Harcourt and Abuja. Abuja, to take care of areas Kano is not able to cover adequately, while Port Harcourt centre takes care of the east that Lagos cannot cover.
“I can assure you that with the normal radio of 220 nautical miles that we have tested, all these areas will be adequately covered and end all communication challenges. That is the solution we are working out now,” Pwajok said. Aviation Security consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), also said the navigation challenges are not necessarily about congestion but about outdated infrastructure and insufficient skilled controllers, which NAMA and the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) should oversee.
“If outdated infrastructure and claims about insufficient skilled controllers are true, then flight operations can be endangered. If flight operations are endangered, that might account for the reason foreign airlines are avoiding our airspace and not necessarily the high cost of our charges. What I personally heard is sufficient to determine how far I can fly over our airspace, if after 200 nautical miles you are blind, deaf and dumb on radio communication,” Ojikutu said.
He added: “You are seeing it as NAMA problem alone; but what has the enforcement agency or authority done about it? If you take time to look carefully into various safety recommendations, you are likely to see similar warnings in other agencies and service providers. What has the enforcement agency on safety regulations and recommendations done about them?
“Enforcement of compliance to safety regulations and recommendations are within the oversight of the NCAA on all operators and safety services providers. Unfortunately, the enforcement of any regulation cannot be effective as long as the leadership of the responsible agencies are political appointees and not career staff.”
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives yesterday urged the Ministry of Aviation to liaise with NAMA, NCAA, the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) and Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) to enforce safety standards and prevent future crashes.The resolution followed the adoption of a motion on ‘The Need To Forestall Air Crash And Near Mishaps In Nigeria’s Aviation Industry’, moved by Chris Emeka Azubogu (Nnewi South/North, Anambra).
The House also urged the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to ensure that all aircraft in Nigeria are adequately maintained and certified airworthy before the commencement of operations. Azubogu had earlier expressed concern over the near mishap of an Air Peace Airline, Boeing 737-500, on Saturday, June 22, 2019, and another landing incident involving the same airline the same day.
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