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Foreign airlines are complaining again

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It is a bad news item that foreign airlines are again raising safety concerns about our airports after a long period of perceived stability in the sensitive industry.

The foreign airline operators are apparently concerned because outstanding issues of decrepit infrastructure have not received needed attention. These concerns have remained the bane of our aviation industry, which is why some foreign airlines are reportedly shunning Nigeria’s airspace. This, indeed, is embarrassing and should be addressed urgently.

It is high time that government and its responsible agencies did the needful to prevent air mishap. Let it not be that the authorities are waiting for disaster to occur before doing something. The authorities know what to do to close the infrastructure gap and save the lives of air travellers. Government should move from rhetoric to concrete action to deal with this lingering problem.

Inquiries have often revealed that the Nigeria’s aviation infrastructure deficit is huge. From the airports and the installed facilities – some of which are obsolete to the aircraft equipment handling, etc, there is a yawning gap that needs to be filled.

Perhaps, the most frightening concern is the reported poor communication between pilots and the control towers. This has been compounded by reports of allegedly unqualified traffic controllers, which operators say is a persistent problem that has now worsened. Pilots are reportedly getting worried over this problem.

Experts have also expressed fear over the increased possibility of near misses and collision between two or more operating aircraft. Pilots are bemoaning the poor-ground-to-air communication, which they say remains a major problem.

A situation where pilots fly blind and deaf in some parts of our airspace that have no installed communication facilities, whatsoever, portends danger that is unacceptable. What are the authorities doing about this problem?

The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) with support from the Federal Ministry of Transportation should rise up to its responsibility and install needed navigational equipment to ensure air safety and seamless operations.

It is no longer news that during the rainy season such as we have now, communication is lost after about 200 nautical miles despite the availability of Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC). Pilots complain of having difficulty logging in and this is where we are now.

The same thing happens during harmattan season. There is always some unease over safety of aircraft that are ill-equipped to operate in hazardous weather condition. This recurrent situation every year ought to have been addressed by the authorities but apparently, nothing has been done to upgrade the sub-optimal equipment.

Except the equipment are installed, the flying public, especially, on domestic routes, have to put up with flight delays and cancellations that engender discontent at the airports.

For instance, the NCAA recorded some 8,825 cases of flight delays in the first quarter of last year. Also, statistics released by the Consumer Protection Department of the NCAA shows that 14, 633 flights were operated by airlines during the period out of which 208 flights were cancelled for various reasons. And in the first six months of 2018 alone, the NCAA recorded about 19,323 delays.

While the domestic airlines posted 16, 880 delays, the foreign airlines accounted for 2, 443 during the period. The situation is expected to worsen except the necessary gadgets are installed.

According to NAMA, efforts to upgrade equipment in readiness for the seasons have yielded nothing significant. This is incredible. The implication is that several routes, excluding the Lagos-Abuja-Lagos stretch, could be closed down during harmattan, in December and in January, to forestall weather-induced accidents. And this development can shrink the revenue of the airlines that are struggling to survive.
 
In late 2017 and early 2018, harmattan dust haze reportedly led to the shutdown of local flight operations for some days as horizontal visibility dropped below the stipulated minimum of 800 metres, under which most domestic flights can’t operate.

Thus, while local airlines were forced to refund fares to restive passengers amid attendant losses, their foreign counterparts, with advanced onboard technology, operated unhindered by adverse weather conditions.In May 2017, the Federal Government reportedly deployed new sets of Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) to 18 airports nationwide. An ILS enables aircraft to land even if the pilot is unable to establish visual contact with the runway due to dust haze, fog or snow by using transmitted radio signal.

In August 2018, NAMA disclosed that CAT III equipment was being installed to replace CAT II at Lagos and Abuja airports to boost operations and safety at the two busiest airports in the country.Furthermore, the previous administration reportedly invested heavily to the tune of N27.9 billion in the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON), to see all aircraft in the airspace. The contract was reportedly awarded to a company that had no previous experience. NAMA was said to have paid up to 95 per cent of the total sum but no single satellite node was installed. That explains why there is no effective communication in the country’s airspace. And no one is in detention over this scandal.

The challenge before government now is to act swiftly to avert air disaster. We should not wait for such disasters before acting. Government should be proactive so that necessary equipment are installed. More important too is the need to insulate the sensitive sector from political appointees who have no career experience and records of discipline of execution. This is critical too because the aviation sector is the most regulated in the world for obvious reason: air safety. And so there should be no gambling with the safety concerns raised by both local and international operators. Regulators should not allow this concern to linger longer than necessary.


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