That embarrassing flight diversion at Lagos Airport
Gross inadequacies in the Nigerian aviation space came to the fore the other day in a most bizarre manner that embarrassed the country. Though state actors have activated the blame game mode, the underlining negligence behind the show of shame should not be taken lightly, if we must forestall avoidable disaster in the near future.
For a fact, aviation is the most regulated and safety-conscious industry in the world. Given the huge investment and lives involved, commercial civil aviation, especially, has zero tolerance for shoddiness and unsafe practices. So it was recently when all Lagos-bound flights could not land at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) in Lagos – the epicentre of everything aviation in Nigeria. While airplanes enroute diverted to neighbouring airports, others at various hubs simply cancelled flights over poor visibility in Lagos, made worse by failed Instrument Landing System (ILS). And for about five days, the entire industry was in total chaos as Lagos airport, the busiest nationwide, became a no-fly zone.
Nigerians became the laughing stock when more conservative American and European carriers took Nigerian passengers to neigbouring African countries like Togo, Ghana and Senegal – to see what a modern airport looks like! And truly, none of our best rivals the worst of Lomé, Accra and Dakar airports. British Airways even did something curious at the time: it simply took the discomfort out on the passengers and abandoned them in Accra. Scores spent days to get to Lagos by road. More amiable Delta Airline simply took the passengers on another nine-hour flight back to its hub in Atlanta, USA. Those onboard could tell that it was the most embarrassing moment to be a Nigerian. We can blame the airlines for being fair-weather friends, but aviation business is not a tea party. In fact, the joke is on Nigeria for putting up such mediocre performance in modern aviation.
As our aviation handlers already know, November to March is usually the harmattan season, with attendant cool brown-dust from the Sahara desert. Harmattan is to Saharan Africa what winter is to Americas and Europe. Both can be dangerous to safe flights operations, which require the operating airlines, pilots and crew to be extra cautious. But with advanced navigational equipment in the form of Instrument Landing System (ILS), Doppler Very High Frequency Omni-Directional Radio Range (DVOR), Glide path and so on, even wide-body jetliners are guided with precision to safely touch-down at zero visibility in all manner of weather.
It was expected that harmattan haze would come late 2019, and it was in preparation for less disruption that the Federal Government in September invested over $6 million to upgrade ILS Category II to III at Lagos and Abuja Airports. About a month after, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, also disclosed the acquisition of a Beechcraft Super King Air 350 (B350) equipment calibration aircraft for $8.5 million or N2.59 billion equivalent.
So, what went wrong? The Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) did install the new instruments in November. But what no one has explained is why was the newly acquired calibration aircraft, in the custody of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), not released to NAMA to calibrate the ILSs late last year? Why was the new ILS running sub-optimally and technically unsafe till January harmattan, when the likes of British Airways started diverting to Kotoka International Airport, Accra, Ghana? The calibration aircraft was released mid January. Why did it also fail, producing abnormal readings in Lagos, and unfixed till harmattan worsened in February?
Indeed, it is not the first time our decrepit infrastructure and negligence has been found out. Just recently, the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) released a preliminary report on Max Air’s serious incident on Minna Airport runway last September, pointing accusing finger at failed ILS. Over 600 pilgrims were lucky to have escaped unhurt from a damaged 747 aircraft. For a long time also, international carriers from Europe especially, have been sidestepping the Nigerian airspace for its lack of effective navigational aid. Even the local pilots once complained of blind spots, loss of communication enroute and inexperienced workforce in the towers. The air traffic controllers have also not hidden their displeasure over inadequate workforce and archaic equipment at aerodromes nationwide. Yet, almost nothing has changed to date.
Sirika did blame harmattan haze and even some of the airlines for not diverting to the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport (NAIA), Abuja, like the Middle East and African carriers did during the disruption in Lagos. But the minister should have known better. In other climes, where government takes responsibility and officials are made accountable, helmsmen would have abdicated themselves or fired for negligence that put lives at risk and embarrassed the country. In our own case, how many serious incidents or air crashes must happen before some people are punished for routine criminal negligence? The Federal Government meant well by upgrading the landing equipment in Lagos and Abuja, but how come the installation was not seamless? How come the regulatory agencies and service providers are not in harmony right under the supervision of an aviator-turned-minister?
Sirika is the first trained pilot and aviator to head the ministry. Besides being the president’s kinsman and member of his inner caucus, his entire life revolves around aviation and he is in a better position to change the industry forever. But it is disheartening that about five years since this administration began, there is very little for real development beyond some grandiose plans that are perpetually on conceptual state.
Lest we forget, Sirika’s ministry has the mandate of policy formulation and direction to guide air navigation, air transport, airport development and provision of modern infrastructure. As at today, the sector has no clear guiding policies, as former strategies have not been reviewed in the last five years as mandated by the extant provisions. Is it, therefore, not a surprise that only Lagos and Abuja airports are self-sustaining among about 24 airports nationwide? Besides Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano that run 24-hour operations, others are still sunset airports. Even the busiest Lagos airport in 2019 ranked among five international airports in the world with the worst customer-experience. Certainly, a minister that is busy with development policies and their implementation to the letters will have little time for self procurements of equipment, their inspections overseas, and announcements via the social media.
Without gain saying, the aviation sector is in dire straits and the debacle of flight diversion said as much. To save us from a bigger humiliation of avoidable disaster, the vigilance network must be activated. The minister cannot continue to run the entire gamut of aviation like an emperor. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) provisions and their local domestications in Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations forbid it. Sirika should inaugurate statutory boards for key regulatory agencies and allow them monitor activities of these agencies. It is most unlikely that the government would in error buy malfunctioning or incompatible equipment where there is a board of professionals to vet all the processes.
In the interim, the Senate and House of Representatives committees on aviation should wake up to their oversight responsibility in the interest of safety and public good. Aviation is highly specialised in nature. House Committees’ oversight functions will be most revealing and productive when lawmakers equip themselves with background knowledge and statutory provisions of how things should work. Over N3 billion has been cumulatively lost in the recent flight disruption without accounting for the embarrassment and inconveniences of all passengers affected. It is avoidable, and should never happen again.