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Tackling infrastructure gaps to ease ‘dangerous’ delays

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General Aviation Terminal (GAT), Lagos.


Every flight delay or cancellation leaves a bitter pill in the mouth of air travellers. But more at the receiving end are the struggling airlines, which urgently seek improvement in airport infrastructure to match emerging traffic demands. WOLE OYEBADE writes.

Captain Hadi Sirika on Wednesday, made a return to the Ministry of Aviation, to continue where he left it some months ago. But beyond executing the subsisting master plan to transform the local air travel space, Sirika has a matter of urgent public importance to address. It is called flight delays.

Delays in commercial flight schedules are not new to local operations. In fact, for many years on the bounce, at least an average of two in every five flights had minimal delays often couched as “operational reasons”. These may include inclement weather and technical glitches that can not guarantee safety – the first consideration in modern air travel.

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But between May, when Sirika left office and now, on a second coming, a seemingly endless delays have become the norm in local flight operations with harrowing experience for travellers.

While aggrieved passengers continue to blame and even go fisticuffs with staffers of the airlines, other stakeholders are of the view that the logjam would continue to fester and to the peril of operating airlines without a speedy review of the infrastructure bottlenecks at the airports ahead of the long-term concession of the critical facilities.

A missed opportunity
Summer holidays are harvest times for airlines worldwide. With the global travelling community crisscrossing regions, the airlines are at their peaks filling up every seat at extra earnings too.

In fact, August 9 was adjudged the busiest single day of 2019 for air travel. More than 17 million passengers were estimated to have taken to the skies on over 115,500 flights within a 24-hour period.

The busiest five airlines during these two summer months will approximately share 192 million passengers between them. The busiest airports – Beijing, Atlanta, Dubai, Los Angeles and Tokyo-Haneda – will transit more than 51 million travellers.

The season could as well be described as a double blessing for air travel in Nigeria, having both summer holidays and Muslim salah break coincide. True to type, the Nigerian fun-seekers turned out en masse as traffic glut at major airports showed, but for the multiple delays.

For the President of National Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA), Bernard Bankole, the period was a missed opportunity for airlines in Nigeria.Bankole told The Guardian that the foreign carriers are the beneficiaries of the current traffic surge – on account of having both summer and salah at the same time.

“The unusual period implies huge traffic, but our industry is never ready to make most of such opportunities”.A recent visit to the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA) Lagos – the main hub of all local airlines – showed flight delays across the board, ranging from one to four hours, and leaving passengers stranded. The delays cut across Kano, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Owerri, Benin, Kaduna, Asaba, Ilorin and Enugu routes.

A travel agent in Lagos, Aransiola, said the delays started gradually towards the summer and worsened as Salah approached. “I often don’t have problem with early morning flights,” she said. “The main problem is the airline to choose for customers on the afternoon and evening belts. We no longer trust any airline to depart on-time. It used to be about 30 minutes delay. Now, you would be lucky to be delayed for three hours. We have seen up to six hours delays, with Abuja passengers arriving Lagos at 1a.m.,” Aransiola said.

Little drops and a mighty ocean
Indeed, time is of essence in global aviation business. Just a minute delay, according to experts, is enough to ruin an entire operation and cost the airlines dearly. In other airports around the world, the standard time for processing a passenger through the checkpoint screening is about 15/20 seconds. That is three or four passenger per minute or 180 to 240 passengers per hour. Some best of the bunch airports process faster.

Here, it is less seamless and for many reasons. The main problem at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT), Lagos, is the screening bottleneck for passengers and baggage. Next is the knock-on effects of those seemingly little delays at the start of each day.

The GAT section of the Lagos Airport has two main terminals with a passenger screening machine apiece. Two carriers – Air Peace and Arik Air – share the two buildings as hubs. On a typical morning where flying starts at 7a.m., no fewer than six Air Peace planes are ready for boarding at the same time. Their over 500 passengers – a burden for the terminal itself – have just one screening machine to funnel through, coupled with baggage handling causing the departure time to delay for some minutes.

According to officials, an average aircraft is daily scheduled for six routes. With about 25 minutes delay in Lagos en route Enugu, for instance, its means arrival is already delayed by 25 minutes. The next leg, Enugu-Abuja, is also delayed by at least 25 minutes, come what may with passenger facilitation before take-off in Enugu.

All things being equal, the Enugu flight gets to Abuja at 1000hrs when, according to original schedule, it should be departing for Abuja-Enugu-Lagos return journey. The delayed passengers, sometimes resorting to self-help do take the law into their hands; pick on airlines officials and even disrupt other routes, whose aircraft had arrived on schedule.

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Chief Operating Officer of one of the airlines at MMA2 said with the chain reaction, assuming it does not rain, an aircraft ends up executing three or four out of a possible six. “Mind you, outside of Lagos, Abuja, Kaduna, Kano and Port Harcourt, the rest are sunset airports. Take for instance, an afternoon flight to Calabar, Enugu, Sokoto, Owerri and so on. If the operating aircraft arrives departure airport some two or three hours behind schedule – due to weather, technical issues or residual delays – that same airline cannot continue with the flight at 4 or 5p.m. because before reaching Calabar or Enugu, the airport would have gone to bed. They have no facility to do night operations. The flight is cancelled and everyone starts blaming the airline forgetting that the carrier has also lost millions.

“It is a ripple effect. But if more airports have airfield lightings and upgraded to 24 hours operations, everyone is better for it. Commercial airplanes are designed to fly at least 18 out of 24 hours, but here, we have a lousy 10 hours with four or five frequencies and we call it modern aviation. How?” he said.

Heavy cost of delays, infrastructure gaps
Experts observed that there are several issues that cause airlines’ failure in Nigeria and one of them is the poor utilisation of capacity, especially occasioned by multiple delays.

Retired pilot and former Managing Director of the defunct Virgin Nigeria, Capt. Dapo Olumide, explained that a Boeing 737 aircraft, the queen of the Nigerian commercial airspace, has a flight-cycle flight-hour ratio, (which is, how many hours you fly it in relation to when you start the engine and switched it off at the other end) of 1.5 hours.

This means flying the aircraft for one and a half hours, the maintenance reserve cost, when C-check is due, is about $500 per hour. But when the flight-cycle flight-hour ratio drops to 0.6 or 40 minutes flight due to delays, the maintenance reserve cost goes up from $500 to almost $1000 per hour. So, the cost of maintenance has doubled for services not executed.

“So, while we fly 737 on 50 minutes routes or delaying them most times, we are not utilising them properly and your maintenance cost is doubled compare to what your competitors are paying,” Olumide said.Air Peace Chairman, Allen Onyema, added that Nigerians must as well understand the peculiarity of the environment and sensitivity of the business. Onyema explained that with the weather not helpful at this period, there is a lot of rationing to accommodate the sunset airports.

“This is the time of the year when it rains. Just one hour delay in the morning, due to rain in Lagos, already disrupts the entire day’s operation across all the routes. The airport infrastructure is also not helpful. The government is just trying to do something about it and until they finish, we would keep having the challenges.

“We have to prioritise our schedules to accommodate those sunset airports that close by 6pm. So, you see us trying to do Owerri, Benin, Yola and other sunset airports during the day. When you do that, Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt are sacrificed, and flown into at night. But passengers don’t understand this. If airports have night flying facilities, you will see the delays minimised,” he said.

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Going forward
Perhaps the major solution to the flight delays is tied to airport concession that aims to overhaul the entire airport operations but at little or no cost to the Federal Government. This agenda is already contained in Sirika’s master plan that stakeholders expect to come to fruition with his second coming to the Ministry of Aviation.

Aviation Consultant and Chief Executive Officer of Belujane Konsult, Chris Aligbe, align with stakeholders that an improvement on existing infrastructure will minimise the constraints and save the industry.Aligbe said no airline can be more efficient than the facility available to them, though not forgetting the operational challenges of the airlines.“Delay generally is a combination of factors but I know that the facility is one of the major problems of airlines.

We need to address airport infrastructure because we do not have anything to call modern airport infrastructure in Nigeria. That is why I believe that our airports should be concession as the only solution to infrastructure problem,” he said.

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In this article:
Hadi Sirika
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