Saturday, September 08, 2012

Clear and present danger in Nigerian airspace

As the nation’ s civil aviation sector currently battles with the challenge of diminishing manpower, paucity of funds vis-à-vis infrastructural deficit, among other woes, experts have expressed fears over the continued viability and sustainability of the nation’s airspace. Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf and Gbenga Oyebanji examine the issues

DESPITE tepid denials by the authorities concerned, there is growing fear out there that the nation’s airspace is anything but safe just as there are apprehensions by industry pundits over the sector’s future prospects considering its dwindling fortunes in the last decade.

Investigations by The Nation showed that the industry is being dogged by many challenges, from poor infrastructure, high cost of aviation fuel to huge expenditure on aircraft acquisition and maintenance, the safety of the country’s airspace is now a subject of controversy between the Federal Government and foreign airlines.

Experts’ damning verdict

If the verdict given by the investigative panel set up by the Federal Ministry of Aviation to review operations in the aviation industry is anything to go by, it is correct to say that the sector is in a mess.

The panel at the submission of its findings advised the Federal Government to declare a state of emergency in the sector in order to tackle its deficiencies.

 The retired Group Captain John Obakpolor-led panel told the Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Stella Oduah, that a state of emergency was required to check decayed infrastructure in the sector.

It also said N500billion was required by airlines to address some of the deficiencies in their operations.

The panel revealed that, “At the end of its deliberations, the committee came up with 59 findings and 41 recommendations, in line with the terms of reference.

“The Federal Government should immediately declare an emergency in the aviation sector and commence implementation of the Aviation Safety Emergency Programme.”

It added, “The Federal Government should intensify efforts to complete the ongoing reconstruction and remodelling of the terminal buildings and structures, as well as construct new ones across the country.

“The Central Bank of Nigeria should empower commercial banks to create a window for a long-term low interest funding for direct lending to aviation. The industry will require at least N500billion for this purpose.

“An aircraft leasing company with an initial investment of $10billion should be set up by the Federal Government to acquire modern aircraft directly from major manufacturers and lease to qualified Nigerian air operators at preferential rates. This will help in the reduction of operating cost and improvement of efficiency and competitiveness.”

 “Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) should ensure that airline operators are put under closer surveillance. Maintenance actions carried out by operators, if not routine, should always be queried to establish what necessitated the maintenance action and ensure the continuous proper use of the technical logbook.”

The panel recommended that greater emphasis should be placed on proper and adequate maintenance of aircraft, rather than age restriction.

Decades of deplorable infrastructure to blame

On the parlous state of the sector, the jury is out that things have since gone bad. Operators stated the fact that airplanes enter the Nigerian airspace without the knowledge of air traffic controllers, they only get to know of such flights through telephone calls from their counterparts in Nigeria’s friendly nations.

The implication is that virtually all the major foreign airlines have quietly refrained themselves from using the nation’s airspace.

The Nation can authoritatively report that at least 10 foreign airlines have stopped using the Nigerian airspace and prefer to use longer routes to get to their destination.

Among those affected are the British Airways flight 55K which goes from London to Johannesburg; Air Namibia 286 from Frankfurt to Windhoek; Belgian Airline 357 from Brussels to Kinshasa; Air France 889 goes from Kinshasa to Paris; Air France 995 from Johannesburg to Paris; Air France 900 from Yaoundé to Paris; Air France 928 from Luanda to Paris; Air France 896 from Brazzzaville to Paris; South African Airways 237 moves from London to Johannesburg; SAA 260 from Johannesburg to Frankfurt; SAA 261 from Frankfurt to Johannesburg; SAA 264 from Johannesburg to Munich; SAA 265 from Munich to Johannesburg; Emirates 261 runs from Dubai to Sao Paulo; Emirates 246 from Dubai to Rio De Janeiro; and Qatar 922 from Sao Paulo to Doha.

These airlines argued that the country’s airspace is dotted with moribund communications gadgets (visual and voice) such that air traffic controllers and pilots now have extreme difficulty in reaching one another.

Before the foreign airlines took the action, some key officials in the aviation agencies and workers’ unions had inundated the office of the Minister of Aviation with letters on the deplorable state of the communications equipment to no avail.

The Airspace Manager of Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), J.I. Ekweonwa on July 9, 2012 informed the agency’s managing director that, “Kano Area Control Centre (ACC) radio communication frequencies - 124.1MHz and 128.5 MHz sectorised East and West respectively have deteriorated in quality and reception thereby making pilots/controllers communication terribly bad. In short, pilots and controllers hardly receive or communicate to each other within the Flight Information Region (Kano FIR). Sir, it would be pertinent to suggest that an expert, who will carry our members of staff along be sent to configure these TVHF into the system within these sectors -East and West for eventual quality and lasting services to our stakeholders.”

Also, on July 10, 2012, the Deputy General Manager for NAMA, Okwor .I. informed the Airspace Manager of Malam Aminu Kano Airport, that “Kano’s Very High Frequency radios on frequencies 128.5MHz (Kano West) and 124.1mhZ (Kano East) were “not only poor but deplorable,” adding that, “ communication based on these radios in their present state has not only become very difficult and ineffective in the provision of Air Traffic Management (ATM) but has also impeded the growth of air traffic in our FIR.”

Air traffic controllers and the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) in a presentation to the Minister of Aviation on July 18, 2012 on the status of the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) facilities, safety of the Nigerian airspace said: “It is worrisome that the nation’s airspace is increasingly but gradually being avoided by the international over flyers due to poor communications between air traffic controllers and pilots.”

The economic implication is that the Federal Government is losing revenue, which would have accrued to the country if the airlines that now fly from South Africa to London had used the Nigerian airspace.

The document signed by the NUATE President, D.M. Safiyanu, which was received by the minister on July 20, 2012, stated that the provision of Controller-Pilot-Data-Link Communication (CPDLC) would have been a remedy to this “unfortunate situation,” regretting that, “all our neighbouring airspaces have such facilities.’’

He said this might probably account for the over flyers’ preference for nation’s neighbour’s airspace even though they make their trips longer.

Safiyanu urged the minister to call for global, African and Nigerian navigational chart routes for details. He also tasked her to consult the carriers for more details on the appalling danger of the nation’s airspace.

He said more often than not, air traffic controllers through NAMA do receive Air Safety Reports (ASRs) from airlines flying Nigerian airspace.

The ASR is an avenue in which pilot, crew-members in a data form, report or lay complaint to NAMA and copy to International Air Transport Association (IATA) on relevant safety matters or issues observed in the course of their flight.

According to him, “there are several cases where aircraft enter into Nigerian airspace unnoticed until neighbouring airspace notifies us through telephone, for example, Ndjamena, Chad. As a matter of fact, air traffic controllers on duty are facing operational hazards daily as they sometimes watch helplessly whenever aircraft are near collision and cannot provide air traffic control due to inability to communicate.’’

He said for the minister to get a clearer picture of the deplorable condition of the country’s airspace, she should contact IATA, the clearing-house for global airlines and call all the air traffic control closed logbooks for Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt and Abuja from January 2012.

“The pilots of the presidential fleet can attest to these communication problems. Urgent remedies to these problems are very necessary because of its negative impact on safety, revenue and national security. Generally, history has shown that chief executives in the past misled former ministers, because they will never expose their deficiencies for you to help. We shall never allow that to happen again if you desire to hear regularly from workers who are the direct operators or end users of all aviation and airport facilities,” he said.

In the view of British Airways, British Airways Regional Commercial Manager, Africa, Mr. Ian Petrie, who spoke to journalists in London recently, said the situation coupled with soaring oil prices had taken their toll on the airline business as major clients from other industries including banks, oil firms among others have drastically reduced their budgets for travel.

Harrowing experience of an air traveller

Following the recent Dana airplane crash on June 3, 2012 in the residential area of Iju Ishaga, one would expect that the other companies plying the Nigerian air route would be cautious enough to lay to rest fears associated with air transport in Nigeria.This was not the case on 22nd August, 2012 when Aero flight AJ 301 took off to Enugu at 8:45am but couldn’t land in the state on two occasions due to bad weather condition.

According to a passenger on the plane, Mr. Ayodele Adesanmi, the plane went to Enugu twice during the same journey and never reached its destination. He said, ‘After experiencing several turbulence in air coupled with the bad weather, the plane return to Lagos around 11:00am, then we asked to disembark for refueling but just about 20min after, we were asked to get on board the second time. The plane took off around 11:30 and the same thing happened again, we could not land the second time. So we return to Lagos around 1:30pm. By this time nobody was willing to travel again by the same flight. Yet the airline management wanted us to. We had to protest before they cancel the flight and refund our money.”

According to Adesanmi, “Passengers on board had to forfeit appointments and those who have not flew in several years had a bad experience of air transport in Nigeria. Some who were determined to travel on that day resort to traveling by road…”

Aviation budget

The aviation gulped a total of N48.9billion naira which is 1.1% of the 2012 budget, even the CBN has estimated that the N300billion will be required to bring the aviation sector to a satisfactory condition. Akin Omotunde, an economics argues that aviation industry is of immense and strategic importance to the rapid development of Nigeria’s economy, as she depends mostly on air transport to link people with each other and the rest of the world at large.

A safe, secure and efficient aviation industry, Omotunde contended, “Is crucial to Nigeria’s growth and prosperity. The development of the industry is threatened by a plethora of socio-economic, policy, and political issues including public perception that the industry in Nigeria is unsafe and inefficient. “

30 years ago, International Civil aviation Organisation (ICAO) estimated that Nigeria needed 500 Air traffic controllers to effectively man its airspace but presently that goal is not realistic because of the high turnover skilled personnel in the sector.

Echoing similar sentiment, in an interview with Akin Oni, Managing Director at Bristow Helicopters, recently, he lamented the huge capital outlay required to finance the Nigerian Content Act, training of aviation personnel, import duties on aircraft, and other challenges in the aviation industry.

“We are talking about a maintenance hangar for Nigeria, has anyone asked where we would get the engineers from? We are struggling today looking for Nigerian engineers. We don’t have engineers,” Oni lamented.

Captain George Santos, the Director, Employee Development and Resource Management with Caverton Helicopters, while giving an overview of the financial status of the sector, said it costs well over $200,000 to train a qualified pilot for four years.

This cost, he said, can hardly be borne by an individual. A development, he said may be affecting the availability of highly trained personnel like pilots in the country.

Market share in aviation
In the economic calculus of the sector, Nigeria’s impact account for nothing. The largest market share by any African airline in 2007 according to a World Bank research conducted by Henrich c. Bofinger for World Bank on Air transport industry, South African Airways 10.7%, Kenya Airways had 3.6% share, out of 15 airlines collated no Nigeria airline carrier was among the top 15. Five years after it has not change.

Last year Egypt Airline led the trend, followed by South African Airline, Ethiopian Airline and Kenya airline are still leading the fronts, they are among the top 9, and none of the top Nigeria airline could be in rank, base on market share, customer relation management we are still lacking behind.

Road show to nowhere

Perhaps, in the Federal Govern

ment‘s quest to address the budget deficit in the sector, the supervising minister of the sector, Mrs. Stella Oduah, embarked on a three-nation road show ostensibly in search of foreign direct investments remains diversionary.

But in the view of aviation pundits, this was diversionary. According to Mr. Wale Alabi, an aviation analyst, “Granted that the Federal Government has announced plans to borrow N106 billion from the Chinese in order to expand six airports across the country such as Lagos, Abuja, Rivers, Kano and Enugu, which they want us to believe is a fallout of the road show, many Nigerians are not deceived.”

Minister’s response

From information released by the ministry, the road show received positive responses as many Chinese companies are willing to do business in Nigeria; major aircraft manufacturer, Bombardier is interested in helping Nigeria build maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities and also may reach a term with government to facilitate Nigerian airlines acquire Bombardier aircraft.

Aviation minister, Stella Oduah said: “As we travel round the world, we see and admire international airports in other countries and wish that our nation could boast of just one that can truly go by the name international airport. Today, following the approval of FEC, we have concluded arrangements to commence construction of not just one, but five brand new, world class international airports.

 “The company that is doing the execution is a Chinese company. When the Chinese NEXIM or any country NEXIM gives a loan, that country’s contractor will have to do the execution. That is the process we follow.

 “They will have to decide on who will do the awarding of the project, so ours is for Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) to check if its in line with our regulation to ensure that the loan is in order. Once BPP gives no objection then we are free. Secondly, on what it will be spent upon, I want to say they are five international airports and six international perishable cargo terminals and all that is N106 billion all inclusive.”

The airports will be completed within two years with a concessionary loan of 22 years and five years moratorium of an interest rate of 2 per cent.

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