Friday, December 07, 2012

Challenges of Communication in Nigeria's Airspace

The Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) has fully completed the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria(TRACON), which provides surveillance in the airspace. But there is more to do in the area of communication, Chinedu Eze reports.

Two weeks ago when the Senate Committee on Aviation inspected projects and facilities at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, members of the committee critically appraised all the projects. From the General Aviation Terminal to the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA); the power project being built by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to TRACON.

During the inspection of TRACON and at the press briefing that followed, the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Hope Uzodimma said that the members of the committee had learnt a lot about the TRACON project. According to him, from what they saw and considering the number of petitions the committee received, stakeholders did not really appreciate the importance of the project.

He said that TRACON is the most modern system of surveillance and that Nigeria did not know the value of what it has because the project was dogged by petitions.

So when another series of petitions started to make the rounds against the communications system in the nation's airspace and the TRACON project, THISDAY decided to investigate the state of communications in the airspace.

Hitches in Communication

A pilot who knew the history of the problems of communication in the airspace told THISDAY that there are really issues about communication in Nigeria's airspace. However, he was quick to add that the situation has improved from when there was what was referred to as dark spots, when a pilot cannot connect and communicate with the air traffic controller to the present situation when pilots have to work at it to get the radio communication from Calabar and Enugu traffic area at the Lagos centre, which is 127. 3 MHz frequency and Yola and Maiduguri at the Kano communications centre, which is 128.5 MHz.

The pilot who emphasised the importance of communication in the airspace said that without effective communication safety is threatened, noting some time ago a project was started by NAMA to connect every part of the airspace with VHF radio coverage, known as the TRACON.

"Part of the objective of the VHF radio coverage was that if you are on ground in Kano, Calabar, Port Harcourt you can get Lagos. That time (about three years ago) the radio was old, something that was manufactured in the 1960s. If the project was continued it should have been operational now. What we are supposed to have is that it is up and running now."

THISDAY gathered that the project was continued and before the end of December it would be up and running as expected.

Overstretched Capacity

Technical officials in charge of communication and surveillance in NAMA led by Olumuyiwa Adegorite, an engineer, explained to THISDAY that what pilots are experiencing in the airspace are issues that have to do with the inability of the radio to be effectively accessed by pilots because of high demand in signals due to increase in traffic in the airspace.

They explained that each radio has frequency of transmission and the Lagos radio which is 127.3 frequency was established when traffic at the Lagos centre was less than half of what is obtained now.

"Traffic has increased over time and the frequency is now heavy that the pilots find it a bit difficult to get the signals in some areas of the airspace. So the capacity is under pressure."

The Way Out

To cope with this challenge the NAMA has embarked on the sectorialisation of the frequency by diving it into two frequencies so that one frequency would handle the western part of the Lagos centre while the other part would handle the eastern part , meaning that each sector would have a frequency of its own. This, they believe, would reduce the congestion.

"NAMA has drawn up the procedures, which are operational details for achieving this objective. The managing director has approved the training of the officials, but we must say that even before the sectorisation, the issues concerning the 127.3 have been resolved and the frequency has improved. Pilots who operate daily in the airspace will confirm this to you. The issues have been taken care of and it is good to know that everything mechanical has its issues", Adegorite said.

He added said that three years ago NAMA started the TRACON and the project has since been completed in the southern part of the country but delayed in the northern part due to terror attacks. However, he said it has been completed few weeks ago and this project would soon be streamed.

He explained that the maximum range a VHF radio can give is 150 nautical miles so for effective communication each centre in Lagos and Kano has repeater stations.

"So, there are a lot of repeater stations which for the Lagos centre are employed in Port Harcourt, Illorin and Abuja. The Kano repeater stations are also located in Maiduguri, Sokoto and Wukari and also in Abuja."

Data Communication

Adegorite said that because of the limitations of radio communication, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is encouraging states to switch over to Controller; Pilot Data Link Communication (CPDLC) which has to do with data as well as radio communication, which NAMA has keyed into.

"In our planned development programme we intend to start this new project next year and I want to say that those members of the agency whose only job is to write petitions should think about what to contribute to move this agency forward. We have to think of how to work out strategies on how to improve this system. Right now a team of controllers and engineers have completed all tasks within the timeline to commence sectorialisation of Lagos area control centre by Monday, December 17, 2012. The situation is not as threatening as portrayed by the petition writers," he said.

A seasoned pilot who operates the Nigeria's airspace daily, Tunde Ogunlowo, in a recent interview with THISDAY attributed part of the communication problem to epileptic supply of public power and observed that to a large extent the nation's airspace has communication access.

"We have our challenge with electricity because of hiccups in supply. These people (NAMA) are trying. They are doing their best. We have no problem with ground to ground communication. It is only occasionally that we don't have communication in the air and when we don't have communication we know that there is power problem. It is because TRACON is working that all the foreign airlines are coming. They are usually the first to run away because of insurance.

An airline like British Airways will run away once the airspace is deemed unsafe because if anything goes wrong insurance people will hold them responsible. All the foreign airlines are here and that is evidence that the radar is working."

More airlines have started operating into Nigeria since the last two years, including the United States mega carriers, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

Endless Petitions

For a long time communication in the airspace had issues and pilots agree that it has improved few years ago. But many in the industry are wondering why it has become topical this time, attracting so many petitions at a time it is obvious that efforts are being made to improve it through the TRACON project.

The Secretary General of the Nigeria Aviation Professionals Association (NAPA), Abdulrasaq Saidu, told THISDAY that labour unions in aviation industry have enmeshed themselves in politics and are no more fighting for the welfare of the workers and the improvement of the industry.

He said that labour in aviation has outlived its usefulness and the reason is that for a long time the unions "have been operating outside the approved constitution, thereby violating the trade union laws.

Saidu also noted that because of the constant change of management of the parastatals, they have become weakened and now submit themselves to the threat of the unions whose members have diverse parochial interests.

"This has made the unions to behave as if they are running the industry. Many have resorted to blackmail against the minister and the head of parastatals, to arm twist them for their selfish interests. They write damaging petitions that are unsubstantiated. The labour minister they have written to should look at the operational structures. Most of the people who work for the unions are not in the aviation industry so they don't have anything to lose if the industry collapses. They have promoted internal acrimony in NAMA between the air traffic control and the engineers," Saidu noted.

He also said that it is contemptible for the union members to resort to character assassination and pull-him down syndrome in the sector because their narrow individuals interests are not met, adding that the aviation agencies should stand their ground for once and defy the threat and blackmail of the union members whose stock in trade is to diminish the efforts being made in the sector to discredit some individuals that did not dance to their tune.

Airline Operators' Views

Speaking in similar vein, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) said the problem of communication in the airspace was not new and wondered why the unions were writing petitions on it now when efforts were being made to improve it.

The Assistant Secretary General of AON, Mohammed Tukur said that the unions in NAMA should go and settle their issues with the management instead of resorting to petitions.

The Secretary General of AON, Mohammed Joji, a seasoned pilot, said that NAMA, which is known as the most improved agency among aviation parastatals in terms of modernisation, would improve the communication problems in the airspace.

"We cannot deny the fact that there are still little challenges. NAMA is faced with in terms of communication in our airspace. We believe they are working on it and very soon, everything will be alright. We are investigating to know how bad the situation is. All over the world, there are systemic failure which is not an isolated case", Joji said.

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