Nigeria’s Precarious Airspace

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A fortnight ago, the Senate Committee on Aviation visited the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, where it held a stormy interaction with aviation agency heads on how to reposition the sector.

Led by its vice Chairman, Senator Bala Ibn N’allah who is also a pilot, the committee excoriated the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) for poor and obsolete navigational equipment and other landing aids. Specifically, N’allah narrated a personal experience, how he manoeuvres his aircraft to arrive at his destination and the experiences of other pilots who go through similar challenges flying in Nigeria’s airspace.

Succinctly put, there is poor ground to air communication between pilot and air traffic control. In some parts of the airspace, there is no communication and these areas are known as blind spots. This is very precarious because when the pilot cannot communicate with air traffic control he may not know his whereabouts and he will just rely on his intuition and experience. This, industry experts say, is very dangerous.

There are also poor, obsolete and non-functional navigational aids, which do not provide proper guidance to landing and take off of flights. All these impede smooth flight operation in Nigeria’s airspace and also endanger safety of flights.

THISDAY spoke to air traffic control sources, who have firsthand experiences of guiding pilots to their destinations and they reinforced the importance of providing the necessary navigational aids to improve safety in the nation’s airspace.

Air traffic control sources told THISDAY on Monday that the eastern flank of Lagos, which include Enugu, Calabar, Owerri, Port Harcourt, Uyo has very poor communication system. The controller cannot talk to the pilots on that side of the airspace. A pilot once told ATC that he could not understand the controller’s words when he was about to descend to Abuja, as he flew from Lagos and that was because the communication was not clear.

The source noted the danger is that aircraft are coming from Abuja and other places to eastern flank, as they are also coming from Lagos and when the controller is unable to locate the proper position of the aircraft due to poor communication with the pilot, he may not be able to guide the pilot properly on how to descend and land and this is very dangerous. In the Abuja experience, when the pilot did not get the message correctly from the controller, he decided to descend on his whim, using his experience.

“Recently we went to Khartoum (Sudan) for workshop. We went to their control tower, which was as large as the departure hall of the international terminal of the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMIA). When we observed them work we noticed that the place was quiet because they were not shouting on the microphone as we do. This is because their communication system is very effective. They do not need to shout, but for us we need to shout in order that the pilot will hear us because our communication system is very bad. And such shouting is dangerous for our health. It affects our brain and makes the job very tortuous. Besides, it leaves you unsatisfied and frustrated because you know you can do better and that the work tools are a handicap to efficient delivery of service,” the source said.

The source noted that the Aeronautical Information Service (AIS), which the management said would solve the problem of communication in the airspace has almost been completed but its presence is not being felt.

“To us, the AIS is a big fraud. It is a tiny part of the responsibility of NAMA, which is providing Communication, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) services, but the management is touting this AIS project as if it is going to solve all our problems. There are a lot of things that should be done before this problem will be solved,” the source also noted.

One of the sources also observed that there is money to fund these projects that will improve communications in the airspace and provide efficient navigational aids but alleged that there is lack of sincerity and commitment by management and the concerned government authorities.

Senator N’allah during the brainstorming section with agency heads, during the Committee’s visit, also alleged the wastage of funds by past administrations and top officials of the agencies on elephant projects that were never realised.

Na’Allah observed that in the aviation industry contracts are inflated and when compared to other countries, a 10th of what is budgeted to execute a project in Nigeria is used to provide the best of similar project overseas, adding “The navigational aids we have in Ghana, Togo, Dakar, Senegal, we have spent five times of the money they spent, yet we are yet to have the kind of equipment they have.”

In response, the acting Managing Director of NAMA, Emma Anasi explained that paucity of funds has been the major factor for failure to execute and implement projects in the agency. He noted that NAMA has to power all its equipment located at different parts of the country with generators, spending huge resources on fuel and at a time where majority of the domestic airlines owe the agency.

He said that the problem of poor communication in the airspace would be solved when the Aeronautical Information Service project is completed by early next year.

“When the project, which we call Aeronautical Information Service automation was started it was designed to do two principal things: create a V-SAT network in double redundant mode to enable us establish more extended VHF coverage sites and those sites are Benin, Calabar, Yola, Kaduna and many more. We have issues like that in Lagos, but this project by the time we finish it you can file your flight plan from you bedroom or from your cockpit because the network is web based. The network will also enable us to cover all the routes with radio communication to flight level 100. That is our target,” Anasi said.

Government and its agencies in Nigeria always operate on promissory note. They always make promises and set targets but at the end only very little or nothing is achieved. Hopefully, airlines will continue to operate safely in Nigeria’s airspace, wishing that safety would not be breached before the AIS project is put on stream.