Damilola Oyedele in Abuja
Officials of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) and management of Air Peace Airlines are trading blame over the circumstances that led to the return to Lagos of an Enugu bound aircraft.
On December 22, 2016, a 737 aircraft operated by the Air Peace was forced to return to Lagos at about 11.30pm while enroute Enugu International Airport following the closure of the Control Tower. This was despite that the airline had applied for four hours extension from the closing hour of 7pm.
Speaking before the House of Representatives Committee on Aviation, Air Peace Chief Operating Officer, Oluwatoyin Olajide said the airline had first applied for three hours extension, but applied for an extra hour, to allow the inbound flight land, discharge its passengers, and then depart for Abuja.
She added that while the extension was till 11pm, the aircraft started up at the domestic airport in Lagos at 10.45pm and taxied to the international airport before taking off at 11.15pm.
The committee was told that the Enugu airport tower however closed at 11.08pm even though the inbound aircraft had started up in Lagos.
“The aircraft was already enroute when the tower was threatening to close. Our Manager at Enugu appealed to them, even followed them to the car park, but they told her unless we get permission from their boss. At that point, we had to communicate to the crew to return to Lagos,” she said.
Olajide added that the airline experienced several challenges during the festive season, particularly harmattan haze and unavailability of aviation fuel resulting in several delays.
The Managing Director of NAMA, Captain Fola Akinkuotu however said the airline had the responsibility to ensure it operated within the extended hours granted.
“What could have happened is that the airline did not make necessary request for further extension. This was not the first time extension is being granted,” he said.
He added that Air Peace Manager at Enugu airport who made the request for the initial four hours, should have asked for more time.
Several members of the committee however disagreed with the position of NAMA.
The Chairman, Hon. Nkeiruka Onyejeocha queried why an airport, designated as an international airport, would close at 7pm.
She also wondered why the tower, which closed at 11.08 pm could not simply wait for the aircraft expected to land at 11.30pm, since the aircraft was already airborne.
Hon. Boma Goodhead (Rivers PDP) said the challenges which the airlines were experiencing at the time, should have been considered by the air traffic controllers, and other airport staff.
“Even the passengers would suffer anxiety, having reached their destination, probably they were delayed in the first instance, then they were returned to Lagos,” she said.
Speaking in the same vein, Hon. Abdulrahman Shuaibu (Adamawa APC) said there ought to be better communication between the government agencies and airlines. “What level of authority do you give your staff in case of emergency? If there is an emergency, can your staff re-open the tower?” he said.