There was a time the word â€œblind spotâ€ was in the front burner in Nigeriaâ€™s aviation lexicon and it was used to explain the part of the airspace where the pilot in a flight was unable to receive or send out messages to the Air Traffic Controllers (ATC).
These days that expression has lost currency; not because communication hitches have seized to exist but because pilots and Air Traffic Controllers have agreed that there has been an improvement compared to the past.
However, THISDAY learnt that there have been allegations by officers in charge of Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunications Network (AFTN) that they have been neglected by the management of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) over the years. They also alleged that the equipment they need to do their work has become obsolete and needs to be replaced with modern ones.
The AFTN officers are supposed to be in charge of the two flight information regions in Kano and Lagos, manning the communication system and ensuring effective radio communication in the airspace.
The officials told THISDAY that there is lack of enough staff and the equipment was supposed to be upgraded to a level that it could blend with the ones in use worldwide. These, according to them, include radio communication equipment and other equipment such as SATCOM system. They are also asking for the upgrade of AFTN to Aeronautical Message Handling System (AMHS), which is a standard for aeronautical ground to ground communication for the transmission of Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), flight plans or meteorological data. AFTN said it needs a telephone system that can serve all the airports in Nigeria simultaneously for effective communication.
Also the Aeronautical Information Service (AIS) complained of obsolete equipment and demand automation of their system. The officials also requested for periodic training and retraining of AIS personnel in order to bring staff up to speed with modern trends. It stressed on the need for NAMA, through the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), to ensure that qualified AIS personnel were licensed as this would bolster them towards hard work, commitment to duty and enhanced productivity.
THISDAY investigations have revealed that unlike in the past, the NAMA management is doing something about these complaints. There have been efforts to improve communication system in the airspace since the new Managing Director of the agency assumed office. THISDAY learnt that last year, a request was made to government by NAMA, requesting funds for the upgrade and automation of communications equipment to be in tandem with modern technology.
But the fund, which was put at N1.5billion was not available last year; it was this year that it was provided. According to a NAMA source, the new management of the agency has deployed this fund to procure equipment for the upgrade of communication system in the airspace.
The objective of the upgrade, THISDAY learnt, is to ensure that any possible blind spot in the airspace is eliminated. NAMA has also ordered for modern equipment, which would replace the obsolete ones, which have been in use over the years. The President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Victor Eyaro confirmed to THISDAY that NAMA has ordered for new equipment.
â€œYes we have obsolete equipment but they are working on it. The new MD has ordered the procurement of new equipment to replace what we have,â€ Eyaro said.
Like most of the facilities and equipment in aviation, these communication equipment are not bought off the shelf; they are ordered and paid for before they are produced, which takes some time.
THISDAY learnt that the equipment is expected to arrive in August and by September, the installation must have been completed and pilots would experience effective communication system in the airspace.
Besides providing safety, which is a very critical factor, NAMA also earns revenue from communicating with over flyers, which are international flights that fly over Nigeriaâ€™s airspace. As they fly over Nigeria, they demand weather report update, guidance in terms of altitude and other necessary information that guides pilots in their flight. These services are paid for in foreign currency and NAMA generates high percentage of its revenue from over flyers. So with effective communication, NAMA is bound to generate more revenues.
THISDAY learnt that in the past when communication in Nigeriaâ€™s airspace was very poor, international flights used to avoid Nigeriaâ€™s airspace and Ghana and Niger were earning the revenues from such international flights.
On manpower development and training, an informed source in the agency told THISDAY that the major challenge facing manpower development in NAMA and other agencies is that workers who had retired want to be re-engaged. The source said that most earnings in the agencies are spent on recurrent expenditure, which is mainly salaries but government expect that substantial part of the revenue is spent on projects.
â€œRetired workers want to be re-engaged. Most aviation agencies spent their income on recurrent expenditure; not on capital projects, but government expects you to devote high percentage of your income on capital projects. Retired ones donâ€™t want to go, so how do you recruit the young ones when people who are 65 years said they are not tired?â€ the source asked.
So the recurrent training and employment of new workers to boost manpower in AFTN and AIS departments of NAMA is dependent on income and the ability of the management to send home those who are retired but who continue to nibble at the revenue of the agency through reengagement and refusal to quit the organisation.