Akinkuotu: Nigeria’s Airspace is Safer Now

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MONDAY INTERVIEW 

Managing Director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, Captain Fola Akinkuotu is of the view that Nigeria’s airspace is safer with the installation of new equipment. He also spoke on the need to monitor low flying airplanes in the South-east corridor of the country for security reasons. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:

Navigation is a key issue in the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA). What have you done in this area so far?

Let’s start with what happened when we got in earlier this year. When we got in, a major government decision was taken, which in effect said that government was looking at closing the Abuja runway and the movement from Abuja to Kaduna as alternate airport. The closure requires certain things, as we transfer Abuja services so to say to Kaduna; we had to evaluate what we have in Abuja compared to what we have in Kaduna, ensuring that the fact that Kaduna would technically become an international airport at that time. So we had to make sure that the standards that are expected in Kaduna were such that met the standard in Kaduna.

Let’s focus on the responsibilities of NAMA. We are supposed to provide communication, navigation and surveillance. So we had to make sure that these meet international standards. In terms of communication, Kaduna did not have the manpower based on the services that they provided. We are going to move Kaduna from being a station that closes by 6:00 pm to a 24-hour station. So there was need for more manpower and the staff already existing there had to be trained again to meet the expectations of increased workload and also to provide the tools that were needed.

The consuls that were needed were upgraded and installed. We had to make sure that the manpower was up to standard in terms of quality and strength, which we did. The consuls that were installed were improved so that we had the right consuls. And despite the fact that they didn’t have the ideal conditions in terms of office space, Air Traffic Control (ATC) cabin, we made sure that we provided what was needed. Then, of course, we had to tackle the issue of communication which we did. And that involved training of people, providing the right equipment and increase manpower. Then we had to look at navigation; however, navigation was no problem because in terms of facilities on ground to pin point where Kaduna was, it was already there. But the approach into Kaduna for landing had been such that the instrument landing system there had been destroyed by an incident. So since we didn’t have that and within the timeline we went and installed a brand new Instrument Landing system (ILS) there.  And installing an ILS, fine you can install something but it has to be calibrated, so we calibrated it.

For the purpose of accomplishing the set goal, we also installed a brand new DME (distance measuring equipment), and we installed the complete unit of the ILS, then we calibrated both within that time. So we ensured that Kaduna measured up to required standards in terms of navigation.  And surveillance we ensured that we put in place the required overlap conditions such that Abuja and Kano could see Kaduna for the purpose of surveillance and radar guidance. Apart from that we ensure that our Performance Based Navigation (PBN) system was recertified as accurate and as good.

 

Should that be the alternative approach?

Yes, we made sure that this alternate approach method, performance based is available apart from the ILS. So those are things that we did. And of course Kaduna had a particular challenge; the situation of the tower was such that we wanted better vision of both sides of the runway. It meant so much to us to ensure that there was no time when communication would not be available. So we brought in a mobile control tower as backup to the system. We expected higher traffic and therefore we brought in a mobile cabin such that we could split the workload where we could use both cabins; one, if necessary for approach and one for radar. Or on the other hand, if we didn’t do that we ensured that we had an alternative. But we brought in a mobile control tower from Abuja to supplement and ensure that we provided improved and excellent communication in Kaduna.

So those are the things that we did at inception. And it is on record that not only did we deliver the ILS in good time, from doing the civil works up to installation and calibration. So these are things that we did at inception that made things easy and of course we were able to do that exercise until the six weeks when Abuja was completed.  Again we were able to go back to Abuja and we offered a seamless transition. Again we made sure that the ILS in Abuja was done, it was already there but we made sure that we did recalibration to certify the instrument landing systems and the VOR (voice omnidirectional radio range) were functioning. The radios are back on and because of the peculiarities of Abuja where the control tower is kind of- one end of the runway is obscured by the new construction, again we brought the mobile control tower.  Just as Kaduna was closing we ensured that the tower was there all night. The operations in Abuja was not impacted, I think that was the baptism of fire and we are able to accomplish that.

Before you came in, there was complaint that training is not regular. What have you done in this regard?

We have done increased training for our staff on search and rescue. We have completed training for a lot of our management staff in ASCON (Administrative Staff College of Nigeria).  We invited US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to come and do a training here for our staff and also from those of the West African sub region on accident and incident investigation and interpretation based on air traffic management situations. So we have improved in a lot of training and we have provided opportunities for people to be trained and we are going to make sure that we continue to enhance training. We are going to send people in the short term to Singapore for training; we have sent some people to Kenya for training. Essentially what we are saying is that we must improve training for our people so that they can be abreast of new technology and improve the quality of their work.

But what is not often appreciated sometimes is that some of this equipment that you put on ground, they are equipment so they can get bad. When we got here the Ilorin ILS had suffered some damage, resulting from fire, we made sure that it was restored and other stations, we did some work all over the country improving and ensuring serviceability  of navigational equipment. And we have plans to put ILSs, improve navigation in many of our airports. The only thing stopping us from finalising this is that they are budget driven and we are ensuring that due process is followed and once due process is being followed in terms of budgetary allocations, we are going to move to these places. We expect that Kano will be completed; we look at Benin and a lot of these places this year. We shall also look at Lagos and Abuja to ensure that we are able to provide better approach facilities. It is our hope that we will be able to install them within this year, an ILS category 3 in Lagos and Abuja.

What have you done in the area of communication?

On the radios, again we are working on improving the radios and we have invited manufacturers of radios and those who have installed for us, PAC Aviation in particular. As we speak they are in the northern part of the country trying to make sure that the radios are doing well. And they will move the day after tomorrow (August 23) into Lagos to ensure that we have improved radio communication facilities in Lagos. We are looking at the de-sectorisation , actually sectorisation has always been part of the plan but we have sectorised Kano and we are going to sectorise Lagos into East and West. It will make the system more efficient, it will reduce the workload on the air traffic controller.

On the surveillance aspect, we are almost concluding our contractual agreement with Thales of France, which installed the TRACON (Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria) system at inception. This is something that has been in abeyance for two years but within that time, and while this is going, we ourselves in-house we have improved and ensured that we encourage the people by getting spares, working by ourselves, motivating them correctly so that there is an improvement on the equipment that we have. It will get better still once we finalise the agreement with Thales. So those are the things that we have put in there.

 We have robust plans to improve the overall situation by conducting a proper audit of our situation and projecting it into how to deal with our surveillance for now and for the immediate future and for the long future. We held a management retreat recently in which we were able to bring everybody onboard to understand these issues, not only in bringing the problems and proffer solutions for the agency and for the airspace. Of course one of the big issues was compliance with executive orders which we complied with in toto and to ensure that we complied with government policies and government directives.

The performance based navigation (PBN) you mentioned, I found out that most of the aircraft don’t have corresponding equipment, how can you make them enjoy the gains offered by the system?

That is true, despite the fact that they may not have it we still have to comply with them. We know that performance based navigation system is something that is beneficial and it helps the airspace utilisation to be more efficient. So whatever we can do to enhance efficiency we have to put it in place. Whether or not today the people are prepared but there are some like the legacy carriers (largely European and US airlines) that have capability, so does Arik Air aircraft. Even if for the benefit of these few, over time it will grow into the other ones and we can’t wait till everybody is able to fit in.

If you look at a category 3 ILS, unless you are qualified and your aircraft is qualified for a category 3 you will not be able to do a category 3 landing. That will not stop us from installing a category 3. So those who have the capability to use category 3 will use it. But like I said, we are hoping everybody will be able to benefit from it but it is not certain that everybody will have the equipment and know how to do it at the onset.

You have navigational and surveillance equipment located in different parts of the country, how do you fuel and power them?

It is tough and expensive, it is getting better but quite honestly it is one of the challenges that we have in the agency. The cost of powering these stations all the time is horrendous, it is really expensive. Fuelling them is very costly but you have to also provide the generating sets. So also you must look at the maintenance of the generating sets as well and replace the aging one. When you look at those four items those are huge wage bills and they have to be kept working all the time. But the good news is that things are better now. Nigeria’s airspace is far safer than it was in the past.

How do you secure the equipment located outside areas of residence?

I think it was in Enugu one of our sets was stolen. Well fuel has gone down a little bit and that has helped. But like you said the security and the cost of increased manpower has made it quite an expensive thing. I wish we could have guaranteed power supply from the national grid 24/7 that will lower our bill considerably.

NAMA and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to a very large extent depend on foreign airlines for revenues, are the local airlines paying their bills?

Some are paying; I don’t want to go into specific names. One or two of the airlines are up to date but the others owe us. And the difficulty sometimes is that we must provide these services otherwise they themselves will not be able to operate and they will not have the opportunity to even pay what they owe. So we will continue to provide the service, we will continue to encourage them to pay us; we will continue to ask them to come up with a payment plan. Some of these agreements have not been abided with in strict terms; nonetheless.

 

How does the reduction of flights by foreign airlines affect your revenue?

When you look at how we generate our revenue it is based on utilisation of our airspace.  So if there is a reduction in the number of flights of course it reduces our revenue.  So reduction in flight means reduction in revenue.

Is the federal government still paying for major projects?

Government is aiding but when you look at our budget we are encouraged to depend on ourselves solely.  So a lot of our projects are driven by our internally generated revenues; that is the plan. This year’s plan (2017), the majority of budgeted capital development is on our own budget. But we do get help from the federal government.

Labour unrest used to divide NAMA personnel but recently it seems there are no more threats for strike actions. How have you resolved this?

Let us not forget that labour unions have the responsibility in terms of collective bargaining, they are representatives of a group of people; management on the other hand represents government agencies. So we represent different groups but with common interest.  There is no agency without the workers and there is no work without the agency, so it is symbiotic relationship.  We need them to have the agency; they need the agency to be able to have work. So the main thing is that we are able to communicate and dialogue and tell each other that we need each other for us to progress. Because I run an open door policy, they know they can always interact with me, the management is always willing to listen and hear what they have to say and we try to explain to each other.

So it is not a magic wand or anything but there is communication between us and we do hope that we will continue to have communication that is mutually beneficial and help the system stay stable. Because there is no progress in any situation that is not peaceful, so we need peaceful situations, we need peace and calm for us to have progress. And I believe that with that in place now we would be able to have some reasonable progress.

 

As a seasoned pilot and now the Managing Director of NAMA, how do you evaluate Nigeria’s airspace in terms of safety, and what do you think you can use your position now to make it better?

Based on my past experience, I am an engineer and a pilot. I have been in management of airlines, I have been a training pilot, I have run training school, and I have by the grace of God a broad view of the industry. I said before that we are making progress and there is really no end to the trip when you look at how you can improve. There will always be need for improvement, when I started my career, we didn’t have ILS that was functional in Lagos. There was the time when GPS (Global Positioning System) became a tool to utilise to help us in guidance, today we have ILS.

When I started, there was no radar, today we have radar, and a lot of the airports have ILS even up to category 2. So there has been improvement and I can relate to the improvement. So also I can relate to what we need to do to improve the system. I mean we need better communication, we need to upgrade for better data communication between cockpit and the control towers, CPDLs (Controller to Pilot Data Link).  We have it in Kano, Lagos; we need to have better monitoring particularly in our South-East corridors to be able to capture helicopters that are flying low level.

So these are things which I, because of my knowledge of the system would be able to bring to the fore and be able to explain on why we need them. When we look at that the more the pilots are able to fly easily, the more the airlines are able to fly regularly, the more revenue to our system.  And of course the better it is for the customers; the airlines. If there is ease in being able to fly into stations, if the totality of the travelling experience is good, everybody enjoys it will bring more customers. If we are able to fly efficiently save the airlines and the airlines make money, again we have more airlines, more traffic and make more money. And like I said if we modernise our equipment, not only are we able to capture those who fly our airspace by automatic electronic means, it will make our revenue collection much more correct.

And if they are much more correct, much more efficient, we get much more money. Again, like I said, we need the multilateration of the South-East corridor, the helicopters that are flying there now are not actually “captured, for economic reasons we are losing out. Also, it will provide security for us; we know who is flying and who is entering. So one’s knowledge of the industry can be of tremendous help.

What do you think will happen in December this year in terms of weather and how are you working with NIMET?

We are going to work with NIMET on weather projection but like it is typical, one would expect the winds changing because of the season. The thing is that we don’t want to become flat footed but we know what to expect; we have an idea. Every year, around February everybody expects the first rains and as we continue maybe in June we expect higher volume of rain fall. And as the year progresses towards the end we expect the hamarttan season to start flowing in. The desire and plan would be to make sure that navigational equipment will guide planes in, especially for the approach phases, are all functional.

And where we need improvement we want to make sure that there is improvement. A place like Kano, it already has an ILS but we want to install a new ILS there so that it would help and have coverage on both sides of the runway-ILS 06 and ILS 24. So even if the winds change we will still be able to have it. And if, going by our plan, we are able to put like a category 2 there, it will lower the visibility minima for landing. We may not have a category 3 which will put us in a zero-zero condition. Not because we don’t want to but because of finance but we do have a category 2, which will lower the minima. And with this being installed, we should have some improvements.

What would you emphasis after you have installed the ILS in most of these major airports, what would be the next move?

Like I said we would continue to have a situation where you have improvement in the equipment that you make available for people. But don’t let us forget that technology will change. We are putting in place one of the major thing that has been in the budget since 2009-the AIS, which has been caught by time AIM. We want to accomplish this and upgrade it to an AIM and of course deal with other areas where we are behind. Like in AFTN, we want to make sure that we catch up with modern trend and we want to make sure that we have AIMs in place. We want to ensure that our radios deliver crisp and clear communications. We want to be able to provide more effective service and then study the provision of services to our customers.  Because we have to not only deliver navigational services or approach facilities to them but how can we using our radar make them more efficient. If we can save an airline, let’s say for the sake of argument 10 litres on their flight every day and the airline does 70 flights a day; that means that you can save them 70,000 litres. If you multiply that by 30 days and multiply it by 365 days, that is profit. So these are the kind of things that we should be looking at.

But is there any time you can make it compulsory that airlines must install some of the equipment so that there will be full utilisation of all these sophisticated equipment that you have?

So long as it is going to be based on an improvement on better utilisation of the airspace, yes. I mean let’s look at RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minima), now it requires airplanes to have better equipment but what it did also is that it now provided us the opportunity to put more airplanes in the airspace because of the lower minima.

So that is a win, win for all the airlines. So rather than keep all of them at lower level and delay them to be able to have separations, we use RVSM to put more airplanes in the air. We must also help the airlines become profitable. Another area I think we need to look at is to seriously examine our profitability and our revenue generation, which we should drive towards. And providing training, a well-trained manpower is essential for our business; not only just in the technical aspect but also in the management of our agency, for economic benefits and for manpower development and the future.