Underutilisation of Commercial Aircraft


In Nigeria, commercial aircraft fly fewer times than the recommended hours due to the infrastructure deficit. This results in huge revenue losses for airlines, writes Chinedu Eze

When airline operators describe Nigeria’s air operating environment as harsh, they are actually referring to the lack of and obsolete essential facilities, double taxation, scarcity and high cost of aviation fuel as well as the dearth of indigenous personnel, especially in the technical department of the industry.

Airfield Lighting
One of the major limitations to the optimum utilisation of commercial aircraft in Nigeria is the lack of airfield lighting or runway lighting. These are lights that guide the aircraft to landing and take-off on the runway. Unfortunately only five airports out of 22 airports being managed by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and six airports built by the state government have airfield lights that are being utilised currently. These airports include the Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano, Kaduna and Abuja airports. Some other airports have the equipment but they are either redundant, in a state of disrepair or are waiting to be connected.

Lack of functional airfield lighting is a major setback for Nigerian airlines because they cut off about four operational hours from the daily flights of an airline designated for schedule operation. Industry experts who spoke to THISDAY said they are shocked that despite the importance of this equipment for safe airline operation, government has not been able to install it at all the airports and most of those installed in the past are in disrepair.

Revenues Losses
Industry experts are of the view that installation of airfield lighting at all the nation’s airports will boost the revenue of domestic airlines to the tune of about N40 billion annually.
This is the estimated amount of revenue that the airlines lose because they do not operate after 6:00 pm in more than 18 airports in the country owing to the lack of critical landing facility.
If the equipment is available, airlines would be able to operate extra four hours every day, from 6: PM to 10: PM to many of the nation’s airports.

Also, it will help the airlines to fully utilise their aircraft, which has stipulated minimum time it must be flown by their manufacturers.
Former Managing Director of one of the major domestic carriers told THISDAY in an interview that Nigerian airlines lose huge resources because they do not operate to many airports in the night.

“But you have to look at it in terms of potential additional revenue for operating for longer periods, perhaps into the night. Again you can also look at it in terms of underutilisation of the aircraft because they are not used for longer periods during the day. So at the end of the day you may estimate that what airlines lose should be in the region of 40 billion naira in a year. But this depends on how many of such airports that you think you can access,” the source said.

The advantage of having such critical equipment is that it would help not only the airlines but passengers.
Presently when technical or other problems occur in the daily operation of airlines that lead to delays, some flights that are delay beyond 6:00 PM may be cancelled if the destined airports do not have airfield lighting.
So the installation of the equipment will enable airlines to fly to Ibadan, Akure, Enugu, Owerri, Calabar, Yola and other airports where currently there is no airfield lighting after 6:00 pm.

It will also help safety of airline operations because during emergency in the night a troubled aircraft can land at the nearest airport, instead of looking for the one that has airfield lighting, which may be several kilometers away.

Aircraft Utilisation
Ideally a Boeing, B737, which is the popular operating aircraft in Nigeria flies for at least 18 hours a day and some fly for about 22 hours a day, but in Nigeria such aircraft fly for between 10 t0 12 hours. By 6:00 pm most airlines begin to shut down because their aircraft can no more fly to many of the airports. If majority of the airports have airfield lighting, many of these airlines could operate to 10: 00 pm and such airports that are located in the cities like the ones in Benin, Asaba, Enugu, Owerri, Uyo, Calabar, Ibadan and Akure could have been operating deep into the night.
But by 5:00 pm airlines cancel flights which they could not operate before 6:00 pm and when they cancel flights they lose revenue and a bit of their goodwill.

A senior official of FAAN from operations department told THISDAY on Monday that some of the runway lights are under repair; some are not connected while some airports are yet to have the installation of such lights on their runway. He said that in some airports where the runway light is functioning it is underutlised, which some active airports do not have the functional equipment.

“In some of the airports where we have airfield lighting they are under utilised because flights do not land there in the night. We have it in Maiduguri, we have it Sokoto, we have it in Katsina, we have it in Yola but they are not used because flights don’t come there in the night. Kaduna airport has night landing facilities. Ilorin airport also has night landing facilities although they are not effectively used but if there is diversion or emergency they will be put on because Ilorin is alternative airport to Lagos.

“Recently Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) met with the Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika and he said that work has started at the Enugu airport runway, as the contractor has been called back to site; that when work on the runway is completed the light will be installed. In Owerri, the lighting facilities were vandalised and FAAN is reinstalling the equipment,” the FAAN official said.

Flight Cancellations
Passengers have suffered tremendously due to flight cancellations occasioned by absence of runway light in some airports. Few years ago Arik Air had to make air return after arriving at Uyo airspace because the air traffic control which approved the flight’s take off from Abuja said it would no more guarantee the flight safety on landing because it was getting dark and there was no airfield lighting; even when the aircraft, which was a New Generation equipment was installed to land under a twilight.

The flight took the passengers back to the airport in Abuja. Disappointed and enraged the passengers protested. They couldn’t get to their destination, they had been inconvenienced tremendously and the airline has lost revenues, fight time and fuel. Also earlier this year, Air Peace boarded passengers from Abuja to Enugu and communicated with the air traffic control and airport management at the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu and got the initial approval for the flight to proceed to Enugu but before takeoff, message came from Enugu that the airport would be closed by 6:00 pm; unless the airline would pay a whooping amount of money, which it considered outrageous. The airline had to abort that flight but the passengers who had already boarded, led by a former Senate President refused to de-board the flight. The aircraft which was already scheduled for another flight on return from Enugu could not operate the next flight.

Role of NCAA
Some industry experts say that as the regulator of the aviation industry, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority as part of safety measures could insist that without airfield lighting in an airport such airport should be closed. They noted that the idea of not having airfield lighting in major and secondary airports in the country started when the Ministry of Aviation started awarding runway rehabilitation contracts differently from the installation of runway lights and noted that ideally the two contracts were usually awarded together.

“NCAA can insist that it will not approve any airport without runway light to take in flights. This should be for safety measure so that in the time of emergency an aircraft can land anywhere. For example, the Asaba airport should not have been opened without airfield lighting. The state government decided to build an airport; he should have been given a minimum standard which would include well equipped runway and Category 3 Instrument Landing System (ILS).

“So NCAA can insist that all the airports built by the state governments must not be allowed to operate without runway light; this will ensure that as you are building the airports you are installing runway lights on the runway. We need to be strict with these safety critical facilities. Today airlines are losing so much money because this critical equipment is not in these airports,” one industry observer told THISDAY.

Landing Instrument
The Chairman of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) Captain Nogie Meggison said similar challenges to airline operation include poor navigational and landing aids (Instrument Landing System and others) that limits operations to daylight operation for most airports (Nigerian airlines fly an average of only five hours as against the average of 10 hours worldwide per airplane); high cost and epileptic supply of Jet A1; Obsolete infrastructure that hampers the ease of doing business; and lack of consultations with airlines before introduction of new charges and policies among others, “which throws off the feasibility studies of airlines out the window.”

Public, Private Partnership
Industry observers are suggesting that the federal government should take its public, private partnership (PPP) seriously so that it would divest financial commitment on landside infrastructure by ceding airport terminal and associated facilities development and management to the private sector, while it concentrates in providing critical equipment on the airside, which are very crucial for the landing and take-off of flights. For this to happen, they suggested that government must have a defined policy on PPP, accompanied by legal and administrative framework that will guide investors in investing in airport infrastructure.

The Director-General of NCAA, Captain Muhtar Usman, told THISDAY that in concession, government would not give out the airside for safety and security reasons; so it would be the sole responsibility of government to provide such critical facilities as landing aids, radar and communication equipment in addition to providing perimeter and security fence at the airports.

Many travellers judge the beauty of airports by visible facilities like the terminal, the car park and the landscape; what keeps aircraft safe on landing and take-off include such critical infrastructure as airfield lighting, but over the years, government has reneged in proving this important equipment for all the airport runways in the country.