Weighing Cost of Perennial Flight Delays, Cancellations

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Chinedu Eze examines the effects of flight delays and cancellation on airlines’ operations

In July this year a VIP movement held flights leaving from the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport to other destinations for over 45 minutes.

It also held flights airborne in the Abuja airspace for the same time, while flights that were to come from different airports in the country to the federal capital territory were advised to delay take off.

According to the renowned economist and Chief Executive Officer of Financial Derivatives Company Limited, Bismarck Rewane, who decried the situation, so much fuel is burnt by airlines while waiting for VIP movement, especially at the Lagos and Abuja airports. He said the VIP delays affect aircraft on ground and the ones that are already airborne.

He said that the total VIP delays by the President and the Vice President could be projected to two days in a year and when calculated, the cost of fuel burnt is huge.

Apprehension
Passengers were said to be apprehensive and angry when flights to the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja hovered for about 45 minutes before landing,
The delay was caused by the closure of the airport for VIP movement, as President Muhammadu Buhari who travelled to Bauchi on that day, returned to the Federal Capital Territory.

There were many flights coming to Abuja airport and others on ground about to take-off were delayed.
A passenger in one of the flights, Dana Air Flight 335 which took off by 5:26 pm from the domestic terminal of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) for a 55 minutes flight to Abuja were directed to hover because the airport was closed.

According to eye witness account, addressing passengers after he had earlier announced that the flight was due to land at 6:20 pm, the Pilot said that the air traffic control directed that he should take a part of the airspace and hover until directed to land.

Before the flight approached Abuja airspace, the airport was already closed for five minutes.
After hovering for about 27 minutes, control tower directed that the pilot should approach to land, but as the flight approached to land, another directive came and instructed the pilot to continue to hover because the airport was still closed.

The flight was eventually directed to land and it finally touched down by 7:00 pm, 40 minutes later than it was supposed to land and almost two hours from the time of boarding the flight.

THISDAY spoke to the Chief Operating Officer of Dana Air, Obi Mbanuzuo who said aircraft could exhaust its fuel while hovering for such a long time, saying this could lead to emergency and consequently accident, if the airline did not make proper plan. He noted that Dana Air always envisaged such unexpected flight disruptions and as a matter of company policy provides extra fuel beyond endurance fuel, which by regulatory standard an aircraft should have on any trip.

Economic Implication
On the economic implication of the delay, he said that the operating flight, MD 83 consumed 3000 litres of fuel hovering in the airspace for that period of time and every litre of aviation fuel is sold between N235 to N250 per litre, which is N750, 000.

According to him, the aircraft consumes 4000 litres of fuel per hour of flight and this is doubled for endurance fuel in case of emergency with additional five per cent of the 4000 litres for contingency.

“That flight after dropping the passengers in Abuja will airlift Port Harcourt passengers from Abuja. Now, that flight will be delayed for that period of time it hovered in the airspace. This delay will continue to build up and lead to total inefficiency in flight operations,” he explained.

Also, the spokesman of one of the airlines told THISDAY his airline incurs cost of over N2 million per flight because beyond the fuel and other cost of operations, there could be delays not initially envisaged so the airlines prepare for the unexpected.

“We lose as much N2.7 million per flight on fuel, overhead and even if the flight has to be diverted. There is impact of the delays on other flights. The delays usually have a spiral effect, which would force the flights to operate into the night and if the airport doesn’t have light you either cancel flight and refund the passengers their fares or in some airports you have to pay for them to extend the airport lights, when the fault isn’t yours.

“Imagine an aircraft from Lagos to Abuja has to hold for 30 minutes overhead Abuja due to VIP movement then that adds another N500, 000 to the fuel bill if the plane has to divert; then that is even costlier as now an unexpected landing charge plus even higher fuel bill combined with delays on the rest of the network and passenger’s frustration,” the spokesman said.

Frequent Delays

An official of another major domestic carrier told THISDAY that delays are frequent for so many reasons. One is VIP movement and when a flight is delayed by 20 minutes it affects all the flights that would subsequently be operated by that aircraft.

“The most affected are the multiple flights in the morning when the airline has to dispatch many flights to other destinations from the Lagos airport. Too many passengers are processed with only one scanner. This causes delays and 20 minutes delay would have ripple effect.

“You know most of the airports are sunset airports, so airlines usually prioritise going to those airports, especially in the afternoon and evening flights because the other ones are 24 hours airports, so they can fly to them at any time. But sometimes passengers from those airports that operate for 24 hours will kick against your checking in passengers to the sunset airports.

“In the cacophony there would be more delays. But I wish to note that these issues did not start today so it cannot be tied to anybody but we wish that they could improve the situation,” the airline official said.

Turn Back
He also noted that a flight could be dispatched to one of the sunset airports and while airborne, the pilot could get a call from the air traffic control that the airport has been closed.
If the airport will open for the flight the airline would have to pay and this is charged per hour.

“While you are in the air going to the airport you would be asked to go back. You have already burnt your fuel going to that destination; you will burn your fuel going back with the same passengers. And you will still have to refund the passengers 100 per cent. Sometimes they wait for you to land and you have to pay for that extra time,” the official also lamented.

High Number of Delays
Aviation security expert and CEO Centurion Securities, Group Caption John Ojikutu, noted recently that high numbers of flight delays and cancellations have over the years, become too incessant in the operations of the Nigeria domestic carriers and had remained unresolved.

He said rather than find an efficient resolution to the real causes; the operators and regulator continue to shift the blames as they have always done among themselves on the real causes of the short lifespan of the domestic airlines.

“At a meeting with some stakeholders in the second quarter of 2018, the NCAA released a report on the domestic airline flight operations performance for the first quarters of 2017. Specifically, data on the numbers of flight delays and cancellations showed that there were 6,799 delays and 314 cancellations out of 10,366 domestic flights in the first quarters 2017.

“The meeting which was attended by representatives of 13 international airlines, eight domestic airline operators, FAAN and Bi-Courtney made 16 resolutions. What caught the attention of many from the resolution at the meeting and the press release was an unclear warning to the airline operators alone concerning the huge number of flight delays and cancellations,” he said.

Ojikutu noted that there are many factors that do and could contribute to flight delays and are generally beyond the controls of the airlines. Most of them are and can be attributed to other operators, services providers including the airport authority infrastructure especially the passenger facilitation services.

These, he said include passenger access control; passenger and carry-on-baggage check-point screening; hold baggage screening and sorting; number of boarding gates and the boarding screening.

“All these are not within the control of the airlines as they often delay passenger facilitation and flight departure time especially at single terminal airport, with a single passenger screening, check points and single boarding gate.

“For instance, at Lagos airport where there are two domestic terminals MM2 and GAT, there is only one screening point and on boarding gate at the GAT where Air Peace and Arik with more flights operate from, whereas, the MM2 most times has about two passenger screening check points and about six boarding gates,” he said.

Concession
In a recent interview he granted THISDAY, the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Captain Muhtar Usman said the solution to infrastructural challenge at the nation’s airports is concession. He noted that the federal government wants to concession the four major airports in the country and urged that industry stakeholders and political decision makers should give the plan support.

“Nowadays, government goes into partnership in form of concession so that private hands can come and invest and bring the airport to the international standards where there will be seamless connectivity. And along with the concession that the government is planning because it has already embarked on it through the transaction adviser, other facilities such as availability of fuel, maintenance repair and overhaul and of course, a national carrier.
“Concession of airports would make possible efficient and modern airport facilities and other supporting facilities for efficient coordination such as the MRO and availability of fuel at reasonable prices. The advantage is that this will create more jobs. You will have employment because when you expand the airport facilities, certainly you will need people to work. When you establish maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) centre, you will also need people to work and they will all be Nigerians,” Usman said.