Chinedu Eze writes on factors that impede on-time flight services in Nigeria as air travellers lament delays, cancellations in domestic operations
Air travellers in recent times have complained variously about flight delays and cancellations at times. They also complain that airlines rarely explain the cause of the delays but always say, “due to operational reasons”.
Passengers complain that the negative effect of these delays was the unpredictability of flight time beyond the scheduled time, which many say jeopardise their activities, including appointments, businesses and other engagements.
The travellers on domestic service say that all the airlines are indicted, noting that at different times they have experienced these delays from all the domestic carriers.
Passengers who spoke to THISDAY said delays have made air travel frustrating in Nigeria, but they always lay the blames on airlines alone without looking at the myriads of factors that contribute to flight delays and sometimes cancelations.
THISDAY spoke to industry experts who x-rayed the factors that are responsible to flight delays.
The Managing Director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Captain Fola Akinkuotu, told THISDAY that from the global point of view weather could be a factor on how a flight is concluded and could lead to delay and cancellation. He recalled that at a time in Europe inclement weather led to the ground of flights for a period in 2017.
“In Nigeria, we do not have snow but we may have rains of such intensity that that can stop flights. Also we can have squall line, which is a system of thunderstorms that have formed into a line.
“This often occurs ahead of a cold front, where wind shear combined with unusually widespread lifting of the lower atmosphere causes convection to become arranged in a banded structure. Squall line can impede flights. It can also lead to blinding rain and generally makes approach difficult,” Akinkuotu said.
He explained that that if Abuja was having squall line and a pilot that has a flight looks at the weather, he may calculate that if he leaves Lagos to Abuja, for example, at the scheduled time he may meet the bad weather, so he delays the flight so that the bad weather would clear by the time would be approaching the city. This causes delay and when that flight is delayed it affects all the flights that would be operated by that aircraft.
On why instead of explaining what actually happened to passengers, the airlines would say it was due to operational reasons, Akinkuotu explained that operational reasons is a long latitude that airlines use to cover myriad of issues that may cause delay in a flight.
“You may depart Lagos to Abuja when it is raining heavily. You may arrive Abuja but the rain can impede your boarding passengers for another flight and this may cause delay and give rise to late turnaround.
“If the plane is supposed to go to Port Harcourt and the weather over there is not good, the pilot would have to wait. The flight from Abuja and to Port Harcourt may have raked up one and half hours delay.
“This delay continues to build up on that aircraft but when you return to Lagos from Port Harcourt where there is sunshine and tell passengers that the flight was delayed due to bad weather, they will not believe you because the sun is shining in Lagos,” Akinkuotu who has operated commercial flights for over 30 years said.
He also explained that weather affects navigational aids, especially instrument landing system (ILS) in two ways, which include visibility and low layer of clouds. These he said affect flights, especially in landing, noting that under Category 3 ILS, flights can land under very low clouds but may not do that without such instrument.
The NAMA boss also noted that in Port Harcourt and Calabar airports there are early morning mists (fog) sometimes that impede flights, which clears off as sun rises. The mists make early morning flights to those airports difficult.
“This is why every airport has its own visibility minima. In Port Harcourt and Calabar if the visibility minima are less than 800 meters you cannot land. Lagos is 600 metres minima. Below the visibility minima you cannot do approach. If you have low clouds you may not land successfully; you may do miss approach, but if there is Category 3 ILS it will guide the pilot at decision height and the aircraft will land safely,” Akinkuotu said.
So weather is the major factor that contributes to delays and cancellations, noted the NAMA Managing Director who also acknowledged that paucity of aircraft operating domestic service in Nigeria also contribute to flight delays and cancellation. Currently Nigerian airlines have relatively fewer operating aircraft. But Akinkuotu noted that even if an airline has more aircraft it cannot stand any on ground, all of them would be scheduled to fly. This is because all airworthy aircraft should be in the air.
“Inadequate number of aircraft contributing to flight delays is true to an extent. This is because the more aeroplanes that you have the greater the flexibility but nobody will buy aeroplane and keep it on the ground, but delays can be caused by a number of reasons in the area of the number of aircraft.
“Sometimes airlines schedule planes without taking cognizance of disruption, which is what we call disruption schedule. This is taking cognizance that an aircraft on schedule could be impaired. It could have bird strike, it could have technical problem and when that happens and it is grounded, how are you going to deploy another aircraft to take up the flights schedule for that aircraft? So you have to pick your priorities in your schedule, recognisng possible disruption in your service,” he explained.
The fact that many airports in Nigeria do not operate after 6:00 pm contributes significantly in flight delays. This cuts down the flight hours per day. So flights start by 6:00 am and terminate by 6:00 pm. For average B737 aircraft should operate at least for 16 hours a day is now limited to about eight hours a day due to lack of airfield lighting in many of the airports.
In Nigeria it is only Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano, Uyo and now Benin that there are airfield lighting that enable flights to land in the night. All others, including Owerri, Enugu, Calabar, Yola, Asaba do not have airfield lighting. So the airlines struggle daily to meet the flight schedule of what is called sunset airports before 6:00 pm, as the could operate late to the aforementioned airports with runway lights.
The NAMA boss explained that according to regulation, visual flight rule is not allowed in Nigeria after 6:00 pm because you must use instrument. So for navigation approach there must be runway lights.
The Director of Consumer Protection Directorate, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Adamu Abdullahi, told THISDAY that another cause of delay in domestic flight operations is VIP movement and such delay snowballs as the aircraft so delayed operates other destinations.
“When a flight is delayed due to VIP movement it affects all other operations of that flight. For example, it will delay its next flight to Asaba, for example. Arriving late in Asaba, it will also arrive late from Asaba to Lagos, for example. So all the operations of that aircraft is delayed,” Abdullahi said.
Technical Problems, Access
He also said another cause of flight delay was technical problem by aircraft fleet, noting that because many of the airlines in Nigeria operate relatively older aircraft, which makes them susceptible to frequent maintenance “because the older the aircraft the more you spend money to maintain them.”
“Some of the maintenance have to be inspected by NCAA before they are certified to go back to operation. This causes delays. Sometimes NCAA officials will carry out ramp inspection and may ground the aircraft that has already been scheduled and this affects the operations of the airline because there is going to be delay and possible flight cancellation.
“Another challenge is that we don’t have intermodal transport system to the airports so there could be heavy traffic on the road, which delays the flight crew and others and this could cause delay. It also affects fuelling. The fuel hydrants are not working so aviation fuel is supplied by tankers which are usually delayed on the road due to traffic gridlock, from Apapa to the airport and this affects on time performance,” he said.
He also suggested that government should review the regulation that say that commercial airlines could start operation with minimum of three aircraft and raise it to seven or 10 so that airlines would have adequate number of aircraft in their fleet.
THISDAY investigations also revealed that another cause of delays is poor infrastructure at the airports. Passengers spend unduly longer time at security screening points because of inadequate number of X-ray machines so, many passengers queue at security screening points, especially at peak hours.
Ideally, it should take maximum of 30 seconds to screen a passenger but in Nigeria indications show that it takes about one minute to screen a passenger and this increases to two minutes when it is done manually.
With equipment it takes one hour, 40 minutes to screen 100 passengers, which at peak hours may be less than the total number of travellers for one flight.
This is because screening machines are inadequate, which slows passenger processing and facilitation. There is also lack of adequate manpower, as some X-ray machines are not manned because there are no personnel to man them.
For example, an airline Air Peace and Arik Air face a lot of delay processing passengers at the General Aviation Terminal of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos because there is only one functional X-ray machine at any point in time and hundreds of passengers destined to different destinations during the morning rush hours must pass through one functional X-ray machine at each of the terminals at the GAT.
At the Arik Air departure area, out of the two x-ray machines installed, one is always idle, even at peak hours; except in few occasions that it is put in use.
Operators have called on the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to provide adequate number of security equipment and adequate number of personnel to effectively man these machines in order to reduce the delay caused by security screening at the airports.