Flight Disruptions, Avoidable Embarrassment

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THEFRONTLINES  

With Joseph Ushigiale

It is really amazing how some officials who man sensitive positions fail to deliver on their key performance indicators (KPIs) when the chips are down.

Could it be that they are ill equipped for the jobs or are square pegs in round holes? How could one explain the recent debacle in Lagos airport where both local and international flights were disrupted simply because of harmattan haze which reduced visibility to almost zero?

Every new year beginning from January, the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMet) issues weather warnings indicating weather conditions across the country and how these conditions affect flight operations.

The reason for this is to allow those in charge of these sensitive areas take heed and make the necessary plans and adjustments to meet the challenges as they come.

Given the unpredictable nature of weather conditions around the Lagos airports area, even a novice who has been following the weather trend ought not wait for a NiMet forecast to start thinking ahead of the advancing harmattan haze.

Explaining the cause of the harmattan haze, the General Manager in charge of research and technical assistance to the Director General, NIMET, Dr. Mansur Bako-Matazu, said why the harmattan haze seemed severe in lowering visibility in Lagos was because the dry dust coming from the north mixes with humidity and moisture and then spreading thick, brownish dust on the atmosphere, thus inhibiting visibility for a long distance.

But what did we see? Even with NiMet’s warnings, those in position of authority in the aviation ministry and the respective agency like the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) failed to do the needful.

It was therefore a big surprise to hear that the airspace in Lagos was shutdown to air traffic because the only Instrument Landing System (ILS) covering the airspace was not in place.

The question is: what were they doing when they knew ahead of time that the harmattan haze which would disrupt flight operations without a functional ILS loomed?
The resultant effect was that as the harmattan haze descended on Lagos reducing visibility to almost zero, NAMA had no answer. Local flights were grounded; international flights heading to Lagos were diverted to neighbouring Togo, Senegal, Benin and Ghana.

Airlines and passengers suffered huge losses and inconveniences as the Minister of Aviation and his cohorts resorted to finger pointing and making platitude of excuses that were untenable in civilized climes.

That singular incident caused Nigeria very serious embarrassment globally and stood us out as a country of unserious people. Nigeria’s loss was gain for Ghana, a country that has been striving to position as a major aviation hub in the West African subregion.

Expectedly, most international airlines spurned the thought of even diverting to Abuja choosing instead to head to Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport in Accra while other headed towards Senegal, Benin Republic and Togo airports. Delta Airline, it was learnt took its passengers back to where the flight originated.

It is a shame that smaller countries mentioned above with very low passenger traffic took pains to provide the very basic of infrastructure making them the airports of choice in time of emergencies.

Nigeria, that prides herself as a major and busiest travel hub with a passenger traffic of about 7 million going by 2019 estimates and ranks 11th in Africa has shown clearly that it lacks the capacity to maintain the lead in the aviation sector and can not compete globally too.

Most airports in countries like Benin, Togo, Senegal, Ghana etc all have CAT 1, 2, 3 ILS installed which they use alternately as the need arises. But Nigeria opted to scrap the existing CAT 2 ILS that was in place without a replacement thereby making the airspace so vulnerable to unpredictable weather conditions.

It was learnt that NAMA decided after the January harmattan haze to remove the CAT 2 ILS covering Lagos in readiness for calibration which would lead to the installation of CAT 3 ILS. It turned out that the decision was wrong as the harmattan returned with uncanny ferocity bringing flights to a complete halt.

The six days that followed were a nightmare, when the weather suddenly changed, it reduced visibility to below the standard 800 meters minima to about 600 or less. Under this circumstance, airlines needed Instrument Landing System (ILS) to land at such low visibility.

But the installed ILS then was not functional and had actually been deactivated by NAMA in November 2019 in readiness to replace it with Category 3, which is a more advanced equipment than Cat 2. The difference is that while Cat 2 can take the pilot to 400 meters to the runway, Cat 3 can take the pilot to the runway at zero visibility.

While it is a great sigh of relief that the airport calibration has been carried out successfully and the CAT 3 ILS has been installed and certified, it needs to be repeated that NAMA exhibited very poor judgement when it removed the only CAT 2 ILS that covered the Lagos airport without a replacement.

To forestall a similar recurrence, since CAT 3 has wide coverage but very expensive to maintain; given our poor maintenance culture, I recommend that NAMA and the aviation ministry should installed CATs 1, 2 ILS in all the major airport to be used alternately according to the prevailing weather conditions at these airports.

The ministry and NAMA should ensure that all steps are taken to avoid a repeat of such an embarrassment to the country and to save both passengers and airlines from incurring huge losses and inconveniences in future.

Averagely, some airlines are estimated to have lost about N5 billion to the bad weather that lasted for about six days. The aviation agencies like the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), which charges about $50 per passenger on international flight and also charges for landing and parking lost huge revenue. NAMA lost en-route charges paid by both local and international carriers.