Air travellers have continued to complain about the increase in flight delays. Chinedu Eze spoke to industry experts who identified the causes and possible solutions to these challenges
When the airports reopened in July last year, for domestic flight operations after the coronavirus lockdown, airlines and industry workers were skeptical and believed that travellers would shun the airports.
Contrary to that expectation, there was growing passenger traffic that within few weeks the airports returned to their hustle and bustle.
The airlines began to face another kind of challenge: limited seat supply.
After the lockdown the roads became increasingly unsafe so Nigerians who could afford it chose to travel by air.
That explained the passenger surge at the airports weeks after the resumption of flights. Business that suffered many weeks of lethargy after the lift of the lockdown began to pick up, just as government agencies reopened for business.
All these ratcheted up economic activities all over the country with interlude of slowdown during the #endSARS crisis.
During the lockdown, airlines placed their aircraft on storage and continued to maintain them, hoping for resumption of flights.
During that time also, there were aircraft that were due for mandatory checks but could not be ferried out of the country to maintenance facilities overseas. Some aircraft had already left the country for maintenance but could not come back during the lockdown.
Almost all Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities were also on lockdown so the aircraft on maintenance were left unattended, as the engineers went home to wait out the COVID-19 menace with their families.
By the time flight operations resumed, some airlines did not have enough aircraft because those taken out for checks were yet to return and some of those taken out of storage that resumed flight service were now due for mandatory checks.
THISDAY learnt that it was the dilemma Air Peace faced and is still facing. Many of its aircraft were taken out for maintenance and are yet to return, having passed the projected dates of delivery.
This has affected the operations of the airline, as it had to reduce the number of routes it flies and also the frequency.
Spokesman of the airline, Stanley Olisa told THISDAY that the airline was awaiting many of its aircraft taken out for maintenance to return, just as the new ones, Embraer E195E-2 are being delivered.
According to him, as the aircraft return, the airline would return to its old flight schedules. He also explained that in the past, Air Peace used to keep one or two aircraft on standby in case of the aircraft in operation develops technical problem and has to be grounded.
The ones on standby would be deployed to continue servicing the scheduled routes.
But such is now a luxury because the airline and others don’t have enough equipment to meet passenger demand.
So when aircraft goes on AOG (aircraft on ground) it causes delay because each aircraft has been scheduled to service given destinations.
But Olisa stressed that the situation is temporary and would soon be a thing of the past.
The lockdown might have affected the delivery of the airline’s new planes. Three of the new planes were scheduled to arrive the country on March 17, in June and July to normalise its operations.
THISDAY also learnt that beside the unfortunate pandemic, the constraint of getting forex to meet timely payment obligations is also a huge factor militating against smooth operations of domestic airlines.
Writing on the impact of Coronavirus pandemic and projection of the aviation industry in Nigeria for 2021-26, online aviation magazine, Mordor Intelligence, noted that Nigerian airlines are facing difficulty in maintenance of their aircraft overseas due to delays in the maintenance facility and the challenge of raising funds to pay for the service of these aircraft in forex scarcity.
Managing Director, 7 Star Global Aircraft Maintenance Hangar and former President of the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), Isaac Balami, told THISDAY that once an airline ferries its aircraft overseas for maintenance, it would not know exactly when it would return.
This reality was exacerbated by the COVID-19 challenges as companies battle to return to normal with full personnel output.
THISDAY learnt that many aircraft taken to MRO facilities are still there awaiting checks because Covid-19 lockdown affected the work schedule of those facilities.
Balami said other factors that could retard the return of aircraft from maintenance was forex scarcity.
“You cannot say the number of days or weeks the aircraft will stay in the maintenance facility; you keep the crew in hotel, pay them allowances, provide feeding and many other issues.
“So we are calling on government to look inwards and see how it will help the industry to grow. Things are tough and we have done our best, thinking that government will look our way to give us some support so that we have a good maintenance facility locally,” he said.
Travel expert and organiser of Akwaba African Travel Market, Ikechi Uko told THISDAY that the Nigerian passenger has been pushed to be cynical to any official communication emanating from the airlines due to the many years of flight delays and cancellation. They come to the airport apprehensive.
“When you try to explain to the passenger, he may not believe you. He has become skeptical over the past 15 years. The Nigerian passenger has been beaten black and blue, so he has lost the goodwill of giving airlines the benefit of the doubt. It is a difficult situation for the passenger,” he said.
But the former CEO of Aero Contractors, Captain Ado Sanusi told THISDAY that no airline would like to delay flights because what airlines sell are speed and safety.
He said that some delays are 100 per cent beyond the airlines’ control, but how the airlines handle such matters is another thing and this includes how the airline communicates the delay to the passenger.
“Most of the delays are technical matter, operational issues that are beyond the airline, like the infrastructure at the airport, which may hamper the processing of passenger, but how the airline communicates this to the passenger is important.
“In Nigeria passengers are very, very angry but when they travel overseas and there is similar delays or even cancelation of flights they do not get so angry and overreact.
“But we have to also look at the operational environment. If the passengers are in air-conditioned environment, that is serene and conducive, the passenger may not be so angry.
“Also, if when an airline cancels a flight and you take that airline’s ticket to another airline and get it endorsed and travel with the same ticket, passengers will not be angry.
“But the reality in Nigeria is that passengers buy their tickets late so they buy them at high cost and then you cancel the flight and it is not that he will get his money back immediately.
“It will take time before he gets it back so he becomes frustrated and angry,” Sanusi said.
He agreed that interlining among Nigerian carriers would help the passengers.
Why Airlines Delay Flights
The Managing Director, Flight and Logistics Solutions, Amos Akpan, identified reasons why airlines delay flights. These include weather, Notice to Air Men (NOTAM), unavailability of aviation fuel, unserviceable aircraft, computersied scheduling and daylight airports. He said there could develop severe bad weather conditions that would make the aeronautical authority like the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) to shut a particular airport, airfield, or airspace (usually a defined geographic area). In this case all operators would be so advised by NOTAM.
He said sometimes the fuel companies are unable to supply fuel to operators on time due to logistics hiccups.
“This can happen at departing/flight originating station or transit station. This will delay the flight causing shifts in its scheduled time. The solution to this issue is proactive preparations by the flight dispatchers; this involves intelligence gathering from all inputs hours before the flight check-in commences so that you can activate alternate procedures as contained in the airlines operational specifications,” he explained.
Akpan noted that many times aircraft could develop faults that were not considered in the planning.
“If that fault is in the list of items the manufacturers has stated as “no go item”. That aircraft will stay on ground until that fault is rectified,” he said.
On the computerised scheduling, Akpan explained, “This is a set up to fail in Nigeria. Let us illustrate with presidential movements. If you operate a Lagos – Abuja – Lagos morning flight, your estimate is to depart Lagos by 7am and arrive back in Lagos by 10am.
“This means you can reschedule same aircraft for an 11:30am departure from Lagos. The oddity here is that aircraft may still be on ground Abuja at 11:30am if there is a presidential movement.
“Our government closes the station’s airspace usually two hours before the president departs and one hour after the president departs. Other countries have what is called the “blue corridor” in their airspace where presidential and special flights are directed through.
“The solution for the airline is to have standby aircraft to take 11:30am flight; you reroute the aircraft that was delayed in Abuja. This means you don’t delay the planned 11:30am flight.
“If you have four aircraft, the recommendation is to have a full scheduled utilisation of three and a quarter aircraft. This way you minimise the chances of confusion, delay, and cancellation when one aircraft is out.
“The matrix that computerised scheduling produces is a recipe for confusion and prolonged delays in Nigerian domestic flight operations because the operations personnel only start to replan after the damage has been done.”
Akpan explained that this applies to airports that aircraft takeoff and landing is restricted to daytime: 6am to 6pm.
“This is the consequence of lack of night operations facilities in the airport. No runway lights and other support/safety services are uncertified or unavailable for night flight operations.
“For safety reasons, airline operators must schedule their flights within the time given. When an aircraft is withdrawn from service without notice, the airline tries to operate flights to daylight airports first so as to meet the 6:00 pm closure. This brings us back to planning your aircraft utilisation, taking the environment into consideration,” Akpan said.
The airlines told THISDAY that in the coming weeks some aircraft ferried out of the country for maintenance would return to resume operations, while Air Peace would have delivered four brand new aircraft by July 2021.