Akinkuotu: NAMA Lost 90% of Income to COVID-19

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Fola Akinkuotu

The Managing Director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), Captain Fola Akinkuotu said that the devastation caused by COVID-19 in the aviation industry affected the agency’s revenue. He talked about his management is doing everything possible to improve navigational, surveillance and communication services to the aviation industry. H spoke exclusively to Chinedu Eze. Excerpts:

Air traffic controllers recently demanded for more personnel, saying that there is paucity of controllers, which tend to stretch the work done by each person. What is your take on this?
Don’t forget that the training of Air Traffic Controllers takes time, they have to go to the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NNCAT), Zaria and it is not a one week training. And when they finish in Zaria, they still have to do “on the job training” (OJT) and acquire the certifications to be able to do the different categories of Air Traffic Control. So it is a continuous effort and so long as new airports are being built, we have to continue to train.

And because of the time it takes to train air traffic controllers, it might look as if we don’t have enough. Added to this is the fact that airports are being built by states and individuals and private companies. But as for trainings we are training them. I don’t quite agree when you say the number of the personnel is depleting. Retired Air Traffic Controllers are also been re-engaged to bridge the gap continuously

The pace of demand for air traffic controllers is high because of the new airports that are being built by states and the fact that those building the airports don’t consult NAMA when they are building. So you have to give them ATC personnel to work with, which means it reduces what you already have in the other airports. Do you have any plan to now begin to engage them or insist that before they build an airport they must have to talk to the aviation agencies and the Ministry of Aviation?

It is not like we were not told but like I said; the timing and the timelines are not under our control. If state X decides to build an airport, I don’t know how long it is going to take them. So in terms of scientific planning, you have to have all the variables to be able to project that. But despite that; we are able to provide air traffic services wherever we are needed. And because we continue to train, we continue to reduce the insufficiency of the controllers.

From day one, the Air Traffic Controller said the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) doesn’t have enough redundancies, that if anything happens to the equipment now, controllers will resort to procedural, which will cause to delays and reduce the aircraft in the airspace. I know that you negotiated a deal with Thales of France, which manufactured the equipment, how far has it gone? And the redundancies, is there anything you are going to do about them or any plan for upgrade by Thales?

All those things are in the pipeline; they are currently being worked on. Like you talked about spare parts, the agreement with Thales expired in 2014. We negotiated and got them back when I got in. So we are getting spares from them now and therefore we are able to keep the system going. And because of the efforts of our engineers and the fact that we are getting equipment there has been no breakdown in that system we are continuously improving on the state and capability of surveillance. Sometimes when we think there is a breakdown in the TRACON system, it is not that there is a breakdown; sometimes they have to do what is called procedural training for Air Traffic Controllers.

We have to train for circumstances when there is no radar. And we don’t expect that is it is going to happen. Like in the airline, they will tell you that in the unlikely event of the landing in water, they are telling you what you may have to do but nobody has ditched in water. We have to do this training as part of contingency training programme. So during those times they will do procedural training. It doesn’t mean that the radar is not on. And when traffic gets heavy and the air traffic controllers revert back to radar systems. In terms of redundancy, we have plans to have a backup system in radar systems globally and right across Africa.

It is not as if there is an urgency to have an expensive system sitting idle. But the Federal government has plans to provide backup systems even if we know that the chances for the need for the backup are not quite as crucial. And in terms of upgrade, presently we are reconditioning. Re-conditioning is to repair and replace faulty modules in order to make the system work optimally. And then we have the upgrade, which is also following up to ensure that the radar system meets all new standards and all new technologies that are available.

Recently, your agency complained of destruction of your facilities at some airports, how have you been managing the situation, knowing how critically important those facilities are. What actions have you taken?
Well, first of all, when something is damaged for you to stay at par with what you have before, you replace them. So when they are vandalized, we replace them, when they cut cables and they cut the optical fibre cables, we replace them. So we are consistently making efforts, using our spares, using our knowhow to make sure that the damaged items are replaced or repaired. So that is what we are doing. Additionally we also try to fortify security around our facilities with collaboration from security agencies within the airport.

Let’s look at your internally generated revenue (IGR), what is the improvement level looking at the base in 2019?
Well, I will rather use the base of 2015 when I was not there. Just like when you compare the price of crude oil in 2015 to now, obviously there has been significant reduction. So because of global economy, the IGR income of NAMA did reduce, at least from 2015 figures to 2019. In 2017 it kind of stabilized, 2017 to 2019. But just when things were about to improve COVID-19 came. And COVID-19 has had such negative effect on the aviation industry very significantly. As a matter of fact, the first quarter of 2020, we lost at least 90 per cent of our income due to COVID-19.

And don’t forget that in all these times, we still have to provide air traffic management systems. We still have to be up to the task as far as air navigation service provision was concerned. So airplanes still came in, even if it was reduced and even if it is one airplane coming in, you still have to have air traffic control, you still have to have the navigation systems there. Of course, you know that a lot of our navigation systems are powered by generators. So here you have significant income reduction and increase in our expenditure.

Because of COVID-19, now you have to provide sanitizers, mask and you have to run all your stations. Definitely like you said, if we use 2019 as base, we have lost significant amount, and just when you think it is going to bottom out, then you talk about another Covid-19 variant. So, COVID-19 has hurt the aviation industry and it is continuing.

Can we have what you spent powering your equipment both in and outside Lagos?
It runs into billions of naira. Like I said, the cost of diesel has gone up and a lot of our navigational equipment are not exactly in town. So those, which are in remote stations we have to power it, places like Obubura, Wukari, places that most Nigerians don’t even know exist, we have to power them. And even the one that are in the city, at the airports, you cannot have a failure of power to your navigational equipment because it is going to impact on the ability of airplanes to be able to land. Don’t forget that you don’t put them on just when an airplane is coming, they are running all the time, 24/7.

You are no more using French-speaking West African company ASECNA for calibration, since the federal government acquired aircraft for calibration or do you still use them?
Well, since we acquired our airplane, by and large we have been using it. The Federal government acquired the aircraft for calibration and we have been using the airplane for calibration. We just did another round of calibration last week. The aircraft we use is ours, but because it can go for maintenance periodically, we ought to have alterative. In such situation we can use ASECNA SERVICES.

There have been some reactions about the long absence of airfield lighting at the Runway 18L, the domestic runway of the Lagos airport. Did NAMA provide airfield lighting at any time?
Well, the thing is that the Federal government, the Ministry of Aviation, determines which agency controls air traffic light. There was a time before my time, when it was placed under NAMA but it has since reverted to FAAN.

Let’s look at our aviation generally, what progress done in the industry would you say are discerning at this time? We have achieved safety so far so good, but can you encapsulate the advancements made since you came around and since this administration?

Obviously there has been tremendous growth, a mere, look around and you see how many ILS (instrument landing systems) we have installed at the airports. We have even installed the advanced Category 3 ILS at Abuja and Lagos airports and we have three additional ones that are coming this year. The cost of ILS category 3 is not chicken change. It is huge. The cost of radio communication system installed in NAMA is a great investment. The Federal government has spent billions of naira.

Your aeronautical services service, which you said it, is at advanced stage, what is your projected time of completion and what will be the benefits?
Well, number one is, except for COVID-19, that project should have been completed a long time ago, given the same amount of efforts and commitment that we are putting in now. Having said that; I have projected that it would have ended by last year, then COVID-19 came. And a lot of expatriates who are supposed to come could not travel into the country. We could not go there and they could not come here, so that has not helped matters. We are hoping that by the end of this year it should be completed. And quite a good measure of it, at least significant part of it has been completed. The benefit of that is that when it is completed it is going to be a one-stop-shop of providing aeronautical information services to our customers and all stakeholders. It will improve communication; like I said, it will be a one-stop-shop for pilot information and for all stakeholders. It will be an all-round winner in every respect.

NAMA usually says it does not earn revenue per say, that what is does is cost recovery, and most of the agencies in the industry would talk about cost recovery; even the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET). So how do you cope with paying 25 per cent of your IGR to the federal government?

When we say cost recovery it meets ICAO International Civil Aviation Organization) standard that we are providing a service and we are allowed to do cost recovery, so there is really no profit. I don’t think we should pay to the Federal government, as a matter of fact. Let us imagine that we are in a particular year, where there is no new replacement of equipment, there is no new requirement for us to put in more money, so if our financial requirement is low, I think we should pass the benefit to the airlines and the stakeholders. So if there is going to be reduction then we should do a reduction to the airlines and our customers. So that airfares can come down and we can have an increase in the volume of people who travel. My opinion will be that the agencies should be allowed to use the money for the purpose of which is of benefit to the industry. It is cost recovery. So the money that you get, you should be able to plough it back into the system. It is not as if you are gaining something for profit.

You do collaborate with NIMET. Does it involve financial transactions?
Yes,
And do you pay for the serves they give you?

We give some of our income to NIMET
What do you think can be done to bring down airfares in domestic flight operations?
There are a number of factors that contribute to that. Fuel price, for example, maintenance cost, the cost of acquiring foreign exchange, the cost of leasing equipment, those are variables that you have to look at. Can we bring the cost of fuel down? Can we help in the reduction of maintenance cost? Can we make foreign exchange readily available at numbers that are good? Can we get interest rates down for the airlines to be able to access funds? Can we do something to reduce insurance premium? Those are the things that we need to look at.

Do you think availability of equipment plays a role in it?
Of course yes, and it depends, if you have old aeroplanes flying around, the maintenance cost is higher. So somebody has to pay for the higher maintenance cost. If you have newer airplanes, they are more fuel efficient. You have reduction in cost of fuel.

There is this controversy that we may not really be recording growth especially on the airline side because airlines come and go. So do you think we are growing in terms of airlines?
We are growing. Don’t let us count the airline, but count the aircraft. Because you can have one major airline and have 100 airplanes, would you say we have not grown? You cannot say we have not grown. Pre-COVID-19, there was a time Arik Air had about over 30 aeroplanes. When Nigeria Airways was king, it had just about 30 aeroplanes too. So here you have one airline having over 30 aeroplanes, which is equal to what Nigeria Airways had. At that same time you have Aero Contractors, Chanchangi, Azman Air, Medview Airlines. But then when some of these airlines dropped out of the picture, Air Peace came and Air Peace pre-COVID had over 30 aeroplanes.

So the available aircraft have increased, so there is growth and available figures even as quoted many times by the Minister shows that there is increase in what aviation is contributing to the GDP. A lot of people are traveling by air now because they feel safer flying it and they see the advantage of flying. So, the question or the issue you are trying to raise is how come when we had 20 airlines we didn’t have higher number of aircraft, but we have 16 airlines but the number of aircraft and available seats have increased.

How do you see the manpower growth?
I think there is an increase in the growth of manpower. Manpower requirement is like any product or any item. Sometimes you have sufficiency and sometimes you have insufficiency. But overall there has been growth. I understand that there are a number of pilots now who are without jobs.

So can you say that if they don’t have jobs, does that mean that there is a shortage of manpower?
Some people are of the opinion that the core of the people still holding the industry are those who left Nigeria Airways?

That is true because Nigeria Airways provided everything. There has to be a nucleus, there has to be somewhere where we all started. The population of Nigeria today is 180-200 million but there was a time we were 55 million. The growth happened on those that existed. So when you look at Nigeria Airway, Nigeria Airways provided training, for the nucleus, I mean the first set of pilots in this country were trained by Nigeria Airways. They declared interest and Nigeria Airways continue to train, and as the industry grows, the airlines came in and they too had to continue training. Other people and private companies also started training. So we can’t expect that Nigeria Airways people will be there forever, they will have to pass on the torch.
So we are training people since I have been in NAMA, year in, year out we have been training people.

It has been hoped that NAMA should have the need equipment that can enable airlines to fly when there is reduced visibility during the rainy season and during the harmattan season. What has the agency achieved so far?

During raining season too you can have reduced visibility, but usually it doesn’t rain straight for hours. So reduced visibility in rain is not for a very long time at least comparatively. Compared to when it is like harmmatan. So based on that the effects are not exactly the same.
But to address your question, I think what we need to do is, in terms of landing aids, is to say we would put ILS in every airport. I believe we have ILS in virtually all our airports and definitely in all the major airports. ILS has categories, Category 3, of course, is the best but they are expensive. And when you do a cost benefit analysis, even globally, they don’t have category 3 in every airport. But the major airports, it will be beneficial to have ILS category 3 in all the major airports, which is what we are trying to do.

We have already installed it in Abuja and Lagos, we are planning for Kano, Port Harcourt and Enugu and Katsina in the next sequence and gradually we will expand it into other places: Sokoto, Maiduguri, but they will have to come in phases because they are not cheap, anyway. And landing aids are not the only things crying for help, there is health, there is education, defense, so I believe we will do it in phases. Like I said we will put in every major airport; that will enhance the ability for airplanes to be able to land in poor weather conditions.
How do you fund your major projects?

The funding for major projects are dependent on the Federal government largely because our IGR is not sufficient to be able to take all the burden of some of the cost of putting ILS all over the country.

How would you define the status of Nigeria’s airspace in terms of safety and modern facilities?
Well the safety of Nigeria airspace is known to all of us. I mean in the last six, seven, eight years in civil aviation we have not had any major accident. So based on those reports alone we would say it is safe. And this is because of the improvements that have come year in, year out in terms of facilities, in terms of regulations, in terms of equipment, in terms of training, and in terms of the airlines abiding to the dictates of safety. So it is not just one agency, I think it is the industry at large.

Airlines say obsolete and inadequate facilities impede on their on time flight operations. When you were flying did you experience the same thing or will you say the facilities have been decaying over the years without attendant efforts to upgrade them?

It is obviously an unfair statement to say that equipment is obsolete. I know that in NAMA since 2017, I know for certain, we have at least replaced not less than seven or eight ILSs. In addition to the ones that existed we brought in new ones and we really went one step further in putting ILS category 3 in two airports – Abuja and Lagos.

And we are bringing in another three ILSs category 3s into the system to replace the existing category 2s. So to say obsolete equipment is almost laughable. So what happened to the replacement we did in Lagos? Two new ILSs in Lagos, one is a category 2; the other is a category 3. A brand new ILS category 3 in Abuja, new ILS in Kano, new ILS in Kaduna, new ILS in Benin, new ILS in Enugu. Are the new ones suddenly obsolete? And in terms of radio, we have brought in radios into Lagos, Kano, into many, many stations. And presently we are making efforts to complete the AIS and the VSAT programme across the country.

Available report has it that the northern sector has been completed and we are moving into the southern sector. This is industry wide, NIMET has put new equipment, they have put in Doppler radars, wind share equipment, new facilities are being built into the airport terminals. When I was flying many years ago there was not even an ILS in Lagos. And now we have ILSs everywhere, obviously the situation has improved tremendously. Ask the pilots who are flying currently, that where is it that they don’t have ILS that they fly to? And these ILS were not there nationwide when I was flying. I am not saying there were no ILSs but not nationwide. And when I started flying maybe they were not there.

What level of work have you done on the multi laceration project in the Niger Delta?
It is progressing quite well, slower than I expected but that is because deployment of equipment.