Despite Improvement on Aeronautical Facilities, Harmattan May Hamper Flight Operations at Christmas, Says Expert  

Chinedu Eze

The expected hope that this year will be different from the previous years, in terms of flight disruptions during Christmas season due to the harmattan haze has been dimmed, as THISDAY learnt that there could be flight cancellations this season, due to bad weather, despite the improvement on aeronautical facilities.

In the previous years, daylight flights were cancelled due to low visibility occasioned by the harmattan, but the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) said that due to the installation of facilities, the upgrade of equipment, there would be improvement this year, as less number of flights would be cancelled.

Former Managing Director of NAMA, Captain Fola Akinkuotu told THISDAY recently that modern aeronautical equipment, including Category 3 Instrument Landing System (ILS) could significantly improve visibility that aircraft can land in thick haze.

“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,” he said.

However, industry expert and the Secretary General of Aviation Round Table (ART), Group Captain John Ojikutu is not so optimistic. He told THISDAY that harmattan would have impact on flights landings day and night this year if there are no compliance to the periodic maintenance on the critical safety landing aids such as the ILS that require periodic maintenance of their calibrations every six months and the VOR (Voice Ominidirectional Radio Range) for 12 months; saying that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is expected to verify these alongside NAMA.

“I just hope we won’t have the experience of last year this year,” he said.

Ojikutu also noted that shortage of air traffic controllers (ATC) would definitely cause stress on the few that are available to do the work.

But top official of NAMA told THISDAY that this year there would be less flight disruptions due to weather because the agency has deployed landing aids that would guide flights landing and takeoff, even in low visibility.

“Right now we don’t have weather issues. If there is flight delays or cancelation the airlines will have to explain because weather is relatively okay now. This year should be a better year because most of the airports in Nigeria today have Instrument Landing System (ILS), which is about navigation,” the official said.

According to him, NAMA deployed R-NAV equipment, which is a method of instrument flight rules navigation that allows an aircraft to choose any course within a network of navigation beacons, rather than navigate directly to and from the beacons. This can conserve flight distance, reduce congestion, and allow flights into airports without beacons.

The agency has also deployed Performance Based Navigation (PBN), which is the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) equipment that specifies that aircraft required navigation performance and area navigation systems defined in terms of accuracy, integrity and availability. So under RNAV, the equipment used to achieve the navigation accuracy is specified. Under PBN, the Required Navigation Performance is specified and it is up to the operator to achieve that performance.

But the modern equipment, THISDAY learnt, must have corresponding equipment in the aircraft for optimum performance and some of the aircraft operating on domestic routes do not have such on-board equipment. Also, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) gives approval for the weather minima of every airport. So, while some aircraft can land at low visibility at the airports, they must follow the weather minima specified and approved by NCAA. Few years ago, NCAA approved 300 meters Runway Visual Range (RVR) for 14 airports from 800 meters RVR.

“We have done what we call R-NAV procedures in all the airports in Nigeria, including the smallest airport, Osubi. This is to enable airlines use our navigational facilities. We have done Performance Based Navigation and some airlines that have modern aircraft are benefitting from it. The landing aids at the airports are doing well; so if there is flight cancellation, don’t attribute it to NAMA,” the official said.

THISDAY also learnt that there are other factors that hamper flight operations beyond weather during the Christmas season and this include daylight airports that use Visual Flight Rule (VFR) and are shut down by 6:00 pm because there is no airfield lighting and many airports are under that status.

“Some airlines schedule flights to these airports late and may not have time to officially request for extension of time so they can land and when they do this, ATC will not give them start up to leave the airport of departures o they would be forced to cancel the flight. Besides, when there is no airfield lighting the ILS usage may not be maximized. For example, for you to fully utilise Category 3 ILs, you must have Category 3 airfield lighting. The Minister of Aviation directed that the Lagos and Abuja airports should be installed with Category 3 airfield lighting and they are fully in operation,” the official further said.

THISDAY gathered that in 2018, flight operations did not take place on December 21, 22 and 23, as airlines had to reschedule their flights at huge cost and enormous discomfort to passengers. Similarly, in 2019, there were disruptions but not as severe as the previous year and in 2020 there were delays. Harmattan haze did not disrupt flight like in the past years, but due to weather changes, it is unpredictable if this year could get worse and that is why industry observers said that efficient landing aids are the answer to the intemperate weather changes.

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