Changing narrative of Nigeria’s ‘abysmal’ airspace safety

There was a time when Nigerian airspace was rated among the worst in Africa, comparable to many others in this category on the continent. This was a terrible time in the country’s aviation history. The year between 1999 and 2005 was a terrible year for the country when planes fell from the sky. Air travel became a nightmare. Many had their hearts in their mouths every time they were billed for a trip.

The rapid succession of ADC, Sosoliso and Bellview accidents necessitated the declaration of an industry emergency. These accidents and many others showed that Nigeria was terribly behind when it came to flight safety. At this point, Nigeria had long had United States Federal Aviation Administration Category 2 status.

The appointment of Dr. Olusegun Demuren led to a major improvement in the country’s aviation industry with the help of various Aviation Ministers who gave autonomy support to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority through regulations. The NCAA has been revised to meet the challenges of modern aviation regulations combined with global standards.

Nigeria, through the efforts of the Demuren-led NCAA, has restored the country to its place of honor as it has the gaps to earn Aviation Category 1 status, which has propelled Nigeria into the league of major players in the global aviation industry.

The efforts of Arik Air, Nigeria’s largest airline at the time, deserve special mention. Arik served as a guinea pig to obtain category status for Nigeria; a situation that resulted in New York and other destinations around the world being named.

One agency that has continued to drag down the industry or has not been able to keep up with the rapid pace of other agencies such as the Accident Investigation Bureau and the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency is the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria. While the agency has recorded some feats, it has been slow to address some of aviation’s security challenges.

One of the agency’s downsides is that it has many airports that it handles despite declining revenues. Only four airports generate most of the income for the maintenance of more than 30 airfields.

The NAMA stands out. It is worth noting the remarkable work of former Chief Executive Officers, particularly the immediate former Managing Director, Capt. Folayele Akinkuotu. NAMA’s Acting MD, Mr. Lawrence Pwajok, has seamlessly continued and broken new ground in providing modern and seamless navigational safety tools.

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For several years, most navigation facilities were not only outdated but also grossly inadequate and posing a serious hazard to air travelers. Pilots at most airports were visibly annoyed with poor navigation aids. Aerodromes suffered from long periods of neglect, poor planning and wanton corruption that left the sector in a precarious position.

Pilots recalled their experiences every time they flew in the country’s airspace. They found it very difficult at one point to establish communications with the control tower due to the lack of effective radio communications coverage.

The poor state of the air traffic controller/pilot’s VHF communications coverage in the country’s airspace was conspicuous. Users were upset that if navigational aids could work in places like Togo, Ghana and Sao Tome, they wondered why the same equipment couldn’t work in Nigeria.

Careful planning by the Air Ministry and NAMA to change the way bad news is presented because it affects the country’s airspace security has resulted in a massive investment of over N32 billion and another $12.9 million to overhaul the airspace architecture.

Pwajok explained that while NAMA has noted the complaints from the Air Traffic Controllers Federation, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has a desire to list the various ongoing and completed projects at the country’s airports that focus on safety, efficiency, capacity and… target environment.

The NAMA chief stated that the ongoing deployment of surface motion radar and ground control systems in Lagos and Abuja would be completed in the first quarter of 2022, adding that the ongoing deployment of three-dimensional virtual tower simulators in Lagos would be completed by December 2021.

The Agency has also deployed a Traffic Sequencing Manager – Arrivals Manager and Departures Manager with an Automated Clearance System in Lagos and Abuja due for completion in December 2021 and the deployment of a Wide Area Multilateration Surveillance System for low-flying helicopters in the Gulf of Guinea completed in February 2022. This Project costs over N3bn.

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Others include the procurement of two new mobile control towers, delivered for Lagos and Abuja and commissioned in June 2021, valued at over N1.7 billion, the procurement of two additional mobile control towers for Kano and Port Harcourt, the were delivered in December 2021, also worth over N 1.7 billion emergency use.

Also envisaged are the automation of the Katsina control tower completed in September 2020, the automation of the Zaria control tower completed in October 2020, the procurement of new flight calibration aircraft delivered in August 2019, the upgrade of the Safe Tower project in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt, valued at over N13 billion, which would provide software and hardware upgrades including new voice communications and control systems and furniture, is in the works.

The upgrade and automation of 12 control towers across the country is also expected to provide voice communication systems, ATC electronic patrol management systems are in the works and expected to be completed in 2022.

Procurement of control tower cabins for five new control towers, including Kaduna and Enugu airports, to be completed by December 2022, with factory acceptance testing of the equipment being carried out in the UK on 20-24 October 2021 by the Air Force, the FAAN, and NAMA- Officer.

NAMA successfully installed Cat III ILS systems on Lagos 18R and Abuja Runway 22 in February 2020. The same has been done for Lagos 18R, Kano, Kaduna, Benin, Jos, Enugu, Port-Harcourt, Minna, Maiduguri, Sokoto, Yola , Akure, Ilorin, Zaria between 2020 and 2021. There is also the successful installation of a new doppler VOR in Lagos, Kano, Jos, Maiduguri, Benin, Ilorin, Yola, Minna and Port Harcourt between 2020 and 2021.

We have completed the recruitment of 40 Air Traffic Control cadets in two groups who are currently undergoing ATC training at the Nigerian College of Technology, Zaria. There is an ongoing overhaul and refurbishment of the overall radar coverage, which is expected to be completed this year. The ongoing AIS automation project was due to be completed in December 2021, with the VSATs installed at 24 airports and the ATS message processing system fully installed at Lagos and Kano to replace the old AFTN.

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Performance-based navigation has been successfully implemented at 32 airports with RNAV approach procedures, as well as PBN standard instrument departure routes and standard arrival routes (SIDs and STARs) implemented at Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt.

PBN BARO vertical guidance VNAV approaches have been implemented in Lagos, Abuja and Kano, while Port Harcourt and Enugu are due for completion by December 2021. The agency has successfully implemented 20 PBN RNAV regional routes across Nigeria to improve the efficiency of flight operations.

Pwajok said: “There are a lot of things that we have achieved. We have completed on-the-job training for ATC licenses/ratings for over 200 air traffic controllers at airports, approaches and area airways radar and non-radar control, trained 200 air traffic controllers and engineers in safety management systems in 2019 and conducted special training for air traffic controllers on PBN , Air Traffic Flow Management, Airport Collaborative Decision Making, Data Link Communication System for Air Traffic Controllers and Strategic Planning for Air Traffic Management in Dubai in 2020”.

“There is search and rescue equipment procurement for Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Ilorin, Sokoto and Maiduguri in 2020, just as we successfully conducted WGS 84 resurveys at 15 airports between 2020 and 2021 to provide the Improving the accuracy of terrain and obstacle data for the safety of flight operations.”

The agency successfully reviewed flight procedures at 19 airports between 2020 and 2021 to improve the safety and efficiency of flight operations and installed standalone Jotron radio systems in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt to provide backup air/ground voice communications deploy systems.

Although there is notable improvement in air traffic management in the country with facilities installed, the agency is urged not to rest on its oars to ensure there is continuous improvement in the country’s air traffic control.

  • Ola, an aviation consultant, writes from Lagos; 08149087637

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