The Managing Director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, Captain Fola Akinkuotu, has said flight cancellations and delays can be overcome with modern navigational aids, but there is no permanent solution to weather challenges in the airspace. He spoke to Chinedu Eze. Excerpts:
This Christmas like the December of other years, Harmattan haze disrupted flights, which led to cancellations and delays. What is the permanent solution to this problem?
You see, weather is in God’s hand. We intend to localise our issues. It is true that we have bad weather here but that does not preclude why we should proffer solutions, but when you say, how we can solve the problem permanently. I doubt if that is possible. On December 11 and 12, 2017 weather paralysed air activities in Europe. A lot of flights were cancelled. The same thing happened in the United States and these are supposed to be such advanced countries. What happened over there was not attributed to computer glitch; no. It was attributed to weather. I am putting this in perspective so that we should continue to try hard to enhance our navigation and approach facilities, but we cannot get to the stage we can totally eradicate adverse weather. We can even have a slow blizzard. We can have, God forbid, a hurricane or even a typhoon. We can have a weather situation that can make an airport inaccessible. The solution to Harmattan haze is not so difficult. The problem is how a flight can make approach to the airport in all weather and all situations; so how will the pilot go? So we should put the facilities there. There are different categories of facilities. Technology in the past put us at Instrument Landing System (ILS) Category 3 but also technology has also put in Performance Based Navigation (PBN).
So these are the options that we have. Of course, PBN is a bit more recent. In the paper I delivered recently in Canada, we looked at the issue of leapfrogging. Leapfrogging is to skip intermediate positions from where you are in terms of technology advancement and embrace the latest technology to solve your problem. For example, let us just say that the level of navigation at the airports is still at the stage of VOR (Voice Omni directional Radio Range, which is a type of short-range radio navigation system to enable aircraft determine its position and stay on course) and at the Benin airport you said, let us just put ILS Category one there and then later I put category two and later I put category three, but you can circumvent all these by putting Performance Based Navigation there. Category three ILS and PBN will enhance our ability to overcome current weather challenges; we require certain things to put these in order. We have to meet certain requirements both infrastructural as well as installation of equipment and what the customer, that is the airlines will have to install. One of the equipment that has been preached a lot is for us to have Category three (Cat 3) ILS. We have approval to install Category 3 ILS in some airports. If we had been able to be cleared by the Due Process Office, we would have installed ILS Category three at the Lagos airport by now. If we had ILS Cat 3 it will bring the given visibility minimum lower, but that also depends on the kind of Category three ILS you have, aircraft can land at zero visibility.
There will be other requirements for this to work. One is power. There must be uninterrupted power supply or if there could be power failure, within seconds it is restored. You have to be able to protect the environment such that the signals cannot be affected by any wayward interference, so the airport needs perimeter fencing. So it requires light. The approach light for ILS Category One is different from Category three. So those things are what you have to put in place in terms of infrastructure.
It is okay for NAMA to just install ILS but there are things that have to go with it. Also on the side of the airlines, the airplanes must have to meet certain requirements. They will need to have dual autopilot. This is because when you are flying zero visibility in Category three ILS, the pilot is not handling the situation; it is machines that will be doing the landing and takeoff. So there should be dual autopilot functioning in the airplane. The pilot has to be trained so that he will be able to fly in the dark and rely on the machines. The pilot has to be trained regularly for it. This can be done with simulator training. The onboard equipment has to meet the requirement. Those are the things that have to be put in place by the airline. These include the issues of onboard equipment, the training required. One of the technology innovations that have come up are things like the Performance Based Navigation. This has also lowered the visibility minimums. We have it in 18 of our airports but as we speak only the foreign carriers utilise it because of the kind of corresponding equipment that they have onboard their airplanes. We have PBN at least in 18 of our airports. Arik Air is the only indigenous carrier that benefits from it. They can fly to lower minimums so long as their pilots are trained. But they have approval to utilise their onboard equipment and use PBN.
Can’t NAMA give timeline under which the indigenous airlines should be made to install corresponding PBN equipment in their aircraft so that they could utilise the facility and benefit from low visibility landing and takeoff and can’t the federal government involve the state governments in funding facilities at airports located in those states?
Giving timeline to airlines will help, but NAMA is not the regulator. So we cannot give directives. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is aware and it is only the agency that can give such directive. So whether or not that is the way to go will be decided by the regulator. Pertaining to power, we had reported earlier that we are putting solar panels in a lot of our airports; not only because of outages but also because of the cost of generating power from generators. There are some navigational aids in some stations that run on generators for 24/7. There are certain remote sites of navigational aids that we have to power all the time by generators. So to lower the cost of operations for us, we started installing solar panels in 2017. Of course if we have power from the grid the solar panel will complement public power supply. But then we have to make sure we perfect the system. Solar technology is good and it would be cheaper for us but we have to understand the underlying technology. To take power from the sun we have to energise the panels and store energy in batteries to supply the power when they are required. Because sometime the sun may not be up in the sky it becomes necessary to store solar power in batteries so that it can be utilised at anytime. The power demand by the equipment is 24/7. So solar can serve as effective alternative. Also involving the states in funding navigational aids is good. In fact, some states have talked to us. Edo state, for example, has talked to us and we are now working with the state to enhance navigational and approach facilities at the Benin airport. But another challenge in the state’s support to airport development could be thwarted by the indigenes of the state, as we experienced in one southern state where the state government wanted to dedicate land for installation of navigational aids but the host community refused, insisting they must be compensated with outrageous amount of money. The amount mentioned for the compensation was so large that it would be difficult for the state to pay it.
I have been having discussions recently with some of the states where part of the land that NAMA has is being encroached on and we are telling the people not to do that because the land has been acquired so that we can put navigational aids (NAVAIDS) there to improve flight safety. But the people are defiant and continue to encroach on the land. In some cases they encroach on the land and compromise our ability to enhance and improve on safety. In some cases also you have a situation where because of the compensation they may be demanding from government, the state government would find itself in a difficult situation to do anything. Yes, we are interacting with some state governments. Talking with them is a good idea because you will have to be in a situation where we have to synergise so that we can fix this problem as quickly as possible.
The recent allegation that some people are stealing from aircraft taxiing on the runway at the Lagos, is there any possibility that the control tower can collaborate with aviation security (AVSEC) to identify such movement on the runway?
Yes, we can work with AVSEC and we do work with them. We are not a standalone we all work together. The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and NAMA are all service providers and we work together to enhance safety, but sometimes it is a matter of the area. The airport area is quite large. In the dark, yes you can see an aircraft on the runway taxiing because you know they have lights, both navigation light and position light so you will be able to see them; but you may not see men of the underworld around. If we do see them, of course we would alert the authorities. If we have CCTV it would be possible to see all the angles of the airport or the controller has binoculars and once a pilot notices that people are milling round his airplane he will tell control tower and control tower will inform AVSEC immediately.
In addition to PBN what are other installations NAMA has made to improve safety in the airspace and enhance flights operation?
We have achieved much in terms of providing power. We have been able to power the NAVAIDS and now we want to use solar panels to lower the cost of providing electricity to these installations. Some of the other things we have done include trying to improve on our radar systems such that we are able to give vectors to safe flight time for airlines. If an airline can save 10 litres of Jet A1 per flight, it is something. If you multiply that with 100 flights; that is huge fuel saved. We are also improving our radio systems to make sure that communications is improved. We are also working on digital communications between the cockpit and the control tower. When completed it is going to be pure data and the airplanes have to have the equipment to be able to get the Controller- Pilot Data Link
Communication ( CPDLC )system. These are things we are putting in place. We are expecting that the Aeronautical Information Management System (AIMS) we are putting in place will hopefully be completed by 2018. This will make operations easier and more efficient for the airlines. These are the things we are trying to do; however, we cannot tell airlines which equipment thy will have in their aircraft for economic reasons.
The newer generation airplanes come at a cost. The airlines have to plan ahead and realise that what they invest today they will reap the reward in years to come. If on the other hand you buy a less costly model you may not put up much upfront but you may not get the benefits of emerging technologies.
There was an effort to remap the airspace to shorten flight time for airlines. Did NAMA continue with the project or did it discontinue?
It is our responsibility to continue to improve on air navigation. Air navigation, number one, is not static and as we put more NAVAIDS into place there would be an improvement; of course, with additional costs. You know, we have to prioritise and right now the focus is to improve on approach aids like ILSs and then the next phase is to go to ground based navigational aids. But do not forget that we have put a lot of development in PBN navigation which shortens the route. PBN and RNAV (Area Navigation) shortened the route. They also shortened the approaches but the airlines ought to have onboard equipment to benefit from that.
There was a time NAMA was talking about mapping the Niger Delta airspace for security reasons and revenue generation. How far is the project now?
We just got approval to do wild area multilateration. We have approval for it now and it has been budgeted for and we are supposed to commence the project.
NAMA has made a lot of progress but what is the support you need now to continue to improve the system and enhance safety?
NAMA needs a lot of funding. I think one also have to look at it from the area of national policy and strategy. Should we place our navigational aids in the hand of private investors or do we want to keep it with NAMA? How do we source funds; should we commercialise NAMA? But the point is, there is a lot of financial need in NAMA at this time. In other words, equipment needs to be replaced; a lot of new equipment needs to be put in place because there is need to play catch up with emerging technologies. So as far as funds are concerned, we need a whole lot of it. During the IWAF conference, I had brief interaction with the President of African Development Bank, Dr Akinwumi Adeshina and he has promised that they are willing to help us. I have made a second contact so when we progress into this and we come up with blueprint for government approval we will look at how to structure such changes to achieve our goals in terms of funding.