Harmattan: NCAA presses panic button amid safety equipment

 

Harmattan is here. It is a period airlines and travellers dread because of safety and travel disruptions. WOLE SHADARE writes that despite new landing tools, the fear has refused to go away

Panic

Harmattan season is here and it is a period of the year that air travel in Nigeria is usually under stress. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority has already pressed the panic button by putting pilots and airlines into frenzy, warning them of what to do and not to do during the season. To forestall danger during the period, NCAA recently issued advisory circular to intimate pilots, operators and other stakeholders about dust haze and safety approach to adopt.

Alert

The advisory circular: NCAA-AEROMET-28 dated November 12, 2019 is intended to alert pilots to the hazards associated with dust haze, which is a dry and dusty wind that blows south from the Sahara across Nigeria. It said the situation would persist till March, 2020.

As issued by the Nigerian Meteorological Agency in its Seasonal Rainfall Prediction Bulletin-2019, the cessation of the rainy season is predicted from mid-October (in the  northern part) to early December, 2019 (in the southern part).

Spokesman of NCAA, Sam Adurogboye, said with the issuance of this circular, Advisory Circular AC: NCAA – AEROMET 27 dated March 26, 2019 is accordingly cancelled.

He stated that pilots/operators were, therefore, directed to note that air-to-ground visibility may be considerably reduced due to dust haze; aerodrome visibility may fall below the prescribed operating minima and in severe conditions, dust haze can blot out runways, markers and airfield lightings over wide areas making visual navigation extremely difficult or impossible.

He equally stated that flights were bound to be delayed, diverted or cancelled where terminal visibility falls below the prescribed aerodrome operating minima.

Halting smooth flight operations

There is no doubt that aviation, probably more than any other mode of transportation, is greatly affected by weather.

 

From thunderstorms to reduced visibility due to hazy conditions, every phase of flight has the potential to be impacted by weather.

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Nigeria, Ghana and other West African countries are some of the places in the world where harmattan haze still brings flight operations to a halt. The trend has become wearily familiar.

Commercial aviation in Nigeria must deal with these adverse weather effects. The cost is a significant budget item. It is one of the perennial weather phenomena that have adverse impact on flight.

Nigeria has a relatively fledgling domestic aviation market, which is constrained by high tariffs, high fuel costs, relatively low load factor and limited routes.

Huge cost

A typical domestic operator’s Direct Operational Cost (DOC) per flight can range between $3,000 for a regional jet type aircraft with seating capacity of 50-70 passengers to Abuja and $4,000 for a similar flight to Kano. Direct costs due to weather on airline operations can be separated into several categories: diversion, cancellation and delay.

The lowest passenger movements are always in November/December/January. Even though there may be other variables, obviously the effect of weather may have a significant impact on these reductions and the economic effects on domestic operators cannot be downplayed.

Though the costs associated with delays and cancellations vary, airlines taking such actions risk eroding passenger goodwill and that results in lost future revenue.

The impact goes beyond just the lost revenue from ticket sales. The list includes added costs for rescheduling crews, including transportation and hotel costs.

Every December-January, airlines are forced to cancel scheduled flights for several days because of the poor visibility imposed on the nation’s airports by cloudy weather. This period has been no exception. In the absence of modern landing facilities, the airports are virtually shut down.

In the few instances when flights were operated at all, it almost resulted in disaster.

Severe harmattan weather adversely affects operations to the far North and many other places in the South-East where the phenomenon could be very high.

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Few airports get upgrade

The irony is that most of the airports with exception of a few are yet to be upgraded with a precision approach system, such as an Category 3 Instrument Landing System (ILS)  that will provide precision guidance for pilots to land in such low visibility conditions.

The Federal Government through the Nigerian Airspace management Agency (NAMA) took delivery of the over $24 million Category 3 safety equipment with test run in Lagos and Abuja.

The airspace agency had already installed two for Lagos and Abuja for the first phase, while Sokoto, Port-Harcourt, Kano and Maiduguri will follow suit.

The airspace agency has responded well to the demands and clamour by airlines for better navigational facilities in Nigeria.

Managing Director of NAMA, Capt. Fola Akinkuotu, told Woleshadarenews in Lagos that installation of the facilities had commenced for Lagos and Abuja, adding that after fixing the equipment, they would go into Port-Harcourt and Kano. The next phase, he said, would be for Sokoto, Maiduguri, saying it will be based on necessity.

“If harmattan will affect Sokoto than it would for Ibadan, it makes sense for Sokoto rather than in Ibadan,” he said.

He lamented that the high safety tool would only benefit foreign airlines more because they already operate with the equipment on-board while Nigerian carriers would need to upgrade their airplanes to take advantage of it.

Improved visibility

Akinkuotu stated that the deployment of CAT III ILS would reduce the landing and take-off minima, adding that the landing minima are based on the fact that “you are coming from somewhere and you are able to land while the take-off minima are predicated on certain aspects, among which is ability to take off and if need be, land back to where you took off.

“So, FAAN needs to know that they have to provide certain things but the operators have to have the equipment on-board their aircraft. In the case of Performance Based Navigation (PBN), only Arik has been certified to be able to use the PBN. We have PBN approaches for 26 airports. Who are we then developing this infrastructure for? It means we are doing them for international carriers.

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“Our airlines need to take advantage of it including ILS Category 3. On the operators’ side, it will require pilot training, on-board equipment and recurrent training at every six months to guarantee that the pilots are qualified.

“Government and NAMA putting ILS Cat 3 in Abuja, Lagos, Sokoto, Port-Harcourt and other places will also demand that other things associated with Cat 3 conditions have to be met. FAAN has to do what they need to do, so also the operators. The operators must have those things, must meet their own requirements to benefit from it.”

No respite yet

However, despite investment in ILS category 3, which no doubt would help flight operations between Lagos and Abuja and reduce delays and cancellations, passengers to  other parts of the country  could still have their flight disrupted due to the prevalence of harmattan  during the Yuletide and in the New Year.

Even if ILS category 3 are installed in all the airports, that may not solve the problem of flight disruption as none of Nigerian airlines except Arik has on-board equipment in its relatively newer airplanes to match on ground facilities for aircraft to land in zero visibility or during harmattan, which bites harder between December and February every year.

During the period, airlines lose money because aircraft are kept on the ground, flights cancelled, thereby causing chaos at several airports across the country.

Last line

Domestic airlines in Nigeria particularly dread harmattan season because of its attendant dusty and hazy weather, which leads to multiple flight cancellations due to low visibility.

Wole Shadare