Human Error, Manpower And Safety Of Nigeria’s Airspace

Poor communication in Nigeria’s airspace has continued with so much effort to stem the tide with little progress made. WOLE SHADARE highlights the consequences to poor safety in the air

Efforts with little progress

Although, there has been a remarkable improvement with pilot-air traffic controllers’ communication in the last few years, it is a shame that for more than 20 years, the country’s aviation is still grappling with such difficulty in 2021.

The goal of the air traffic system is to accomplish “the safe, efficient conduct of aircraft flights” and to maintain a safe, orderly and expeditious flow of air traffic.

Air traffic controllers, with their common language, are the crucial link in international aviation. The seamless flight of air traffic cuts across international borders and through jealously guarded sovereign airspace of, often, mutually antagonistic nations would not be possible without the co-ordination of controllers.

Critical role of controllers

Locally or internationally, the joint goals of safety and efficiency are accomplished through intricate series of procedures, judgment, plans, decisions, communications and coordinating activities.

The public is familiar with the radio communications, which occur between pilots and controllers but equally as critical are the co-ordinations within and between air traffic control facilities when controllers ‘hand-off’ aircraft as they pass from one controller’s sector of responsibility to another.

With the coming of radar, decision-making and judgment functions of ATC increased to the extent that today it has also taken on the role of traffic flow director.

Nigeria is blessed with experienced professionals both as pilots and air traffic controllers. The incident of miscommunication or poor communication between them has not resulted in crashes except for the ADC plane crash in Itoikin/Ejinrin, near Epe in 1996 that killed 144 passengers and crew.

Although, the accident was as result of miscommunication by the crew, they were confused by whose instructions to adhere to. They were torn between the separation equipment onboard the ill fated aircraft and the instruction  of controllers.

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This is a classical example of human error factor that led to the death of 144 people as the plane plunged into Ejinrin River.

Obsolete tools

Beyond that, the country has continued to manage some obsolete air traffic tools such as radio despite the huge investments made in that area.

In truth, the Federal Government through the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) has continued to make investment in that direction but the country is yet to find total solution to the difficulty experienced by both pilots and controllers. They have at different expressed frustration at the situation they currently experience.

Not that Nigeria’s airspace is not safe; It is very safe but to make it safer and more reliable, the Federal Governments needs to spend more to eradicate the age-long difficulty forever.

At the recently held AIB/LAAC seminar, this situation was highlighted. Poor communication between cockpit and the control tower, loss of situational awareness and lack of it thereof lack of training, poor facilities, fatigue, flight crew judgment and maintenance personnel are some of the human factor errors that need to be addressed to improve on the accident and incident rate in air travel according to safety experts


Classical example of aircraft separation in flight

Airlines lack compliance

President of National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Abayomi Agoro, an engineer, decried that poor communication and training on new facilities are needed to improve the situation in the air space.

He explained that airlines are not compliant with some of the new technologies introduced and even staffs are not gone through their training.

Agoro said: “The issue of communication has been something we have been calling on government and NAMA as service provider to do more on it. The poor communication is not only from the ground equipment at times also it is from the air stations but most of the time these are some things that can degenerate to incidents or accidents.

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“Even now that we have data exchange which has to do with the CPDLC not all the airlines are compliant with that and not all the controllers have gone through the training so definitely, it’s one of the areas we have to look critically into to prevent human factors we are talking about.”

Weak communication system

Representative of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Captain Akin George, said communication system in Nigeria is best described as weak.

He said: ”The communication system in Nigeria is quite weak; this has been a recurring problem for the last 10-15 years. Solutions have been put in, we take one step forward and within a month or two we are back to the norm.”

George stated that airlines have been harping on human factors because of the critical role communication plays in flight safety, stressing, “If you cannot communicate with your controller; then who is controlling who?

As of today the communication between aircraft and the services coming out of Kano to Lagos is extremely weak. If you happen to be operating from the eastern side of the country, coming out of Calabar or Uyo, Port get Harcourt and you’re heading towards Kano, it’s extremely weak, in most cases you have to get another aircraft to rely your information.

“Now whilst all this is going on the aircraft does not stay in one place and so you have a dynamic situation which for me, remains high risk and that is one of the areas we need to tackle as soon as possible in order to reduce the risk.”

Human error factor

Commissioner, Accident Investigation Bureau ( AIB) Akin Olateru, an aircraft engineer, stated that aircraft accidents are dominated by the failure of human factor failure  explaining that it is vital to understand the complexity of human factors within a system with the intent of reducing it to the barest minimal.

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He said,” Despite of a positive development in the trend of accidents recorded since the beginning of the 21st century, the number of air accidents is still unsatisfactory. Consequently, it is of paramount importance to do everything that would contribute to substantial reduction of the human factor failure in air transportation.

“A system of models appears to be an important tool for overall understanding of the complexity of human factors, serving as starting-points to an analytical and classification research of the human factor. At the same time, these models enable qualified investigation and assessment of the causes of air accidents and incidents, thereby preventing them from repeated occurrence.”

Human errors as honest but costly mistakes

Often referred to as “honest mistakes,” experts said these unsafe act typically manifest as poorly executed procedures, improper choices or simply the misinterpretation or misuse of relevant information.

Often times, the substandard practices of aircrew will lead to the conditions and unsafe acts described above. For instance, the failure to ensure that all members of the crew are acting in a coordinated manner can lead to confusion (adverse mental state) and poor decisions in the cockpit.

Last line

Government needs to address urgently the issue of communication. This has been a major problem way back in 2005 and 2006. So much has been achieved but the problem has not been fully solved. NAMA signed a communication contract in 2009 but not known whether that contract was executed.

Wole Shadare