• Thursday, May 23, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Airlines avoided Nigerian airspace over poor communication with air traffic controllers – NAMA MD

Airlines avoided Nigerian airspace over poor communication with air traffic controllers – NAMA MD

Umar Ahmed Farouk, managing director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), in this interview with Ifeoma Okeke-Korieocha spoke on what NAMA is doing to ensure the airspace is safe for travel. He also said that airlines avoided the Nigerian airspace over communication issue and what NAMA is currently doing to change the narrative. Excerpts:

It seems NAMA is taking a new shape and direction. How has it been since you were appointed the Managing Director of the agency?

I am an insider in NAMA. Before my appointment, morale was very low and the other aspect was service delivery as custodian of the Nigerian airspace is also another issue. We were having low workers morale and service delivery and these challenges are associated with this situation. We had to find a way to have a common ground to address the two simultaneously. We had to look into workers welfare first because it is when we have a conducive environment that we would have higher productivity and we will get the best from the workers. The first is about the workers and that was what we addressed.

Secondly, it is the issue of communication, navigation surveillance and power systems which is the core responsibility of the agency. We are lucky because Festus Keyamo, minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, first asked the agencies’ chief executives to key into his KPIs in front of the cameras of what is expected of us.

Don’t forget the five agenda of the Minister anchored on the Renewed Hope Agenda of the President and the whole essence is to ensure that the narrative changes and that is what the Minister is assiduously working to achieve and to God be the glory, and from what we have seen at the moment is that he is on the right direction with some of the activities many have seen and commented.

He has gone to about two countries with air operators in Nigeria to create the enabling environment for them to succeed in their businesses. It is part of his agenda to encourage local airlines to thrive in their business because the mortality rate of these airlines is too high and worrisome. It is on that note he decided on the invitation of one of the producers of airplanes invited him and went and had meetings with the business community and how they can open up business discussions with them.

We can see the improvement in that regard. Honestly, much was achieved. We have identified the challenges and we are working on them gradually. It requires a huge investment. The economic situation in the country, you don’t expect to have everything overnight, it has to be a gradual process. We have a focus. We have the short-term, the medium term and long-term solutions to all these challenges. That is where we are at the moment.

Infrastructure decay has been one of the challenges NAMA has grappled with over the years. What was the state of infrastructure in NAMA when you came in and what it is now? What are they expected to be before the end of the year?

Let me start with the communication. Before now, most of the airlines avoided Nigerian airspace and they found it extremely difficult to communicate with air traffic controllers; the reason was that the communication system was weak, and over-saturated due to demand. As the industry is growing, you should expect more routes to open and there was no corresponding facility to match the emerging air traffic. So, what we did was to cause a huge investment in that regard by the Federal Government.

We realised that there were so many openings, so many routes, we had to increase more stations to have signals that would cover the entire Nigeria. The entire communication had been re-designed to make sure that everywhere, every blind spot is covered and where we are today, even if one system fails, the air traffic controller will not notice because there is an overlap and one overlaps the other; the other one will assist you. We realised also that our radios are working well and well positioned and we have addressed the challenges we met but then, we are still having issues.

These issues have nothing to do with radios, now it has to do with electricity. That is why I declared an emergency on power and you will agree with me that power is a national issue for decades and has defied solutions and the government is still working hard to ensure that they get it right.

What we have decided to do is to deploy solar energy to some of these facilities so that they can function well. We have two sources of power. We have the primary one which is the national grid and we have the second one which is generators, and plants and the third one is solar.

We deployed all these three because ICAO frowns at a situation where you have a blackout even for seconds; so, we make sure that have an uninterrupted power supply. The funding is not there. We are approaching it systematically to make sure that communication is good. At the moment, we have significant improvement but there is still room for improvement. Recently, the minister approached the presidency for intervention and N40 billion was budgeted but we are yet to access the money. As soon as it is done, we will be able to tackle safety critical challenges that are before us as far as communication is concerned. If you go to Navaids, we are also having obsolete facilities. For an average electronic system, the lifespan is about ten years. Most of these electronics have been working for the past 15-20 years.

You will expect the performance to be below the standard. We are replacing them; we have commenced replacement of all these facilities. If not for funding, we would have finished replacing all of them. But for now, we have done almost 80percent but the contractors are still working. The level of patriotism in them is highly commendable. They have understood us and they are working hard to ensure that they complete the project. Here, we have the surveillance. This is where I have a serious challenge.

The TRACON we are having have been having challenges. I will categorically tell you that since 2014, we have not had enough spare parts. The cost of spares is the issue and the obsolete state of the equipment. The FEC has approved the modernization of the TRACON system. 15percent of the fund has been paid and we are hopeful when the presentation from Thales, they will commence installation as soon as other things are put in place. We are hopeful that at the end of it, at least the system will go back to optimal performance. That is as far as surveillance is concerned.

The other one is the power system is also part of the approval that we got. All these things I am saying, there is a tremendous improvement and the hindrance to working effectively is squarely on the power issue. If they get this N40 billion presidential intervention, I am telling you that in the next few months, we will be able to conquer these challenges.

Another one I know is the one that has to do with AIS automation. This programme has been ongoing for the past nine years or more. This boils down to funding. The Honourable Minister of Aviation has come to the rescue of the company. As I speak to you, they have gone back to work because they have been financed and we are hopeful all things will be equal, in the next quarter, this nine-year, ten-year programme will see the light of day and come to fruition. All things being equal, in the third quarter of this year, we should be completing that project.

Shortage of air traffic controllers has been a recurring issue; how are you addressing that? Do we have enough air traffic controllers?

We don’t have enough air traffic controllers. The challenge is still there. The mistake of the past administration; there was no proper manpower auditing or proper planning. It takes time to train air traffic controllers and they are quite aware of this; it has gone on for many years. Now that we decided to recruit them, it takes more than one year to train air traffic controllers that will be on the hot seat. You can imagine the gap and we can’t train hundreds of them. You can imagine the time it takes the handful to train them. What is the turnover of that process? It takes time to get the number required. That is the challenge we are having. We are working toward making sure that that aspect is addressed.

NAMA has over the years been an unstable agency. How have you been able to manage the industrial harmony that exists in the agency since your appointment?

I started my career with the Ministry of Labour and Productivity. Once a labour is always a labour. I engaged them when I came in and I told one of the labour unions that I am also a comrade and that I will try as much as I can to address most of the issues. I am an insider; I know the challenges and the issues. I don’t have to wait for you to agitate before I address the issues.

I began to address them one after the other to the extent that when I had a meeting with them, they said to me that there were no issues left and the reasons that have been clamouring for an insider to be appointed as MD of NAMA and I told them that we should not allow this agency to be destroyed, telling them that every staff must tighten their belt and that every one of us is also important.

I told them that to whom much is given, much is expected of them to work round the clock to make sure that we grow this agency to the next level. We have a group of individuals that we have brought in as directors who have also assisted the system because all of them came from various backgrounds, they have excelled and we have insiders that would help to guide them to work as a team. That is the reason you have seen industrial harmony.

Are you still considering a review of navigation charges? Are the airlines comfortable with that?

There was a meeting of aviation stakeholders that was convened by the NCAA and at that meeting; I raised the issue with airline operators of Nigeria. Since 2008, the navigation charge has been the same. At that time in 2008, the charge was N11,000 when airfare was N16,000. They have been reviewing the air ticket and today, the fare is N150,000 per flight, we are still charging N11,000. I think it is unfair and anything you draw their attention to it; they do not want us to review it.

We are a cost recovery agency and the huge investment we are making to make sure that safety is not compromised. It is high time the airlines accepted the reality. We are going to review our navigational charges to match the current economic situation. That is where we are. We have written to the Ministry and when it is time to do that, we will call for stakeholders meeting so that we let them know and give them time to prepare and adjust to the new charges.

What type of support has the minister given to NAMA to ensure that we change the narrative?

The main problem of the agencies had been political interference. Professionals were not allowed to do things professionally but since the advent of this administration, what we are witnessing is a lack of interference. The minister doesn’t interfere in the agency’s operations but makes sure they conduct the affairs of this industry professionally. Whatever we ask, it is given to us except it is beyond. He never interferes in the operations of the agencies. He is a thorough person. As a lawyer, he doesn’t want to fail.