THE alarm raised last week by the Nigerian Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) of grave dangers posed by the epileptic condition of communication facilities at our airports can only be ignored at the nation’s peril. The association, at the end of its 45th annual general meeting in Jos, Plateau State, issued a communiqué declaring Nigeria’s airspace unsafe and dangerous for air travel, on account of poor communication facilities.
The communiqué signed by the president of the association, Victor Eyaru, and its secretary-general, Banji Olawode, called upon the Federal Government to declare a state of emergency on air safety. Such a declaration, it said, would be the most effective way to accord the problem the seriousness it deserves and prevent the likely scenario of airplanes falling out of the skies.
The association enumerated the shortfalls in the nation’s air traffic control system, including the appalling state and frequent failures of the radar equipment. It also lamented the acute shortage of air traffic controllers. Nigeria has only 300 controllers to cater for 32 airport control towers. This is in sharp contrast with South Africa, which has more than 500 air traffic officers to cater for 22 control towers. It warned that the under-utilisation of the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) equipment owing to frequent failures calls for an upgrade of the system to avoid a total breakdown.
The association described the safety facilities in Nigeria’s airports as horrible and said they posed a great danger to the safety of pilots, aircraft and passengers. The present controller-pilot communication coverage does not meet the required standard, it said. It also recalled that the Kaduna and Maiduguri Airport control towers were razed by fire in 2014 and have since not been rebuilt.
The case made by the air traffic controllers is clear and justified. Their warning should not be under-rated or sugar-coated. It is obvious that given the state of equipment, personnel and installations, the Nigerian airspace is nothing short of an accident waiting to happen. In other words, an air crash may be lurking at the corner.
We appeal to the Minister of Aviation, the directors of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the National Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) to spare the country another harrowing air crash and fix the safety facilities in our airports.
While no one can deny the tight budgetary constraints of the present times, there is a limit to penny pinching. In matters of air safety, it is always penny wise pound foolish. When a plane crash occurs, the seemingly prudent cost-cutting becomes extreme recklessness. The air traffic controllers aver that the nation has consistently lost so much foreign exchange because many airlines avoid its airspace whenever they can. We cannot in good conscience blame airlines which avoid flying through unsafe airspace.
The last major air crash in Nigeria was that of Dana Airline in 2012, which claimed the lives of 153 passengers and crew. Six other persons died on the ground. The nation is yet to get over the trauma of that crash and some of the navigational problems the air traffic controllers are now complaining about were also fingered as partly to blame for that disaster.
The shortage of personnel in the control towers is unjustified and risky. Overworked controllers cannot be expected to provide the quality judgment required at those towers at crucial times. This can make the difference between life and death.
We urge the Federal Government to replace the obsolete equipment at our airports and find creative ways of financing them, even if it means concessioning some of them. Our air traffic control towers should also be manned by the right number and quality of personnel. The safety of air passengers is paramount. We must strive to avoid another tragedy at our airports. The warnings of the air traffic controllers must be addressed.