The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) recently warned that the safety of airline operations could be compromised in April, May and June if pilots and airline owners fail to adhere to daily weather forecast from the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET).
The Director General/CEO of the NCAA, Capt. Muhtar Usman, in warning the pilots and airline investors said it had received forecast from NIMET that the commencement of the rainy season in the southern and northern parts of Nigeria lasting between April, May and June, “will be accompanied with turbulence in addition to microburst, low level wind share and sometimes events that could affect the safety of flight operations.”
Because at the centre of all flight operation is the safety of crew and passengers, the NCAA boss had announced that in three months, “it is expected that Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) may temporarily close the airspace when there are adverse weather conditions.”
Why the warning
The NCAA warning becomes necessary given that thunderstorms are the most dangerous types of weather for planes as they can cause multiple hazards and can reach 35,000 feet (10,670 metres), which is cruising level for a plane — so they are very difficult to fly through.
In an article published by Sun Online Travel, UK, Andrew Ward, a meteorologist based at London’s Heathrow Airport, said “although pilots are able to fly through them, they try to avoid it. They can be up to 12 miles (19.3km) wide or more — very large areas — and they can also cause severe turbulence, so whenever possible a pilot will reroute.”
In severe cases — the type considered a real danger to pilots — Ward said a plane could crash as a result of a thunderstorm, due to what is called a “microburst” which the NCAA listed as one of the adverse conditions pilots can run into while flying between April – June.
“A microburst is sudden downward current of wind that can travel down from the top of a thunderstorm in a matter of minutes, creating really strong winds of over 50 miles per hour (80.5km/h), which cannot be seen,” Ward said.
“Planes flying close to a thunderstorm can be suddenly struck by them, causing them to crash.
“They have occurred — and this is a reason for staying away, it’s those hidden hazards that come with thunderstorms,”he added.
Eastern Airlines flight 66 crashed as the result of a microburst in 1975, as did Delta Air Lines flight 191 in 1985,
Aircraft are not allowed, by law, to fly into thunderstorms and when passing them must avoid them by at least 25 nautical miles.
Prior to flying, it is mandatory for pilots to obtain from NIMET the weather forecast of the departure and arrival airport as well was those of the route where he will be flying through. In Nigeria, the NCAA sets the minimum safety weather visibility conditions for planes to take-off and land at airports.
The NCAA allows for takeoff as low as 150 metres Runway Visual Range (RVR) and landing with 300 metres Runway Visual Range (RVR). Consequently, flight crews/operators and ATCs are obliged to ensure strict adherence to airport operating minima in line with standard and recommend practices.
But if the aircraft is already airborne, the weather radar will show the pilots very clearly where any storms are and allow the pilot time to steer around them.
All pilots are therefore obliged to exercise maximum restraint whenever severe weather condition is observed or forecast by NIMET in order to forestall air crashes. The air disasters involving the ADC Airlines in Abuja and the Sosoliso Airline in Port Harcourt were all linked to adverse weather conditions and the failure of the crew to adhere to warnings by ATCs.
Flight delays, cancellations
NCAA says the poor weather conditions will result in flight cancellations, delays given that pilots are warned against flying in such harsh weather.
Indeed delayed or cancelled flights are one of the most frustrating things to deal with as a passenger.
Passengers who are so quick to vent their anger on airline staff during this season of anticipated flight cancellations and delays should note that flights are only ever cancelled when it’s in the best safety interest of the passenger. And weather is perhaps the most obvious reason a flight will be cancelled, after-all, who wants to be flying through a major thunderstorm.
Airlines are commercial ventures and flying is the only way to make profit for investors. No airline therefore wants to leave its passengers stranded. But the general industry standard is that it’s better to inconvenience passengers at their point of origin than having a sky full of planes that can’t end the journey successfully at the airport of final destination.
Airlines are typically not penalised for delays or cancellations due to weather or natural disasters, this is because weather conditions are considered as an “extraordinary circumstance”, as the airline has no control over such circumstances, nor can they stop them from arising, even if all reasonable measures had been taken by the air carrier concerned to avoid the delays or cancellations.
What to do
Before you head for the airport, check the weather in both your departure and arrival destinations (it might be bright and sunny where you are, but your flight might still be cancelled if it is deemed you won’t be able to land), and also check your flight status.
The NCAA, however demands airlines to show a high level of respect to passengers sensibilities at all times, including period of inclement weather. And the prompt dissemination of information on the status of a flight is one of those responsibilities which airlines owe their passengers.