Chinedu Eze writes that sudden harmattan haze paralysed flight operations in Nigeria as airlines, aviation agencies and passengers counted their losses
Last week could go down in the history of Nigeria’s aviation industry as one of the most challenging, only second to air disaster. This was as a result of the sudden eruption of harmattan haze defied prediction and unleashed anger on human manipulation. It disrupted flight operations at the nation’s busiest airport, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos as well as at Abuja, forcing airlines to cancel, delay or divert flights.
Airlines, passengers and aviation agencies incurred huge losses, prompting the Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, to issue a statement apologising to all over the disruptions.
The first sign of the disruption was noticed on Sunday, February 9, 2020, and it peaked last Friday, but by Saturday, February 15, the furious harmattan had begun to ebb, as dusty wind cleared, opening the airspace to long distance visibility over 800 meters.
But the unexpected inclement weather was not peculiar to Nigeria, it was a global phenomenon, which disrupted flights in most parts of the world, especially in Europe, where Storm Ciara unleashed its fangs and led to the cancellation of flights and games around the same period.
Global Inclement Weather
CNN reported that Storm Ciara caused hundreds of flights across Europe to be canceled last week Sunday — the same day that its winds helped a British Airways plane to make the fastest-ever subsonic flight from New York to London.
CNN said two of Europe’s busiest airports — one in Frankfurt, Germany, the other in Amsterdam, Netherlands — each grounded more than 100 flights due to the storm.
According to the medium, at least 135 flights were also canceled at Frankfurt main airport.
But what exacerbated the incidents at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, was that the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), was transiting from Category 2 Instrument Landing System (ILS) to Category 3 and was yet to complete the calibration of the instruments before the sudden harmattan haze hit again, foreign airlines abiding by the Standard of Operation Procedures (SOP) diverted their flights largely to Accra, Ghana when visibility became lower than their standard.
So, while the passengers destined to Lagos could not be taken to state, the ones waiting to depart from Lagos to international destinations could not be airlifted by the international carriers. This gave rise to massive disruption and discomfort.
But as airlines, aviation agencies and travellers were embroiled in the confusion, the weather improved and put an end to that anxiety. Normal flights resumed on Saturday, February 16 and all the hoopla came to an end.
THISDAY learnt that NAMA would complete the calibration by this weekend. Contrary to the belief that the last calibration was conducted by ASECNA, the aeronautical agency for French speaking West African nation, the calibration was actually done by the aircraft recently bought by the federal government for that purpose and informed source told THISDAY that it resumed the calibration exercise on Tuesday.
NAMA has been excoriated by industry insiders for removing existing Category 2 ILS at the airport when the category 3 was not completely installed and certified.
THISDAY learnt that the agency, feeling the worst inclement weather was over after January at the Lagos area, as it happens every year before now, dithered in the exercise because it was getting the aircraft ready for the calibration.
It was at this period that the unexpected harmattan haze returned with a vengeance and wreaked havoc on the image of the nation’s aviation industry.
NAMA sources confirmed that it was the new aircraft acquired by the federal government for $8.5 million that conducted the calibration exercise.
The source told THISDAY, “We have calibration aircraft. So we have to use our aircraft. It was not ASECNA that conducted the initial exercise. We used our aircraft. It was the aircraft that was used to calibrate landing aids in Abuja, the crew went back to their country; but has returned to Nigeria.
“During the first exercise they did eight sessions. The aircraft calibrated the DVOR (Doppler Very High Omnidirectional Radio Range) in Lagos, Abuja and Asaba (state owned airport.) DVOR is an upgrade of VOR and we have it in Lagos, Abuja and Kano. The crew will this time calibrate both the 18R and 18L of the Lagos runways,” the NAMA official told THISDAY.
Category 3 ILS
The Managing Director of NAMA, Captain Fola Akinkuotu, explained to THISDAY recently that the reason why the agency wanted to migrate to Category 3 ILS was to overcome disruptions caused by harmattan haze when dust cover the atmosphere during the dry season and hamper visibility and during the raining season when dark clouds conspire to reduce visibility below the accepted minima because with Category 3 ILS, flights can land at zero visibility.
“Category 3 ILS will give you greater latitude to be able to operate in the airport even when there is significant weather challenge. It will improve visibility during the harmattan.
“When an airplane is near an ILS approach, an ILS approach provides guidance to an airplane in three dimensions, it provides a lateral, which determines whether you are on straight line or not and in the vertical. “So if the airplane is coming in on an ILS, it is guided onto the centre of the runway in such a manner that it can land comfortably when the field is in sight.
“Now, depending on the category, the difference in category is that they will provide you with the centre line or lateral line; it is about the same.
“But in the vertical, it brings you to a height. Category one will bring you to a height. If you see the runway at that point, when you get to that height if you see the runway you land. A cat 2 says, I am much more accurate, so it brings you to a lower height. In technical terms it is called decision height. Now Cat 3 brings you to a farther lower level. Some Cat 3 can land the aircraft without the pilot seeing anything due to zero visibility,” Akinkuotu had explained.
As a result of this, airlines sent statements to their customers, explaining that they couldn’t operate to Lagos due to bad weather.
“We would like to sincerely apologise for the disruption to your journey to Lagos. Due to adverse weather at the airport we were unable to safely land into Lagos airport. We regret to inform that due to operational constraints, we have had to cancel this flight,” BA had said in the notice it sent to its passengers on February 11.
Domestic carriers, including Arik Air, Dana Air and Azman Air also wrote to their customers, explaining flight constrains occasioned by the weather.
Part of Arik Air notice had explained, “This is to inform all our esteemed customers who have had the difficulty in reaching their various destinations through our flights that the current challenge is due to inclement weather.
“This poor and persistent weather condition has mostly affected our Port Harcourt, Kaduna, Warri, Asaba, Yola and Sokoto routes.”
Domestic airlines incurred huge revenue losses because they could not operate to any of the destinations during the critical days; the passengers were left stranded.
So the major culprit is weather, which affected domestic flight operations, but according to a NAMA official, industry observers and others tend to concentrate on the inability of foreign airlines to land at the Lagos airport without appraising the effect of the weather in domestic operations.
Many airports like Kaduna, Abuja, Kano, Asaba, Benin and even Port Harcourt was affected by the weather, which forced domestic carriers to delay or cancel their flights. The unfavaourable weather literally sneaked in like a thief in the night because it was unexpected.
However, the Ministry of Aviation in a statement explained why foreign airlines diverted their flights to Accra and other airports and the efforts made by NAMA to remedy the situation.
The Ministry said the standard navigational equipment at the MMIA is a CAT 2 ILS. And that’s what most airports, including those in advanced countries, have.
It noted that the federal government, due to its commitment to passenger security and safety, decided to upgrade key airports in the country to CAT 3 ILS, which allows flights even in zero visibility, unlike CAT 2 ILS where pilots can only land with minimum of 800m visibility.
The ministry also explained that CAT 3 ILS has been installed in Lagos and Abuja, in the first phase. Both were also calibrated. Pending are CAT 3 ILS for Kano, Port Harcourt, Asaba, etc
“Nigeria, for the first time in a long time, acquired a calibration plane to facilitate easy calibration of the navigational equipment and also stop the practice whereby a calibration plane is hired for $500,000 each time.
“The CAT III ILS in Abuja is working perfectly. But after caliberation, some inaccurate readings were noticed in the CAT III ILS AT runway 18R (for international flights) at the MMIA.
“Unfortunately, it was in the process of re-calibrating that the weather situation in Lagos changed for the worse, hence the disruption of international flights into Lagos.
“Some airlines opted to divert their flights to Kotoka airport (CAT II ILS) in Ghana, leaving innocent travellers stranded, when they could have easily diverted to Abuja (CAT III ILS), where flights to Lagos are regular,” the ministry disclosed.
The ministry also recalled that some international airlines diverted their flights to Abuja, remarking that insinuation that perhaps the CAT 3 ILS equipment was never bought or never installed was akin to calling the dog a bad name just to hang it.
“The equipment was not only bought, it was installed,” the ministry insisted.
“The weather phenomenon that reduced visibility at the International wing of the MMA is not unique to Nigeria. As this was happening in Nigeria, over 100 flights were being cancelled within the span of one week at Heathrow in London.
“The situation at the runway 18R at the MMA is being rectified and normal flights will resume shortly,” the ministry also said.
THISDAY learnt that since last week NAMA engineers have been working ceaselessly to ensure that the ILS is put to perfect working condition to permanently put an end to nature’s embarrassment.
Spokesman of the agency, Khalid Emele told THISDAY that the worst situation had passed; that Nigeria would not be caught in such quagmire again, as the Lagos airport ILS would be put to use after the calibration and certification.