By Jimoh Babatunde & Daniel Eteghe
Alhaji Ibrahim Auyo has been a major player in the aviation industry both in Nigeria and the international scene, having served as the pioneer managing director of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) between 2000 and 2001.
After stepping down as MD of NAMA in 2001, he moved to the aviation wing of the United Nations Organisation (UN0) and was part of the professionals that formulated policies for the global aviation industry.
He was re-appointed to lead NAMA once again in 2009 and since his re -appointment, Auyo has tried to take the agency to the next level. In this interview with journalists recently, he spoke on the problems, prospects and achievements of the agency since his management came into being in February 2009.
You have been here for two years now, so far, what have been the high and the low points of your tenure?
That is a very technical question; high points and low points. Well, when I came to NAMA, we knew we were struggling to survive as at that time and there were some staff problems, which had to do with financial benefits and everybody wanted to get for himself one thing or the other and there was distaste between sections of staff.
The first thing we were saddled with was to normalise the agency. So, myself, the entire management and of course with the assistance of the minister at that time and the board, we were able to put everything under control.
The management was able to sit down with the unions and staff and we agreed on many terms and we made them realise that this is a professional body and we were able to give everybody whatever they deserved and things were quiet and we got everything under control. Honestly, since then, normalcy has returned to the agency.
Was there a restructuring of staff to that effect?
No! No staff restructuring. Staff restructuring, we will soon start that. Like I said, NAMA is a professional agency and we want to look professional and be more professional in our approach. We want to leave the civil service sort of system.
We want to be professional in all round. We have the controllers, the engineers, the communicators, the aeronautical information officers, human resource and any other aspect that is for the safety of our airspace and anybody you find there will be fully our officers.
Even till now, some professionals and stakeholders still say that the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) is not working optimally in some parts of the country contrary to the impression your office is creating, what is the true state of the project?
When you say the radar is not functioning in some stations, let me tell you that it is only in two stations that we are controlling the TRACON. The stations are Lagos and Kano.
Kano controls all the airports in the northern states and Lagos controls all the airports in the southern states and five other satellite stations, which also give us secondary surveillance, radar surveillance and they are all integrated.
At any time, you can see anywhere in the country, even get up to 400 miles. From Kano, you can get even Obudu Cattle Ranch. Recently, we saw aircraft landing in Sokoto, we saw aircraft landing in Maiduguri and Abuja. Kano is still going on because of the nature of that airport.
When we were with the Senate, they were really surprised to hear what people are saying. Like I was telling them, we are only management of five; the managing director, three directors and the company secretary and legal advisers.
Of course, we have 10 to 15 general managers. We say we have to be focused and we don’t want anybody to distract our focus and that is what we are doing.
So, whosoever is saying that the radar is not functioning is lying no matter how highly placed the person may be in the industry.
When I came back from Germany when I was sick, I saw a debate in the National Assembly that the radar was not functioning, we took them round and they saw over 400 miles from Kano airport. Today, it is the same thing maybe it is much better because we have improved our facilities.
Soon , we will be able to finalise all the status. These things are continuous. The people who are saying this are our colleagues, but as a responsible organisation, we are not ready to fight anybody, but rather, we want to embrace everybody including those that are saying the radar is not functioning. It is good sometimes for you to be criticized and through that, you will get stronger.
The facilities we are now using must be on for 24 hours throughout the year if not, we may have a problem. Those who are saying the TRACON is not working, you should be able to ask them the last time they entered the control towers and hear what their responses would be. Those people who are throwing the stones actually want to make a living and we are not against that.
Then, why do you think they are saying things contrary to what your office is saying?
You know, Nigerians, we are excellent people. I say excellent because for instance, if you are watching Nigerian football, there will be so many commentators who also act as professionals. This is the situation, these people who are talking about TRACON, Very High Frequency (VHF) coverage and the World Geodetic System (WGS84); don’t know anything about TRACON.
These are our colleagues with whom we trained in those days; but today, aviation is a completely different terrain. It is now satellite. My colleague was talking about geodetic. Geodetic is a programme that started since 1995. What was Nigeria doing at that time? Nothing.
We came since 2009 and we are able to put the programme on course, we have achieved about 90 per cent of the programme. We have done all the training, and in fact, because of the progress we are making, the French Government decided to train two young Nigerians (two young ones and not old people like us) here so that they will carry on what we have been doing all along with their colleagues.
You see, we have 16 countries belonging to ASECNA and France has four countries and without Nigeria, aviation in this region is really nothing because if you get all the traffic flight into Nigeria airspace and the rest of Africa, you will see that Nigeria is far, far ahead of others.
We are the only country with so many airlines that are now flying as national carriers for other West and Central African countries. So, we have to ensure that we do all these things. The Global Distribution System (GDS) survey is coming and very soon, they will go and chart at least Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt and Abuja airports and there will be landing continuously three, five minutes between aircraft.
That is what we hope to achieve by March. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) is coming up because you know they are our regulators and they have to be a part sponsor and already, the NCAA director-general, Dr. Harold Demuren told that the press that very soon, they will start the procedures on the performance-based navigation.
Performance-based navigation is what will link us to the WGS84 and once we can get that, the terrestrial facilities like the Instrument Landing System (ILS) that is installed on ground and the radio communication, which will give you the direction and distance from where you are, will gradually go away and we shall phase them out because they are old technologies, and very soon, we will exit from that.
We have these services along all our routes and all those surveys are now related to satellite and different computer bases throughout the world. Anywhere you are taking off from the world, coming to Lagos, Abuja, Kaduna or Akure, we have the points.
All you need to do is to check and the aircraft will take you there. So, that is no problem, we have the control of the aircraft and automatically, the aircraft will direct you like your Global Positioning System (GPS) that directs you on the road.
That is what the world is becoming and that is why we are saying it is a seamless world; there is no boundary. Aviation is one and not Nigeria aviation. So, the Nigeria commentators should please assist us and let’s move together.
If you are in any doubt, come and see what we are doing and let’s sit down together and we will be talking. We have many programmes like the VHF coverage, which will enable you see the aircraft and when you are talking with them, it makes life much easier. And the VHF coverage in the component will be about 10 minutes before you enter our airspace and 10 minutes after you have left, we can couple you and we can see you.
Do you have any cooperation with the military in terms of these technologies?
We are in charge of management of airspace in civil aviation, they are in charge of airspace in the military and if there is a need for us to alert them to come up, yes, they will come up and that is why we are coordinating our civil, military cooperation internationally.
Anywhere in the world, we have that standard and we go along with that in Nigeria and they learn a lot also. Like I said, they are in charge of the security of the airspace. So, if we see anything that is violating our airspace, we alert them and after survey, they move on to see who it is and what they can do is their own business, but the coordination is there between civil and the military and that is perfect.
What is the level of separation now between aircraft with the adoption of the Reduced Vertical Separation Minimal (RVSM)?
The RVSM is an old programme now, but although in some countries, it is a brand new concept. When I was in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), we implemented this in 2007 but in Africa, we don’t respond to international requests early.
So, we were the last to implement the RVSM. Before, there was a 2000 feet separation between aircraft, but now, with the RVSM, there is only 1000 feet separation between aircraft in the airspace and this is because the altimeter, which is showing the height, is so developed now with this new instrument.
You can now see what is around you and you can avoid collisions. With the technology, more aircraft are brought into the airspace and the pilots will be more attentive and be more focused. Passengers can now feel more relaxed in the aircraft and land in their destinations safely.
Before now, aircraft were held up in the air for landings because of the kind of equipment we were using. The delays were too much. Some can be held up for about 10, 20 and 30 minutes in those days and airlines were burning fuel and today with our TRACON, VHF, how long do they go? For instance, Abuja is the centre of Nigeria; the maximum time you can spend in the air is 50 minutes and you are there. With the new system, airlines are saved substantial cost.
On the average, how many flights do you handle in a day?
In Lagos, we handle about 220 daily and Abuja too is very close to that with 180, 200 aircraft on the average daily.
On revenue, we know you have this running battle with airlines as some of them are unable to pay or don’t want to pay, how have you been able to resolve this?
There was no protest on ‘pay-as-you-go’ because we gave them a lot of time to prepare for the regime. We told them to come and deposit some money equivalent to the flight they do daily, weekly or even monthly and we keep you flying and if you don’t pay up for that day, then, you will not fly and I’m telling you, 90 per cent of the airlines cooperated and only one airline refused and we stopped its operations and later that same day, the same airline deposited some amount of money with us and they were released to fly.
That is the case and even the money we are talking about is not much, but they only accumulate the charge, which now makes it high. So, we are still waiting for the accumulated amount. And I have to say here that the Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Fidelia Njeze has been cooperating with all of us and she has shown some understanding.
She set up a committee, which sat for some weeks and came up with solution. In June 2010, the payment was finalised that they should pay all outstanding debts within three years and this is a very long time. The committee said that every month they should pay something along with the current charges.
How much was the total debts?
At the initial stage, the debts were over N4b, but after the reconciliation with the airlines, we agreed that the money should be over N2b for NAMA. That was after the agreement and there were many agreements between us. We are all Nigerians and we are working for Nigeria. They are making money and our Act says we provide service and must be paid for it and ICAO says what you get must be used for the development of the aviation industry. So, that is the situation now.
What about airlines that have closed shop?
We still talk with most of them; we talk with Air Zaire, Cameroon Air, Afrijet, Bellview, and others. We sat down with them and they have all agreed to pay. We are not aggressive, we are safety critical people and anything that will enhance safety, we need it and honestly, cooperation is the best. You should be able to sit down with somebody and analyse your problems and agree on the need to move forward.
Inadequate technical personnel is a problem in the industry generally and there is lack of succession plans by the managements, how are you addressing this issue of ageing workforce?
NAMA is the best career in the world; airport controllers, engineers, communication officers, aeronautical information services, human resource etc. These are professional bodies in NAMA. Like I said, there is no Nigeria aviation, it is a worldwide industry and we must follow those standards.
I challenge anybody on our salary or general remuneration. I think it is quite standard, my staff can confirm this and we are ready to do much better. Once we progress, definitely, our remuneration will go up.
I left the Nigerian aviation in 2001 and I was in the UN for eight years. I have seen that there is a lot of difference; all those training that we were talking about have changed.
Today, you can sit down on your TRACON and learn what you want to do as a controller or a simulator, but one thing we are looking at is the refresher courses because we have so many controllers and to train a controller, it takes nothing less than 18 months for a staff to be trained as a controller after employment and we only have the Nigerian College of
Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria and the school cannot take above 30 or 35 students at a go.
There, we have some capacity problem. So, we take some of them abroad, but if you take the generality of the requirements, the director of operations will tell you he needs at least 500 Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs), how many do we have today? May be just a little bit above 300 and those 300 are part of the first generation, they are getting older and now, with the new civil aviation Act, we will have to go on training and re-training.
We have been training controllers for aerial radar for United States, in Zaria and in South Africa, but our major problem is the refresher courses because of the shortage of staff, it is difficult to put some and leave out some and in order to simplify it, we put them in batches; A, B, C and so on. So, that is the situation we are in and we hope with the current level, we will definitely get major improvements especially the consistency of refresher courses. Again, nowadays, talking about the refresher courses, we are thinking of in_house training for them by bringing experts to come here and then we can train more and it will be cheaper for us, but as you know, many Nigerians will like to go abroad for such training. That is where we are really, we are employing controllers. Last year, we employed 50 and this year too, we are employing 50 controllers. Same for engineers and other departments in NAMA.
As a revenue generating agency, is it possible for NAMA to be self-sustaining in future?
Of course, definitely, NAMA can be self-sustaining, it’s only for our customers to pay us for the services we offer them and we can do other things apart from aviation that we are doing right now, but we just have to make sure that aviation is perfect before we start thinking of other areas.
We have a lot of land in the country, anywhere you go you will see big pieces of land reserved for the old Visual Omnirange (VOR), which belong to us. So, all those ones we can fence them and use them for financial benefits to NAMA.
With inadequate personnel, the workload on the current staff is high, what is the standard aviation practice for technical personnel in terms of hours they are expected to put in?
The maximum hours a technical personnel is expected to put into work is six hours daily (morning and afternoon) while night is 12 hours and when you close at 7am, you have done the work for that day and the next day, you are off duty. This is so not because we don’t have many flights at night, don’t forget we have over-flyers also at night and we have a lot of traffic too.
In fact, that is what Nigeria is known for, overflying aircraft. Nowadays, with the hi-tech facilities we have in Nigeria, flyers overfly our airspace to go to Johannesburg and Europe. We have a lot of traffic at night and by the time we finish these our facilities, there will be much improved volume of traffic in our airspace and the preferred airspace largely depends on its facilities.
Now, you can fly through Nigerian airspace and you can see through where you are and we can talk to you anywhere you are.
There is a report in the media that there is a serious internal bickering between you and some of your senior staff, what is the true position on this?
No, there is no internal bickering in NAMA and that is why I got all the directors to be here. That is my director of engineering, this is my director of operations and my director of finance would have been here, but she travelled out to US for a conference on Women in Aviation.
We are just four. When I’m not in, another person steps in and that is how it has been. For any service provider anywhere in the world, cordial relationship is very necessary because you can’t operate without cordial relationship because everyone is important in that organisation and you must respect that and discipline is the main thing in aviation.
You don’t get annoyed when you are told to direct an aircraft. You have to work together to be able to achieve that sanity, which brings about safety. That is why I’m telling Nigerians, whenever you are in any aircraft within our airspace, don’t be afraid, sleep and be rest assured that you will land safely in your destination because the aircraft is now safer than your room. The ATC will continuously speak with your pilot and anywhere you are going, you will get there right on time.
Our facilities never fail, despite the power supply problem we have at the airports.
Anytime you hear the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) facilities failed, ours are working because if our facilities are not working, there will be chaos. We are using the same facilities you are using in your house, but we have alternatives, two, three alternatives. If the power fails, our generators are there and if the generators fail, we have other things that will keep the system working. So, that is what we are doing.
Sir, we all know that the electricity supply to the airports is very epileptic and here is an agency that has facilities in all the airports and even stations, how much do you spend on powering these facilities scattered all over the country on a monthly basis?
If you are looking at a quarter, we spend about N600, 000 per quarter for each station and that is exclusive of lubricants and maintenance and if you multiply that by 22, it gives you a figure. That means for instance, an airport like Ilorin, there is no re-imbursement from the governor or anybody that wants to use it in the night for extension.
For me really, if you do the breakdown, you might want to increase that to about a million per month in each airport to run an alternative power supply and also, we still allocate funds for the running of the airports on a monthly basis. So, we are looking at N22m a month.
Then, are you looking at other alternatives?
Yes, we are looking at the direction of solar. If the airlines pay us all the money they owe us today, the first thing we will do is to solarise all our sites, but you can’t do that when you have salaries to pay.
For instance, I just lost a staff today, which will cause me about N16m as terminal benefits. A level 15 officer and we are going to pay him about N16m in death because he died in active service.
What is your major challenge in running the agency?
That is interesting, really. Money, we need money to really establish ourselves. The power supply is a major headache and it is unfortunate. Once we can get the money all the airlines owe us, the first thing is to move to solar energy and that is an alternative and we are talking with the manufacturers of all our equipment to give us more information on the thing and we hope solar can be used easily and successfully too and that is what we are going to do because it can give us some 25 years guarantee and all we need to do is to safeguard our facilities to make sure that nobody invade them.
Generally, do you think the Nigerian aviation industry is moving forward?
The Nigerian aviation industry is getting there and if you check my table there, there is an award we just received from CASON. Each year, all of us gather there to see what we are doing. And in 2010, Nigeria won the most significant achievement in safety in the world and it was won by NAMA and we want to retain that this year. That is why we are doing everything humanly possible to ensure that by the second half of this year, all our facilities should be in place.
When you are talking about Category One, it is not a magic, it is things like this that can make you attain it. With the facilities at our disposal now, the airlines are saving money daily and no longer burn fuel and in collaboration with the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET), our radar can see the extent of the weather and they can vector you round and it detects rain. We now get online real time weather report and because we are tapping from NIMET’s Doppler weather radar, which is giving us upper and lower conditions.
So, it is quite a progress. That is why NAMA and NIMET are twin brothers and we only use 23 per cent of their facilities in aviation. Others are for farmers like us and maritime industry too.
On the migration to the satellite-based navigation system, when do you intend to migrate finally to the new system because we know that ICAO gave you a deadline of 2016?
Tomorrow. It is our hope that we do that as quickly as possible. If not for some problem of software we are yet to get, we would have migrated finally to that. Once the software is here, we will migrate finally to it. By March, we are trying the procedures. Even the procedures are already there, the charts are already there for Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and Abuja. So, no problem in the charts, we use the WGS 84 point, it is ILS.
We may even leave the ILS and use this chart for landing; it will give you CAT One approach for landing. You know it is GPS. So, any aircraft that has the facilities inbuilt can land here automatically.
So, it is advisable for all the aircraft flying in the country to have the GPS because that is what will determine your performance base. It is what you carry that will determine your performance. We collaborate with NCAA in this direction and they know that all these our programmes are new and NCAA does not expect perfection from us immediately. Like the WGS84, we have so many training on it even the pilots too attend our training.