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How domestic airlines bleed from flight delays, disruptions, cancellations

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By Lawani Mikairu

Passengers have always expressed disappointment and anger which sometimes lead to physical assault of airline’s staff each time flights are delayed, disrupted and eventually cancelled by airlines.

Passengers are, however, not aware that airlines also lose millions of naira from flight delays, disruptions and cancellations. A lot of factors are responsible for these delays and cancellations such as bad weather, especially during the harmattan season which reduces visibility.

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Another factor that most often lead to delays at the airports is lack of adequate infrastructures to process passengers for boarding. A situation where there is only one scanning machine and boarding gate will ultimately lead to long queue and delays.

Flight disruptions and cancellation also occur when the flight schedule of an airline is deliberated disrupted by aviation union members and workers. There can also be an incident or accident within the airport that can lead to closure of runway.

Domestic airlines in Nigeria particularly dread harmattan season because of its attendant dusty and hazy weather which lead to multiple flight cancellations due to low visibility. The weather minima at most airports in the country is still between 600 metres for Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos and Nnamidi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja and 800 metres for Calabar, Owerri, Benin City and other airports.

Speaking with Vanguard about inadequate infrastructure at the airports, Mr Olayinka Abioye, immediate past General Secretary, National Union of Air Transport Employee, NUATE, said : “Infrastructure decay, inadequacy or gaps can lead to avoidable delays or cancellations at our airports as it becomes obvious that what ought to have taken minutes to be done or accomplish may take hours or days”.

“A typical example is at the check-in counter where you are expected to use digital equipment or electronic devices but had to rely on manual system to check in passengers. System breakdown or glitches may also cause delays or cancellations as it happened recently in Heathrow. Power surge may cause infrastructure inadequacy leading to delays”.

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Abioye further said that “Nature (elements) through rough or bad weather, wind shear, thunderstorms etc may also contribute to delays. Infrastructure inadequacy which causes delays or cancellations may also be attributable to lack of maintenance of infrastructure at specific periods in the life span of each system. Unfortunately, Nigeria is not noted to appreciate regular system checks, maintenance, upgrade etc hence the deplorable situation we have found ourselves”.

Lack of adequate equipment like screening machines and points have been a major problem for domestic airlines. A typical example is the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) of the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos where the two leading domestic airlines; Air Peace and Arik Air operate from. Air Peace CEO Barrister Allen Onyema, recently called on the management of Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, to improve infrastructure at the terminals to reduce the incidents of flight delays.

He said: “99 per cent of our flights originate from Lagos before going to other places. These flights from Lagos generate about a thousand passengers, but our terminal at the airport is too small to accommodate this number conveniently. That is why the crowd at the airport is usually chaotic. There is only one security scanner and that often causes delays. Meanwhile, the pilots are already seated in the cockpit of the plane waiting for passengers.”

Closely related to this is the inability of the airlines to operate flights into most of the airports in the country at sunset or after 7pm. Lack of night landing lights on the runways and navigational equipment at these airports restrict flight operations to day time. Any disruption in the flight schedules of these airlines may lead to spill over to the next day, creating backlog of passengers who could not be air lifted the previous day. Aside the four major airports, namely Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja, Port Harcourt Airport, and Mallam Aminu Kano Airport, Kano, other airports can only accommodate day time operations. This is a huge financial loss to the airlines as they cannot operate more than 12 hours a day.

Reduced minimum visibility for flight

To combat the weather related flight delays and cancellation, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, in conjunction with the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, NAMA, recently reviewed downwards the aerodrome operating weather minima, which is the reduction of minimum visibility for flights at airports in response to the advancement made in the provision of navigational aids. NCAA approved new weather minima for Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and 10 other airports in the country.

The latest approval is coming 35 years after the regulatory agency carried out a similar exercise in all the airports across the country. It approved 300 meters Runway Visual Range (RVR) for the 14 airports from 800 meters RVR, which the country had been using since 1983.The other new airports with the status are Kaduna, Ilorin, Gombe, Owerri, Sokoto, Uyo, Yola, Dutse, Calabar, and Enugu.

The 14 airports are now approved for Instrument Landing System (ILS) Category II Approach and Landing Minima. The present review allowed for takeoff is as low as 150 meters RVR while the above-stated airports could permit landing with 300 meters RVR. Before the current review, the lowest visibility Category Two ILS in the nation’s airports was 800 metres/550 RVR (Runway Visual Range).

The importance of this recent review and how it has affected the operations of the airlines was highlighted by the spokesman of Dana Air, Mr. Kingsley Ezenwa. He said: “what passengers do not know is that so many things can cause delays and for us safety comes first when the issue is a tech related one. We would rather refund than fly a faulty plane. But when it is weather related or VIP movement or any other thing, there is little or nothing we can do than to apologise to our guests, provide necessary refreshments or compensation according to regulations as the case may be”.

“Some of the multiple flight diversions due to bad weather and aerodrome closure during sunset are as a result of inadequate or non-functional ground navigational equipment such as ground-to-air radar, Instrument Landing System, VHF Omnidirectional Range, among others. The regulatory agencies should wake up to its responsibilities in this regard,” he emphasized.

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Flight disruptions by labour unions

Flight operations have also been delayed and disrupted by workers unions at some of the airports across the country. Recall that sometime ago, members of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) disrupted the flight operations of Air Peace airline at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) .The unionists blocked the Air Peace wing of the terminal for four hours, from 7:00a.m. to 11:00 a.m., forcing passengers away from the facility. The disruption forced the airline to delay most of its morning flights to different destinations in the country and also stopped the movement of its aircraft to the international terminal of the airport for regional operations, as both passengers and crew were barred from accessing the terminal. The Chairman and CEO of Air Peace, Allen Onyema, said that the airline lost over N60 million from that few hours of disruption.

Airline operators have also lost millions of Naira to “Presidential and VIP movements” which cause delays and flight disruptions. Planes have been forced to hover round the airports and stay longer in the sky any time there is “presidential passenger or movement”. Presidential passage or movement, is a situation where the airspace is shut to commercial and other aircraft when presidents, vice presidents and their families are flying in or out of an airport. Government officials often cite security reasons as the underlining rationale behind the action.

Passengers most times rain curses on the airline involved but the questions they should ask are: “What is this presidential movement that endangers their lives; what is the economic cost of hovering round the airport for more than thirty minutes when the plane was supposed to have landed in five minutes; and is this how presidential movement in other countries disrupts flight operations?

The closing of airspace each time the President is taking off or landing in an airport has cost the airline operators millions of Naira as flight schedules are disrupted and flight time shifted which might result to some flights canceled, especially those scheduled to go to airports which operate only day time flights with no night time field lighting. Airlines have been groaning silently and bearing the financial burden as well as wrong passengers perceptions that they don’t keep to time schedule and so, not a reliable airline to fly with.

It will be recalled that Human Right activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Femi Falana, once sued Nigerian Airspace Management Authority, NAMA, for closing Benin Airport, during one of these presidential movements. “In a 17-paragraphs affidavit in support of the application for the enforcement of his fundamental rights to life and movement, Mr. Falana deposed to the fact that the Arik aircraft which conveyed him and 42 other passengers to Benin, Edo State on Friday, December 17, 2010 hovered at the Benin Airport for 35 minutes as it was prevented from landing due to presidential movement.

All domestic airlines will be better off if these impediments to smooth flight schedules are therefore taken care off.


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