Air Traffic Controllers have warned that the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) might soon be obsolete and could threaten safety in the airspace.
TRACON therefore stressed the need for urgent action to be taken to repair and upgrade the equipment.
Speaking on behalf of the Air Traffic Controllers, the President of the Nigerian Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Abayomi Agoro, noted that presently, due to lack of maintenance, TRACON has become deficient in its communications and surveillance functions and therefore demand urgent rehabilitation before it breaks down and jeopardise flight operations in Nigeria.
The function of the radar is to provide communication, determine the location, the bearing and range of the aircraft in the airspace and air traffic controllers monitor all the aircraft on the radar screen to ensure the safety of aircraft and guide them to take off and landing.
Without the radar, controllers increase separation standards between aircraft in the airspace, which may give rise to congestion, increased risk in the mid-air, as the controllers cannot visualise the movement of the aircraft.
The NATCA boss disclosed that TRACON has no standby system in the last two years, which means if the current functional system breaks down, it would not be switched to a standby system.
“The TRACON has been on one leg in the last two years (no standby system). NAMA management has not bought spares to replace broken down ones in the last two years. In the last five years NAMA has not renewed the maintenance contract it has with Thales of France, which built the system.
“The management discontinued the contract, saying it has no money. So for these years there have been no software upgrade. So the radar is on one leg, it is not effectively providing surveillance in the primary and secondary radar,” the air controller noted, adding, “We have noticed a lot of deficiencies but unfortunately the engineers handling it will not talk about it. Obviously the equipment is ageing so it needs total overhaul, but if it continues to degenerate it cannot provide safety services anymore.”
Giving details of the problem with the equipment, senior air traffic technical personnel and Vice President of NATCA, Dominic Abbah, told THISDAY that there are two major problems with TRACON, which have to do with communication and radar.
“We heard that they are trying to upgrade it but the problem persists. It is not that there is total loss in communication but it is not seamless as it ought to be, as recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). When pilots call you while entering the boundary of your airspace it has to be clear.
“The communication has to be unbroken, reliable, consistent and continuous transmission. It is expected that at every point communication should be clear. If one goes under, another should immediately overlap, but we do not have back up. This is not acceptable.
“Another problem we have with TRACON is the perennial issue, which is that the radar system does not have back-up. So if anything happens to the system now we go back to procedural system of control, which is fraught with danger and relies heavily on communication, which is not currently efficient. Communication plays a major role in air traffic control,” he told THISDAY.
Abba went further to advise the Nigerian Airspace Management Authority (NAMA) to revive the old high frequency (HF) as a back-up instead of discarding it, noting that in Accra, Ghana the airspace management still uses HF to cover the littoral areas, even across Nigeria.
“When the mainstream communication fails, the back-up or the second back-up comes up. The HF may not be as effective as the VHF (Very High Omidirectional Radio Range), but it covers longer distance and it consumes less power. So instead of abolishing it we can use it as back-up,” Abba said.
THISDAY findings revealed that when the management of NAMA cancelled the contract about five years ago, it did not look at the details of the contract, which included unlimited supply of spares as long as the contract subsisted and technology transfer, as NAMA staff were being trained by Thales engineers then.
But with the severance of the contract, it became very difficult to access spares, which is also sourced from the company. So the cost of the spares has more than doubled and the money is paid upfront and when paid, it would take about two weeks to get the spares to Nigeria.
An engineer in the agency in support of NATCA’s position told THISDAY that: “About five years ago they cancelled the maintenance contract with Thales. When the contract was on, there was technology transfer because they were training our staff and the maintenance contract included provision of spares. So when the contract was not renewed, it became difficult to acquire spares for the system.
“We cannot replace the modules or the software and it costs so much to get the spares. So the company invariably gets all the monies from you.
“It was the current Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika who said that it was not good that the contract was severed and there are moves to renew it. Without the contract no training and we cannot claim to have learnt everything. Maintenance is like technology transfer.
“Things have gone so bad. A lot of the modules are not working. The system is no more performing optimally due to lack of spares. When we have maintenance contract with Thales, they had one of their staff here in Nigeria. When that contract expired, management said it would not renew it due to lack of money,” the official told THISDAY.
Besides providing surveillance services, the controllers use the radar to guide aircraft away from thunderstorm and warns pilots about bad weather; although aircraft have their in-built radar, but the controllers directs the pilot, as they see the intensity of the convective weather, a source told THISDAY.
However, the Managing Director of NAMA, Captain Fola Akinkuotu told THISDAY that all the problems identified with the radar would soon be resolved, saying the agency has concluded plans to renew the maintenance contract with Thales of France.
“We have improved relationship with Thales. We are going to carry out an overhaul of TRACON. It is like the D-check in aircraft maintenance. TRACON is not one leg, as many air claiming because it has both primary and secondary radar.
“We want to bring back the TRACON to new standards of surveillance. Everything is going to be done new. The money in the budget for TRACON is for the upgrade and maintenance of the system. Some places in the airspace not presently captured by the radar will be captured when the complete overhaul is completed,” Akinkuotu told THISDAY.
Akinkuotu also assured that the ATS Message Handling System (AMHS) would commence full operations in the next two weeks to evolve the digital system with a wider band, adding that with this, there would be no limitation of messages to be transmitted with high speed and adequate feedback as against the AFTN (Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network) with its channel check transmission.
“This will give clearer messages as the communicators’ job get easier,” he said.
The Federal Executive Council (FEC) recently approved about N28 billion for the award of contract for direct procurement, installation and commissioning of the total radar coverage modernisation. The contract, which was in two parts had a total is 40 million euros, which is equivalent to N28, 039,080,799.40.