Last week, the country’s beleaguered aviation industry found itself quite literally in the eye of the proverbial storm as inbound flights to Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), the country’s international gateway, were diverted to the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana. The two most affected airlines, British Airways and Emirates, were forced to discharge their hapless passengers in Accra, leaving them stranded, minors and all, with little by way of accommodation, food, or a firm backup plan for conveying them to their final destinations.
Under pressure to explain the sudden decision to redirect flights to Accra, a move that destabilised the affected passengers’ plans and caused them untold trauma, the Federal Ministry of Aviation, through its Director of Public Affairs, James Odaudu, blamed “malfunctioning of certain components” of the airport’s Instrument Landing Service (ILS), “coupled with the unforeseen weather conditions” which “made landing at the airport difficult.” On its Twitter page, the ministry specifically blamed the situation on hiccups “in the process of replacing the old Category 2 Instrument Landing Systems with the newly procured Category 3 system that allows for the lowest visibility landing.” The ILS is a signal navigation equipment that guides pilots when landing an aircraft in low visibility.
While the Aviation Ministry’s explanation seems plausible on the surface, upon inquiry, it does raise some eyebrows. True, changes to the weather are beyond any organisation’s control, hence the “Act of God” clause in the standard airline contract with passengers. However, while daily changes to the weather are unpredictable, perennial weather patterns are not. In Lagos, for instance, one might not be able to predict the amount of rainfall, but it is given that April to July are the wettest months of the year. Using the same logic, the Ministry of Aviation and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) need not have been caught pants down (as they were apparently) by the seasonal dust haze originating from the Sahara which led to reduced visibility. After all, the same dust haze wafted through at about this same period last year. And the year before.
Even more troubling is the matter of the Instrument Landing Systems which the ministry claims to be “in the process” of installing. The fact of the matter is that last year, the Aviation Ministry, at the instance of Minister of Aviation Hadi Sirika, had purchased, for a cool $8.5million, a Beechcraft Super King Air 350 calibration aircraft to avoid precisely the situation the MMIA had run into last week. Why has the calibration aircraft not been installed since its purchase in August 2019? As part of the decision to purchase the aircraft, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) had to discontinue its longstanding relationship with the Agency for Aerial Navigation Safety in Africa and Madagascar (ASECNA). Why was the decision to disengage from ASECNA taken when, as it now seems crystal clear in hindsight, NAMA was not ready to calibrate the Category 3 ILS?
The failure of the respective governmental agencies to take these basic things into consideration before making such an all-important technical transition speaks volumes about their lackadaisical attitude and nonchalance towards the welfare of passengers. There is no reason why, after the ignoble week his ministry has had, and after the untold hardship it has caused thousands of Nigerian passengers, the Minister of Aviation should still be in his job. If he does not have the civility or courtesy to resign, the president ought to demand his letter of resignation.