All over the world, one of the most important jobs in the aviation sector is Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs). This is because, ATCs keep pilots and passengers safe and make the whole system run smoothly.
It is a simple fact that aviation would not have been where it is today without the dedication of air traffic controllers. However controlling air traffic is mostly herculean, and not everybody is cut out for the role as it requires acquisition of special skills, trainings and technical knowhow.
Also, the job can be stressful, but the rewards are embarrassingly inadequate especially in Nigeria. In Nigeria for instance, ATCs suffer from poor condition of services to lack of basic amenities to function properly on their job. They also complain of the working environment which they say is becoming deplorable.
Due to these challenges mentioned, over nine ATCs have lost their lives in the last two years while several others are battling with stress related ailment.
In the early hour of Monday, an ATC, Aniekan Inuk Effiong, slumped and died on duty. Effiong, who is an Air Traffic Controller at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, reportedly slumped while at his duty post at the approach radar of the Abuja airport.
It was gathered that the deceased slumped due to work overload as the country is short of ATCs thereby, putting pressure on the few poorly paid controllers that existed in the industry.
Nigeria Aviation sector needs 650 controllers nationwide to meet the needs of existing and new airports popping up but, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), could only provide a psltry 275 ATCs meaning Nigeria airports presently have a shortfall of 325 ATCs nationwide
But, while NAMA is short staff in its critical and technical area, the agency has an over-bloated workforce that are top heavy while core professionals to carry out its prescribed mandate are inadequate to meet present needs and realities of the sector.
Speaking, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), Abayomi Agoro said it was shameful that NAMA could not employ core professionals in the critical areas who are needed to do the job stating that even as there is a lack of ATCs, redundant staff are sitting while collecting money for doing nothing.
Agoro, had disclosed lack of effective working conditions saying some airports in the country lack functioning ATCs equipment and basic amenities.
He said, “at the control tower at the Kaduna Airport, their is lack of a urinary system at the Katsina control tower and failed equipment in Kano. ATCs bear the brunt of the dilapidated system, the working environment is becoming deplorable.
“Some airports do not even have functioning equipment. Kaduna does not have a control tower, what they are using there is a watch room (for firefighters) which is not built for that purpose and we have been calling on the government to do something, we go to Sokoto, once it rains, controllers will go to look for umbrellas to sit at the control tower.
“We are still battling with terrestrial radio frequency and communication. Calabar also had its own challenges. No airport has all the needed equipment.”
For Katsina airport, there is no system to answer nature’s call unless the ATC left the building which would be a breach of professional ethics.
“In Katsina, we have a one-man watch and there is no restroom. He is a human being and may feel the need to urinate at some point and if he descends from the tower, it is a breach of his professional ethics. So, what do you expect that person to do?”
“Kano has a fine building but facilities inside is a failure. We are angry because if the system demands I put my whole life into it, I expect the system to provide me with the working tools to be able to do that.”
But because of vehicular restrictions to the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) site, he could not be rushed to the hospital.
However, due to these poor working conditions and increasing death of ATCs nationwide especially while on duty, NATCA, embarked on three hours flow control strike action to press home their demands of seeking a better working condition for their members.
Flow control which disrupted flights across Nigeria is a measure use to ensure flights are delayed for 30 minutes before given clearance for take off across airports in the country except international flights strike.
“Fully dedicated operational vehicles be provided to Air Traffic Controllers for the four major airports in Nigeria (Abuja Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano) and to any other airport where ATC operational vehicle is critically needed. That ATC Operational rooms are provided with adequate and quality ATC operational chairs and headsets, the statement reads.
“That at least 500 ATCOs be recruited to address the critical dearth in ATC manpower within the next two years starting with 70 recruits within the next three months. Approve and implement a 500% upward review of the annual ATC medical allowance to enable ATCOs carry out comprehensive medical assessment among others. That all Air Traffic controllers be enrolled in an enhanced comprehensive health and life insurance schemes that will meet their health needs.
“ That a standard medical emergency kits be provided at all ATC units and a yearly Health Safety Environment (HSE) training programs for ATCOs be conducted.
“That all ATC communication facilities and equipment, most especially, the VHF radios and SATCOM links be holistically rectified in other to address the perennial communication problems encountered in Nigerian airspace.
That the staff deployed to ATC from other departments who have been stagnated on the same grade level for over seven years be placed on their appropriate grade levels having fulfilled all requirements to be Air Traffic Controllers.
“That all appropriate managements should immediately approve and implement an upward review of the remunerations of contract ATCOs to make for them to earn Aerodrome and Approach rating allowances.
LEADERSHIP on the development, the secretary general, Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said shortage of controllers would cause stress on tha available one evening as he said its a disaster in waiting
According to him, shortage of controllers and facilities surely are roads that led to the accidents of 2005/2007 and can still lead to many more.
He said, “In 2006, NAMA had a shortage of over 300 controllers when the airports were fewer than what they are today with the addition of about 10 more states and private airports. Many of the old controllers have retired and not significant numbers have been trained to fill the gaps.
Shortage of controllers would definitely cause stress on the few that are available to do the work. Shortage of controllers caused by the absence of radar controllers on the day the Bellview airlines aircraft crashed in 2005. Shortage of wind sheer systems caused the crash of Sossoliso aircraft in PH and ADC in Abuja etc. One would have thought that the experiences of 2005/2007 and the intervention funds for the agencies would have solved these problems but it would appear that there were no oversight on these lapses by the responsible authorities neither were there serious enforcement of the implementation of the various safety recommendations that emanated from the 2005/2007 accidents. Shortage of controllers and facilities surely are roads that led to the accidents of 2005/2007 and can still lead to many more.
“We are giving certification to airports, are there skilled manpower for air traffic control duties in sufficient number? We are entering the harmattan period when weather will be inclement, are the necessary navigational and landing aids calibrated to sustain flight operations during the period? These are the necessary oversight functions of the ncaa. When did the responsible authorities conduct Audits on the services providers, NAMA in particular to ensure that the necessary safety measures are in place,” he said.
Also speaking, the immediate past secretary-general, National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Com. Olayinka Abioye, said there is a huge manpower shortage in almost all the technical sector within the NAMA workforce.
He, however, said he wasn’t sure whether the agency is ready to fill-up the technical section of the Agency.
He said, “As often said, a disgruntled worker is an accident waiting to happen since mistakes could occur if and when a staff is highly disillusioned, frustrated, stressed and less motivated in his workplace. From available reports too, we have noted that there is very huge manpower shortage in almost all the technical sector within the NAMA workforce so much so that various associations have had to appeal for attention for recruitment of suitable hands.
“Getting employees in place however is the beginning of the entire process as they need to understudy and go through induction before proceeding to the College for the appropriated training required. This takes time and costs money.
All said and done, these challenges pose serious health rated hazard to the workforce and as a result may also lead to available mistakes which ultimately may lead to safety challenges.
“My appeal is that Management must as a matter of urgency put the machinery in motion towards ameliorating this situation, to enhance professionalism, safety and security of lives.”