Capt Fola Akinkuotu is the managing director/ chief executive officer of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency NAMA. The renowned and well-grounded pilot and aircraft engineer as well as air worthiness expert was director-general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and also Rector, International Aviation College, Ilorin among others. In this interview with ANTHONY AWUNOR, he speaks on air safety, impact of COVID-19, debts owed NAMA and other issues in the aviation industry.
I want us to look at the newly reconstructed Enugu Airport runway, flights have recommenced there. What is the efficiency of NAVAIDS at that airport sir?
NAVAIDS have been provided that will give guidance for safe operations for the airlines in that airport. We have a newly installed Instrument Landing System (ILS), a VOR system and also Performance Based Navigation (PBN) approach systems designed and published for that airport. To that extent, I believe that there should be no issues so to say, on approaches. We have really never had issues since I have been here, going to Enugu, as far as NAVAIDS are concerned. We only just used the period during the reconstruction of the runway to also improve on our facilities like the installation of a new ILS system there which is awaiting commissioning. Like I said, we have efficient means of going into Enugu and we have approaches that will take them safely. I recall that people that came for the reopening did not come on horsebacks. The Honourable Minister came in an airplane, journalists who were with me flew from Abuja to Enugu, legislators comprising Senators and the Honourable members of House of Representatives also came to that place with air planes and not on horsebacks. That tells you that NAVAIDS are fully there for safe and efficient operations.
Globally, the aviation industry seems most affected by COVID-19. Can you tell us what NAMA has lost within this period?
Putting it mildly, a lot of our expenses, except our salary payments are in dollars. So, permit me to reference the US dollars. Although I don’t particularly like doing that. I get paid in naira, I do my shopping in naira, I pay my bills in Naira but NAMA pays a lot of its bills in dollars. I think we have made some losses in this period. This is based on our income before now and what it is right now. Aviation industry has been significantly hit, it is like a tsunami that has hit the aviation industry and it has ripple effect on a lot of things. I will accept that we have been very badly hit.
We guess NAMA’s revenue has come up with the few flights that have re-started, How significant is that in meeting your obligations?
I wouldn’t say our revenue has not come up, because that might sound ungrateful. But to say it has come up as if, it has jumped, will not represent where we are because truth must be told. Yes, it is better than yesterday but a far cry from where we were last year. We have made every effort to be very prudent in our finances for the past six months, we have made sacrifices on our part and we have asked for understanding from some of our creditors but we have not compromised safety. In all these situations since then, we have continued to provide power to all our NAVAIDS, we have continued to do maintenance on them and provide expertise for maintenance of our Air Traffic Controllers and our operations team has been fully on ground. We also made provisions for the safety of our staff in protecting them during the covid-19 era, such that their work environment is not impacted on; and they are able to do their jobs without fear of ill health. To that extent, that is where we have applied our money to. We have ensured pre COVID-19, during COVID-19 and going forward, post COVID-19 to ensure that we do not shirk our responsibility in meeting what our mandate is, to provide safe, efficient services to our stakeholders, such that we can continue to have safety of flights. We cannot grow economically or otherwise without safety. We cannot compromise safety. We have to do everything and apply everything that we can to ensure that we meet our safety obligations.
What is the latest update on the automation of the AIS?
The AIS project is a project I inherited. Having inherent it, I have rammed it up since I came in here and we are making very good progress on the AIS. A lot of the equipment which could not have been imported in the country have arrived. The AIS project, don’t forget comprises of two main projects really.
They are the portacabins that are going to house the equipment for the AIS project and then the VSATs which are part of it, that will enhance our communication ability. So, we are doing both of them at the same time. We have been installing the portacabins (Pre-fabricated Joint Briefing Room) and I think the last one we did was Enugu. We have been installing VSATs in order to improve on communications in the South East corridor. The VSAT that was installed in Enugu was tweaked to be able to work. Despite the fact that the project was not completed, we used the opportunity of having the VSAT there to improve communication in that directive. Overall, the project is going on fine. Our initial projection date was to complete it by August this year. Unfortunately, covid-19 came and it affected the manufacture of components outside because a lot of components are manufactured in Germany. It also impacted on the ability to move around for our engineers during installations. But you will be amazed that they did go. I know they went to Jos, Yola and from Yola I was shocked when they said that they were going by road to Enugu. So, we had even thought of going to charter helicopters for them but they opted that they could go by road by providing security. So, there are lots of sacrifices that have been made to ensure that the project goes on and it is going on very well. The management of NAMA is putting in a lot of effort towards the realization of the project. As a matter of fact, we had a meeting with the contractors this week, though we meet with them regularly to let them know that this project must be completed as soon as possible. Because of covid-19, we shifted the commencement date to December, although the contractor said he wants more time but management has told them that, we cannot wait ad infinitum to complete the project.
At a time when everybody is complaining of shortage of fund in meeting up their obligations, NAMA has been up and doing. How have you been coping paying salaries?
Let us say that God is kind. We all have different challenges. I can’t speak for other agencies because I do not know their financial situations or their needs. It is like here, if we need spares for the radar, it can jump up to be high priority. This is because without a functional radar system, one of my mandates will not be able to function properly. So, I will have to explain to my staff that, sorry, I can’t pay you because this radar system which guarantees the safety of all of us needs to be worked on. The same thing we have to do to service the navigation system. Those are core centres but if we are lucky not to have that problem, we will again have to look at our priorities. The thing is that the human person is the core of functionality of anything that we do in any organisation. For example, the technology that puts us on the moon, who made it. Man worked on it. It is not computers that generated the concept. Yes, the computers may have assisted but man made it happen. And therefore, we have tried to prioritize man. It is the man that fixes the ILS system. We have to pay him. The Air Traffic Controllers are there guiding traffic into safety. I don’t want him to be thinking about anything else or be thinking how is he going to feed his children. How am I going to pay school fees? So for us, we try to look at it, barring any other situation, that is going to impact on safety, we will .do anything that we can to make sure that our staff are paid. It hasn’t been easy and there is no doubt about it. It has required a lot of sacrifices and it has, maybe impacted on some other people that depend on us, some of our contractors; but it is like you don’t want to kill the chicken that lays the golden egg. When no staff is working, no revenue will come in. So how do we pay those in the future. What we have done is that we did stretch out to our ministry to help and they did in that particular month that we were very low. We do hope that we don’t have to stretch it to breaking point. That is the way this management sees it.
Before COVID-19 outbreak, some organizations were owing NAMA. With the lockdown being lifted, it seems to be a clean slate for both the service providers and the operators. Which approach would you adopt now to see that those debts are recovered?
We are not quite in post COVID-19 yet. The post lockdown or what we call the halfway house-somebody is in jail and before he goes home, they put him in halfway house so that he gets used to home. The issue is not quite as simple as that. People are owing and we are all beginning to come out of lockdown. The debtors are complaining that there is no traffic. Now these are people owing when there was traffic, and at that time, they always told us that it is the money they are paying us is what is not making them successful. So, when things were going well, they didn’t pay, now that they are just coming out, they will say look at the figures. That is the way we want to look at it. But the other thing you have to look at is okay look, I have some responsibilities too, just like they also have to pay their staff, fuel their airplanes. It is just like everyone else, I have to be able to earn money to meet my obligations. So one way to do it is to easily tell people to “pay as you go.” There are airlines or customers that we will have to apply “pay as go” to. There are some we will tell, if you cannot service your old debt but don’t increase it. The challenge sometimes is that not all the people that owe us or entities that owe us are airlines.
We also provide services to airports that are not Federal Government airports and we have agreements and MoU that they should pay us. It is trickier situation because if I say I wouldn’t provide air traffic services to Osubi for instance, the oil industry will say you want to kill the industry. Therefore, you have to reach some middle ground. Like I said earlier, it is not quite easy but one of the easier ways is to do “pay as you go” where it is possible.
Is there any project NAMA is looking towards commissioning?
We are always working. The only thing is that we don’t advertise. We are not great at advertising all we do. Some things are easier to appreciate. If you commission a new terminal building, you take pictures of that terminal building and show to people. Now, if I put a new DVOR in Iju, how many journalists will go to the bush? Then you take a picture of VOR, and you say NAMA installs a new VOR, people will look at it, they see it but it is kind of difficult sometimes, to relate with it. That is why the great things NAMA does are not so obvious to people. It is not that we don’t like PR, but it can be difficult. It is like if you have a spacecraft going to the moon or mass. Usually it is the beginning or takeoff that is seen but what happens in-between and the talk with the spacecraft. To the ordinary person it might not really make any difference. Like I said it is not that we are shy of PR. No, but because of the nature of our work, it is difficult to see. But we have a number of projects. During the time that Enugu Airport was shut down, we put a brand new ILS there, which is going to be commissioned. We have the AIS project, which has been going on since 2009.We are pushing on to make sure we finish it. We have just gotten approval to do the safe tower project, which with the provision of money, we have sectorised it. The critical part of the VCS that is required in Lagos, we hope to be able to finish it before the end of the year. We have installed new radios in Katsina and Zaria. As we speak the one in Katsina already functional. We have not commissioned it but they are using it already. And we don’t have to wait; that is the difference between us and other outfits. We install a new system that is functional and good, we don’t have to wait for commissioning before we start using it. As we speak the Zaria project is ongoing. We’ve had to move our mobile towers to ensure that, while they are these new radios in towers are being effected, we still provide communications. We have imported two new mobile towers that have arrived. They should be definitely put to work before the end of the year. Again, if I tell you that we have mobile tower and you take the picture of mobile tower, the woman on the street will say what is all these. However, the mobile tower is a very critical component. Redundancy is what drives aviation and that is “what if”. If the tower in a station shuts down, how do we provide communications, that is what the mobile tower stands for. It is a full-fledged tower but with all that you need even with the Air Conditionng, you can put it on the road. We are getting two news ones. I know there had been demands, even commercial demands for some airports or airfields that want us to lease mobile towers to them but we didn’t have extra. We only have two in the country before now. One is permanently stationed in Abuja, apart from being a system that supplies in redundancy but it is also actively involved now in ground movement because of the blockage of the tower by the new terminal building. We are getting the MLAT which is the multilateration. For a long time, traffic in the South East corridor in the Niger Delta area has not been properly captured. So, from the point of view of charges, when the MLAT situation is fully in place, we will be able to collect monies that are actually due but more importantly, it will provide surveillance picture of the security of whatever that is moving in that area. We have about 10 ILS. Benin didn’t have an ILS for a long time but we made a promise that it will be there by last year’s Christmas and it was there. Benin is also getting another ILS which we hope will be commissioned before the end of the year. Akure is getting an ILS. We are planning to put another ILS on the Lagos international. We have a category III there but just like Abuja has two ILSs on the runway, we will like to put an ILS there. So far, most of our arrivals are never from the sea. But when the wind favors landing from the seas, we should be able to have that. Even people coming from the South East corridor can actually plan to do an arrival when it is safe and convenient. It is a lot of things that we expect to happen this year.