International Day of the Air Traffic Controller: Outdated Technology and the Challenges in Nigeria’s Air Traffic Control

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By Ejiofor Agada

Air traffic controllers play a crucial role in ensuring the safety and efficiency of air travel, managing the complex network of aircraft in the sky and on the ground. Recognizing their vital contribution, the International Day of the Air Traffic Controller is observed worldwide. But now we need to look at the specific challenges faced by air traffic controllers in Nigeria, particularly the outdated technology and infrastructure that hampers their operations.

From obsolete communication systems to limited radar coverage and inadequate navigation equipment, these challenges pose significant risks to the safety, efficiency, and capacity of Nigeria’s air traffic control system. It is imperative to explore the impact of these challenges on air traffic control operations, the efforts being made to modernize the system, the importance of training and capacity building for controllers, and the way forward for Nigeria’s air traffic control system.

Every 25th of October is recognized as the International Day of the Air Traffic Controller! It is a day dedicated to celebrating the unsung heroes who keep the skies safe and flights on track. It’s a chance to appreciate the men and women who work tirelessly behind the scenes, juggling planes like expert circus performers.

Air traffic control is the secret sauce that makes the aviation industry work smoothly. The invisible hand guides aeroplanes, ensuring safe takeoffs and landings and preventing mid-air collisions. Without air traffic control, chaos would reign supreme in the skies, and the friendly skies would not be so friendly after all.

In the case of Nigeria’s air traffic control system, it’s a complex web of highly trained professionals, cutting-edge technology, and the occasional cup of coffee to stay awake during those late-night shifts. The system is divided into various sectors, with each sector responsible for a specific airspace region. Think of it as dividing the sky into slices like a delicious pizza, but instead of topping choices, you have flight paths and altitude levels.

Imagine trying to have a conversation with your best friend using two tin cans and a string. That’s how it feels for air traffic controllers in Nigeria sometimes. Cases of outdated communication systems make it difficult for controllers to relay important information to pilots in real-time. It’s like trying to send a text message with a rotary phone – frustrating and slow.

Air traffic controllers rely on radar to keep an eye on planes in their airspace, but for some time in Nigeria, radar coverage is like a game of hide-and-seek. Some areas have excellent coverage, while others are left in the dark (or in this case, the foggy skies). This limited radar coverage can lead to blind spots, making it challenging to track and manage aircraft efficiently.

Just 2yrs ago, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) revealed that no airport in the country has up to 80% functioning equipment.

This was disclosed by the group’s President, Abayomi Agoro, in an interview, where he explained that the deplorable conditions in airport control towers around the nation’s airports, including Katsina, Kano, Sokoto, and Calabar, among other aerodromes, had been of great concern to his group. This issue and multiple other complaints had made NATCA embark on multiple industrial actions, all in a bid to call the attention of the government to their plight and challenges.

Navigating the skies is not as easy as following Google Maps. Aeroplanes need sophisticated navigation equipment to ensure they stay on course and avoid unwanted detours. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s air traffic control system is in desperate need of a personnel and equipment upgrade as outdated navigation systems can lead to delays, confusion, and the occasional “turn right at the next cloud” instruction.

Also, outdated air traffic control systems increase the risk of mid-air collisions due to communication delays, radar blind spots, and limited navigation capabilities. It’s like a real-life game of bumper cars but with much higher stakes. Though emergencies can happen anytime, anywhere, even in the skies, outdated air traffic control systems make it harder to detect and effectively manage emergency situations when every second counts, a delay in communication or inadequate navigation support can have grave consequences.

So, on this International Day of the Air Traffic Controller, it is very important to raise the imaginary glasses and salute the air traffic controllers who work tirelessly to keep the aviation skies safe. It should never be lost on the government the need to invest in modernizing Nigeria’s air traffic control system because when it comes to aviation safety, no one should settle for outdated technology.

In Nigeria NATCA is celebrating the International Day of the Air Traffic Controller at their 52nd AGM and Aviation Conference in Port Harcourt, the River State capital, with the theme:  ‘Airspace Management and Contingent Cost Recovery Plan: Proposing a New Approach”, issues related to how the country will overcome its outdated technology, even as air traffic controllers struggle to efficiently manage the available airspace, causing reduced capacity with fewer planes being safely accommodated in the sky at any given time. This has resulted in flights being delayed or rerouted, adding to the already hectic nature of air travel.

According to NATCA officials, “this conference which will see the likes of  Rivers State Governor Sir Siminalayi Fubura, as a special guest of honour,  a former board Chairman of FAAN, Chief Sergeant Chidi Awuse, Chairman Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of Nigeria, Dr. Alex Nwuba and the Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development Mr  Festus Keyamo among others, is meant to review the extent the country has developed a National Airspace System Plan to modernize its air traffic control infrastructure”. This plan aims to enhance safety, increase efficiency, and improve the capacity of Nigeria’s airspace.

In all the gloom and doom tales, though, one exciting development in Nigeria’s modernization efforts is the implementation of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). This is a technology that allows aircraft to broadcast their position, altitude, and speed information to air traffic control and other aircraft. It’s like giving controllers a crystal-clear view of the sky, enabling them to manage traffic more effectively and make informed decisions.

With more investment, it is hoped that there’ll be improved communication between air traffic controllers and pilots, as Nigeria is working on integrating Next Generation Air-Ground Communication Systems. These systems use digital data links to exchange information, reducing the reliance on traditional voice communications. Now, with the introduction of these modern technologies and continuous training and professional development, it is expected that good times await the sector in the near future.

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