NAMA will play a major role in ongoing transformation of Nigerian aviation – Akinkuotu

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Captain Fola Akinkuotu, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) is a thoroughbred engineer and pilot. He has over four decades experience in the aviation industry. He commenced his sojourn into the industry as an engineer at the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria and later ventured into aircraft piloting, having attended pilot school.

Akinkuotu worked in the defunct national carrier, the Nigeria Airways, for several years and helped start up some private airlines in the country, including the former Virgin Nigeria (later Air Nigeria) and rose to the rank of Director of Operations in the carrier.

He was later appointed the Rector, Ilorin International College of Aviation. Thereafter, Akinkuotu was appointed the Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). In January 2017, he became the Managing Director of NAMA. In this interview with AFRICAN ECONOMY, he sheds light on the major role of NAMA in the ongoing transformation of the Nigerian aviation sector. Excerpts:

NAMA logoYou were appointed Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of NAMA about a year ago. What has been your experience so far?
Well, I have spent all my adult life in this industry. It’s safe to say I have spent over 40 years of my life in the aviation industry and my experience here has been good and wonderful. It has given me the opportunity again to see another aspect of aviation and to work with other people. Life is an everyday learning process, you meet different people, and as someone in my position, one of the things I must do is be able to interact with my people and get the best out of them, so to that extent I believe it has been a good experience. We’ve recorded some successes and we are pushing in the right direction. I enjoy hard work and like every other person, I enjoy success but success by itself is not quite fulfilling if you don’t work hard for it.

What targets did you set for yourself when you assumed office as the helmsman of NAMA?
I did not document my targets because I was appointed and not elected. So, it is not like I campaigned for the position and won. Since it’s an appointment, it’s good for you get into it first and therefore be able to find out what is on ground. Of course I have some ideas, having been in the industry, as regards what I want. Definitely I want an improvement in communication, navigation and surveillance, and I am particular about human capital development and training. I know I have to exit somewhere along the line from being an active participant in the industry and so who’s going to take over? That is key.

Could you give us an insight into the activities of NAMA in the Nigerian aviation industry?
Sometimes I say NAMA is the power behind the throne. Quite often we are not seen, but if they say FAAN, you hear aah! They are the ones managing the airports. That’s why I say we are the power behind the throne. The infrastructure that we have in terms of buildings are more like mere houses. But if you have houses and you don’t have commercial tenants to occupy them it doesn’t do much. So, we have all these airports, how do we guide aeroplanes from one airport to another? That’s where NAMA comes in. We are basically involved in three key issues which we summarise as CNS – Communication, Navigation and Surveillance. I will try and break it down. When you have an airplane moving from point A to B there has to be some measure of control, otherwise you have chaos. The first time the Wright Brothers flew there was no need for air traffic control because it was just one person flying, but when you have tons of us flying, there has to be need for traffic control. So there is a need to be able to control and in controlling you have to communicate. The C stands for Communication. That is where our air traffic controllers come into it.

There is an N, which stands for navigation. If I draw a line between Lagos and Kano, there is a magnetic relationship and if I can follow that bearing I will get to Kano, hopefully when I see a landmark building I will say that is Kano but we cannot fly like that. How do we navigate from point A to B? How do we know we are leaving from Lagos and we are going to get to Ibadan or Abuja? The art of being able to fly safely from one point to the other with ground-established guidance or with the technology today, even cloud based facilitation, we are able to navigate. NAMA provides the tools for pilots or aircraft to be able to navigate, and the navigation aids can consist of ground-based navigation aids and it can also consist (as of today) of cloud-based navigation aids.

The other aspect of it is that, you are flying maybe from Lagos to Kano but there are many strips that look like the runway, how do you know that you are going to the right one? And that is why we have landing aids which are directed more specifically towards making sure that the landing is safe.

The other leg of it is surveillance. Like I said, airplanes today fly at very high altitudes, so how do we keep an eye on them? That is why we have surveillance. Surveillance is like keeping an eye on things. We provide radar guidance. We have radars that see these airplanes or objects flying through our airspace. That gives us the opportunity to be able to guide the aeroplanes and see whether there are conflicting traffic, and then of course, that provides the safety side of it. But the security side of it is that if we are able to see who is in our airspace, then we can at least define who is friend or foe.

How safe is Nigerian airspace?
It is very safe.

The present administration headed by President Muhammadu Buhari is making efforts to transform the Nigerian aviation sector. How has NAMA keyed into it?
NAMA cannot help but key into it, largely because some of the aspects that are often talked about would look to the man on the street as increases in infrastructure. There is the issue of concessioning of the airports. We want to concession the airports because we want to make them better and thereby grow the industry. There is the issue of aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), which provides maintenance for airplanes, those that are in-house and those that are external. We talk about the development of aerotropolis and cargo. What I am trying to paint to you here is that the sum total of government’s effort is to increase traffic, increase our stake in the aviation industry and transform Nigeria into an aviation hub. With more traffic that you will have, who is going to cope with the traffic? Who is going to provide the guidance? It is NAMA. So we cannot help but key into it. We are a key player in making sure that government plan becomes successful. Nobody would want to come here if you have grown traffic and there is chaos in your airspace. So we are a necessary tool and we will deliver. We are planning on the expansion already. We are projecting towards improving and increasing our facilities to be able to cope with the realities that we expect will happen with the changes government is planning for the industry.

The vision of NAMA is to be one of the leading air navigation service providers in the world. To what extent has the agency been able to actualise this vision in the past 17 years?
The aviation industry is guided by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards and recommended practices (SARPs). ICAO makes its recommendations for the guidance of all of us so that there is a global standard. Nigeria is a member of ICAO, and a signatory to all the directives from ICAO. The latest statistics put Nigeria on a high level. We are not below standard, so I think we are doing quite well but don’t forget that technology changes every day, so we are also making sure that we are coping with emerging technologies. Some of them will take time, usually they give you some period of time to be able to accomplish the recommended practices but overall, we are doing well enough. Can we improve? Of course. Everything in life can be improved upon, and we are making every effort to improve. When you look at 17 years, I go back in time and space and see that NAMA has improved tremendously in the last 17 years in navigational aids. We have improved on communications and surveillance and you hear about TRACON (total radar coverage of Nigeria). Did we have total radar coverage 17 years ago? I doubt it. So we have made some good progress since that time and I believe that it is safe to say without doubt and based on ICAO statistics that Nigeria is ranked pretty well in terms of compliance with standards that have been set. But I go back to it again and ask are there things that we need to continue to tweak? I say yes. I give you an example. Lagos has two instrument landing systems but we are in the process of installing a brand new one. We are also in the process of installing a Category 3 Instrument Landing System (ILS) at the international wing of the airport. Here we are, we have ILSs that are working but we are putting in place newer ones. The Category 3 for example will allow us to land in poor visibility that is degraded beyond a category 1. We are providing new technologies to enhance, to get better. But where are we right now? We are not lagging behind.

Have there been operational challenges?
Yes, there will always be challenges. I think it was in March last year when we decided to close Abuja airport. Was that a challenge? Yes. The runway in Abuja was failing and we couldn’t continue to allow airlines operate into Abuja safely, so government and the regulators decided to close the runway in order to fix it. And we had to provide an alternative means of getting from Lagos to Abuja for Nigerians, and Kaduna was designated as the alternate. Now here is the challenge – we expected everybody: the legacy carriers, international airlines to go into Kaduna. Did it have all the facilities that should have made it easy and safe enough to continue to operate in Kaduna? May be at that time it didn’t. The terminal building was not complete, the runway did not have an ILS and there were issues with communications. So those were challenges. Did we meet the challenges and work through them and succeed in surmounting the challenges? Yes we did. So to that extent, to say there will be no challenges will not be right. Just yesterday, one of our equipment failed. It could be because of power, it could be because it is as a tool and can fail, but our engineers are there working on it to restore it. But safety has never and must not be compromised.

Finally, what do you see as the future of NAMA in the next five to 10 years?
My hope and prayer is for the mission and vision of NAMA to be truly fulfilled. To have a NAMA that has all the modern tools that will make aviation safe and bring on board what will make the jobs of my people easier. We should be able to use tools to make our yoke lighter. The more appropriate tools you have that help you in your job, the more efficient you are. And beyond everything my belief is that for every bit of human endeavour where we have succeeded, man has been the key. So, we have to educate ourselves, we have to provide training that is at par with emerging technology and people have to generally move with the times and improve on their knowledge. So I want a workforce that is extremely knowledgeable about what they are doing, provided with the right tools, and then the right environment too. If NAMA can provide those things in the next 10 years, wherever I am I will be fulfilled and that is the kind of thing I look forward to.


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July 2018