Pushing The Transformation Agenda At ATNS

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Q: Can you give us a brief overview on ATNS?

A: The Air Traffic Navigation Services (ATNS) was established in 1993 as a state-owned company under the Ministry of Transport and its mandate is to provide solutions in terms of air traffic management as well as navigation infrastructure and services, to keep the South African airspace safe. Our mandate also includes the acquisition, establishment, provision, control, and maintenance of the Air Traffic Navigation infrastructure which includes communication, navigation as well as surveillance infrastructure. We are a sole provider of the airspace service, and you should understand that the country will not want to have too many players in terms of airspace management particularly from the point of view of security and making sure that we work together with the South African Airforce. The role that we play and the confidence the government has in the services we offer is quite high, therefore, we need to ensure that we keep that element of airspace management quite secure and efficiently managed.

The other aspect of ATNS is that we provide training through the aviation training academy as well as advisory services or consultancy services. We also deploy infrastructure services in various countries. As a state-owned company, we are subscribed to a number of regulations. One is the economic regulator under the Ministry of Transport. We also subscribe to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards and Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) regulations amongst others within the ANSP environment. What is also significant is that we manage the surrounding space within South Africa. As you can see, we are at the bottom of the continent, therefore we have the capability of managing the oceanic space. We currently oversee up to 6% of the world airspace.

We pride ourselves in deploying state-of-the-art technologies. As indicated, we are regulated, so the infrastructure we deploy is dependent on the approval by the regulator. They approve of what we can deploy in terms of CNS infrastructure. The importance of the regulator is that they are playing oversight; they give us permission to deploy or manage our resources and to also deploy any required technology. They also oversight us on the efficiencies of our services, so it is a three layer of oversight in terms of the services we provide, efficiency, and infrastructure. These also encourage us to ensure that we are ahead of our game as we provide our services offerings. Our services are present in up to 25 states within the African continent, including St. Helena which is a remote island in South Atlantic Ocean.


Q:  Is the economic regulator the same as the SACAA?

A: They are a different body appointed by our shareholder to ensure that the services we provide are efficient and meet the needs of our customers and end users. They also ensure that we deploy the infrastructure required by the industry. The economic regulator oversees the process of us getting an approved tariff as well as approval for infrastructural deployment for a period of 5 years. They engage with our shareholder, customers and any other association excluding the SACAA within the aviation sector. These include the airline associations to confirm, agree and approve whichever needs they may have. We agree that we can cater for this demand through our infrastructure deployment for a period of 5 years. The agreement is focused on the tariff application, infrastructure, and technology deployment for a period of 5 years. This is applied to us as ATNS as well as the Airport Company South Africa (ACSA).


Q: If there is a collaborative arrangement between you and your users, why are there still complaints about high charges?

A: For example, due to COVID, we had to delay some of the deployments of our technologies so now we need to catch up and we require higher tariffs so that we can afford to deploy the required technologies. But if you look at the aviation industry, for the airlines, the price of tickets has increased by more than 30% and in other instances by more than 40%. In our case, we are not looking at any tariff increase beyond 10% per annum, it is far less than that or within that range of below 10%. We are asking for moderate, and I think what the airspace users always look at the aviation industry as a whole and conclude that the prices are high generally or zoom into ANSP charges without proper information. In summary, with the ANSP, what we charge is directed and managed by the regulator in South Africa. Therefore, we cannot charge exorbitant prices, and it is for that reason that it involves the airlines, airline associations, IATA, and other relevant stakeholders to ensure that we do not charge exorbitant prices. In other words, our prices are fair, it is for that reason that we have never charged any double-digit figures for the past few years. It is only now that we are asking for 10% per annum, and that is because we need to catch up on ensuring that we continue delivering excellent service. This is particularly required as the cost of deployment of our infrastructure has also increased.


Q: For the industry’s target for CO2 emission reduction, we know ANSPs will play a crucial role. What is ATNS doing in this regard?

A: Let me also indicate that as ATNS, we have three pillars in our strategy. One is Service Excellence. That element of the pillar talks about how we render our services to our end users, the airlines, and it also includes the issue of efficiency. Environmental sustainability is very much dependent on efficiency within the airspace. The other pillar that we have in terms of our strategy is financial sustainability. Let me add another element which is especially important in our pillars, the innovation pillar. This says that as we continue to commit ATNS and contribute to net-zero CO2 emission by 2050, we need to make sure that we continue to research and identify ways to efficiently manage our environment. We have elevated our environmental sustainability to be part of the CANSO accreditation process. The CANSO Accreditation Process looks at how ANSPs are managing their air traffic management systems to ensure that they achieve net-zero CO2 emission.

It looks at flight operation efficiencies. Therefore, ATNS focuses on flight operation efficiencies.

We collaborate with players within the aviation sector. For example, we do calculations with the airlines to see how much time they spend in the airspace. How then do we work on efficiency? We look at our procedures. We are currently reviewing our flight procedures and the other element is how we can reduce the time spent in the airspace. Our procedure designs and our routes drive efficiency so that we reduce the cost of running the business. We collaborate with other aviation players in South Africa. We have a concept called Air Collaborating Decision Making Process where together we make use of data to make decisions, to improve efficiency and to collaborate in reducing the emissions. This cannot be achieved by ANSPs alone, it must be collaborative.

This one talks about our future, and it excites me a lot. For the first time as ATNS we are working with manufacturers of aircraft to understand their plans for the next 20 years. This is to collaborate with them and ensure that our systems and technologies integrate the modern technologies they will be bringing in their systems and aircraft. It is particularly important for us to do that because we are really committed to implementing the environmental management system and processes. Internally, how we ensure that we cascade the weight of climate change, environmental management system, ICAO’s target of Net zero carbon emissions is that we have communication platforms in our organization where on a bi-monthly basis we have sessions to talk about climate change and its effects. We educate our employees on that. We are also able to cascade as well, methods of managing the environment, water, energy and waste, awareness. Both internal and external stakeholders together with biodiversity management are part of the ATNS environmental management system. So, we have elevated that collaboration element.


Q: South Africa is easily one of the most technologically developed parts of Africa. Are South Africans involved in the production of some of the equipment used for the air traffic management?

A: That talks to transformation. We are transforming our industry; our industry has been one where we get deployments of our technological equipment mainly from outside the continent. We have now decided to transform, and that is why we won an award last year. The Civil Aviation Authority awarded us the Transformation Award because of the work we are doing in this area. Our transformation looks at both the internal and external environment. So, with the internal environment, we look at how we can transform our own working space. We have a strategy and new values that we have developed, adopted, and cascaded throughout the organization. Now we are assessing ourselves particularly at leadership level on how we are living against these values. We are also ensuring that internally we have ethical leadership. We have ethical structures and processes that have been defined to ensure that our transformation processes are transparent, and they are aligned with the objectives of the organization as well as the mandate that we have.

Externally, we collaborate with various players through our supply chain. We also have something called employment equity which makes sure that there is balance and parity in terms of salaries and gender-based issues, among others. Within the external environment, let us start within the community that we operate in. That is where we deploy our Corporate Social Investments. This focuses on how we are working together with players such as schools, Small, Micro and Medium Enterprises (SMMEs) and supply chain. Let me give you an example, we have signed a collaborative effort with NTSU, a Small Medium Enterprise company through our enterprise development process, which is part of our objective to transform the aviation sector. We have managed to give them drones to train young men and women that are coming from the schools we support through our CSI.

We have schools we support through the Department of Basic Education. When those students matriculate, we select a few and train them on drones, and we are currently looking for partners for the employment of those students, so that they can get practical training and employment on how to use drones.

This is the transformation example I want to give you in terms of enterprise development. That is where we see that working with other industries in South Africa, we will one day be able to manufacture some of these solutions. We also have a clear indication of our supply chain policies whereby we have companies that want to deploy technologies from overseas. We often ask them to partner with the players locally to transfer knowledge and skills to the SMME within the country.

I would like to highlight that through the innovation pillar, ATNS was also voted the first runner up for the aviation research and development award for our progress in aeronautical innovation in air traffic management over the past 30 years. As ATNS, we pride ourselves in that over the past 30 years our safety record has been excellent and that is why we are able to deploy our services to other countries on the continent. And I must acknowledge the work that we do with our partners on the continent as well as the ANSPs we work with. We appreciate the work we do with Nigeria for example. We have been to Nigeria, and we are looking at expanding our relationship with them as they are one of the biggest countries on the continent in terms of the population and economic activities.

To continue on the nomination, we have an ATNS aviation psychologist, Mr. Matita Tshabalala who was nominated for the aviation professional award category and voted runner up. This tells you that when it comes to human factors, we are the best because we have expertise as an organization that looks after the health of our employees.

Q: What do you think can be done to mitigate the shortage of Air Traffic Controllers in the continent?

A: One main reason we have a shortage is because our employees are being poached externally. You find them in various countries of the world, in the UAE and others. Some were even poached for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. There is a high poaching of our employees, the question is what are we doing about it? One, we have a bursary opportunity that is offered by the company. We take students who have completed high school with the subjects and marks required and develop them into air traffic controllers. We have since increased the number of students that we need to take. On the other hand, we are also looking at inviting those who have left ATNS to return to the organization for competitive offers.

We are expanding and opening opportunities for air traffic controllers to come and work for ATNS through the bursary system, our employment and recruitment processes. This is important as we are an organization that trains for the world because of the competences and capabilities that we have and the quality of training that we offer ATCs and flight procedure designers.


Q: When we look at South Africa, there are many female CEOs in the aviation sector, is there any organizational strategy other parts of Africa need to adopt?

A: Let me start by also indicating that our Minister of Transport is a lady. We pride ourselves in terms of what we do and how she is driving transformation within the aviation sector. I would also like to say that as a country, there has been a concerted effort to drive transformation where opportunities are given in development and capabilities are really directed at affording females the opportunity to really lead. For me, I studied geology in the mining sector, and I was the only female in class in the early 1990s and that was because there was a drive at that time that females must be given opportunities.

I was one of those who was given that opportunity, but it was hard. I will give you an example, I worked in the mining sector in 1993 and at that time, there was no female ablution facility where I could shower. So, I would leave with coal dust all over me back to my accommodation just because there was no facility to clean myself as the only woman there at that time. But the government and the leaders in our environment made sure that at every level and sector, there is an element of transformation for females. I then moved to consulting, training, and aviation. One thing I will say is that all through the journey that I had, there has been clear support for female development in various sectors within the country. It is being pushed and it starts from the leadership, from the Ministry, CEOs, Executive levels, and it gets cascaded throughout.

An example is when I was doing ground handling in 1996.There were few females, and I was responsible for training. I was given the task of bringing more females into the sector. There was a lot of resistance from males because there were certain things that they were doing that would only support men.

We had to break those things and it was not easy.


Q: In terms of legacy will be your legacy in ATNS and what are the areas you are looking to improve for the sector?

A: One thing I would like to do is to make sure our training and qualifications are portable. At the moment, we have portability in terms of ATC, but we want to produce development programmes that are portable. In other words, if I get a diploma in leadership at ATNS or any aeronautical qualification, it can be recognized everywhere I go. I want to bring in diplomas, degrees, and masters in our business space because we do not have that. We need to broaden the ATC qualification and leadership qualification that we bring into the space, but it has to be portable. I want to see an aeronautical university in South Africa. This is possible through collaboration with other universities. Starting afresh will be difficult. Another of my areas of interest is to ensure that we advance in technology. We have opportunities of bringing in technologies that are not visible infrastructure based. I really want to look at solutions that are airspace and cloud based, that are not physically installed so that the management of the airspace can be done anywhere in the world. We have started with that. Lastly, we have 50% of females at executive, board and at operational level, which is a fair balance of male and female. We will continue to push for diversity in our environment and ensure we bring in more females and more skills that are coming from the various areas in our community.

An example is the younger generation which has a different model of living, and we really need to adapt and adjust. They are more into technology; they do not like pen and paper. They are more on their gadgets. We are looking at ways to capacitate ourselves so that the future generation is considered in terms of what they need and how they operate.

I want to see ATNS advance into becoming the first organization that caters for the needs of young people in air traffic management.

Ms. Nozipho Mdawe with Aireon CEO, Mr. Don Toma during the signing of a collaboration agreement between their organisations


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