By Monday Ukoha
COVID 19 has changed the global air transport industry in many ways. Whereas the aviation industry is witnessing increased digitalistion across its length and breadth spurred by the recovery, staff shortages persist in several subsects of the industry and the Air Traffic Management sector has not been spared which has led to inefficiencies in air traffic management. For the ATM sector, COVID led to controllers losing their proficiencies as a result of reduced traffic, lack of training and mock exercises, amongs t others. Just last July, the International Air Transport Association, IATA noted that both European and US air traffic control performances were “disappointing” and forcefully advocated that governments look into issues such as staffing, modernization, and workers’ rights in order to forestall disruptions to air services due to strikes by ATC.
The African situation
Air transport continues its recovery after the pandemic and many countries are already at 2019 passenger level as of 2023. Africa’s air traffic is expected to make a full recovery in 2024. Many of the ATM sector challenges in Africa had existed pre COVID 19 and have only become intensified, for instance staffing. Furthermore, over the years, Africa ATM had suffered from fragmentation of the airspace with many equipment types and manufacturers, a subpar safety record which continues to improve, and inadequate investment in infrastructure amongst others.
In 2019, CANSO Africa the leading voice for ATM in Africa had “identified five key challenges that we need to address: improving aviation safety by tackling the continuing absence of safety management systems (SMS) in some ANSPs; the lack of proper implementation of infrastructure; a shortage of financial and human resources; improving the training and development of operational staff; and the continuing need to encourage separation between the provision of air navigation services and responsibility for regulatory oversight”
Post COVID Challenges
In the aftermath of COVID, some of these challenges have intensified. Staff shortages, constrained revenue generation opportunities, lack of government financial support due to competing needs from social sectors and low revenues have combined to weaken the efficiencies of ANSPs. In October 2022, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency said it would recruit 100 Air Traffic Controllers between 2023 and 2028 to plug the shortages. This in part is to address the complaints of the Nigerian Air Traffic Controller’s Association-NATCA, of insufficient staffing leading to re-contracting of retired Air Traffic Controllers. In 2022, Africa’s leading ANSP, ASECNA was involved in strike over staff working conditions which grounded operations at many of its airports across Africa.
In spite of the challenges, the opportunities for growth in the sector abound. First, the air transport industry in Africa is primed for more growth after the bump of COVID 19. According to IATA “Africa has a solid foundation to support the case for improving aviation’s contribution to its development. Pre-COVID aviation supported 7.7 million jobs and $63 billion in economic activity in Africa. Projections are for demand to triple over the next two decades”. Furthermore, the expected implementation of the Single African Air Transport Market SAATM will increase fifth freedom routes across African countries and invariably lead to more air traffic on the continent with the concomitant requirements for more infrastructure and airspace capacity. AFCAC Secretary General, Ms Adefunke Adeyemi says the goal of AFCAC is to increase the percentage of fifth freedom routes in Africa from current level of 15% to 25% by 2025. More routes will open up more flights and create needs for more ATM systems.
More Investments in ATM Needed Across Africa
These challenges and growth opportunities obviously call for more investments in Air Traffic Management systems in Africa. At the 41st ICAO Assembly in 2022 “The 184 countries participating in the Assembly also formally acknowledged the long-term investment frameworks needed to modernize aviation infrastructure and air navigation services globally,” These investments apart from filling staff shortages will also include investments in improving the infrastructure, in the complete implementation of PBN across Africa and investment in the required augmentation systems including Satellite Based Augmentation SBAS. African countries must continue to focus on the Global Aviation Navigation Plan and the Aviation Sector Block Upgrades (ASBU) commitments.
In their guidance for investments, both African Airlines Association (AFRAA) and IATA have advised that decisions on ATM investments must be made collaboratively with the airlines and other users to ensure good return on investment, on the one hand; and that infrastructure deficiencies in the various national air traffic management systems are closed in a cost-effective, efficient and mutually beneficial manner. Collaborative investments will also ensure that airlines and other users optimize their investments in aircraft-based systems.
User charges in Africa, especially West and Central Africa, is notoriously high according to industry experts and users. IATA says “High costs of aviation fuel and energy, rising infrastructure user charges, the various statutory taxes and levies, other inflationary input costs and regulatory barriers are inhibiting African airlines’ return to profitability.” African aviation infrastructure providers say that their charges are basically cost recovery in nature. Others argue that average charges in Africa are way higher than their counterparts in Europe for instance. It is therefore pertinent again, that ANSPs in Africa and their users work for a mutually acceptable user charges template. Perhaps, they can borrow lessons from other climes.
Efficient ATM services have a huge role to play in assisting the African air transport industry achieve the Net Zero 2050 target. In this regard many countries in Africa should embrace the Free Routing Airspace concept, which has the capacity to save cost for the airlines while protecting the environment. Apart from saving airlines and users unnecessary costs, in post COVID environment, every infrastructure investment must be measured in terms of ability to reduce fuel burns through shorter routes and other efficient ATM strategies. Speaking specifically of the Satellite-Based Augmentation System, a stakeholder said: “the implementation of SBAS would not only enhance safety, efficiency and capacity of the Air Traffic Management system but would also increase the efficiency of the airlines through reduced flight time and turnaround time, reduced fuel consumption, reduced workload for both pilots and air traffic controllers and increased profitability over time.” Such modern systems have to be embraced by many countries in the continent to build the critical mass to improve the ATM system on the continent.
In line with global industry objectives, African ATM systems must be built on the “pillars of safety, capacity and efficiency, security and facilitation, economy, and lastly protection of the environment.” This is true before and even after the pandemic.