Monday, October 24, 2011

October 24th, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Last Thursday was Ghana’s ‘International Air Traffic Controllers Day Celebration’. Chaired by the Director General (DG) of Ghana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), Air Commodore (rtd) Kwame Mamphey, the theme of the event was ‘De-linking the Air Navigation Service Provider from the Regulator’. The Chairman (effectively representing the regulator) kicked off the match with his opening statement that included ‘there is some angst with both under the same roof’!

The President of the Air Traffic Controllers Association in Ghana, Mr Michael Atiemo, explained that the development of the industry worldwide is moving towards ‘independence’ of ATC and informed us all that only two countries in the sub-region, Ghana and Gambia, still have ATC as an integrated part of the regulatory body. He explained that some of the current challenges at the authority are related to communications, training, manpower, etc and indicated that the current, on-going, lack of a ‘Deputy Director Technical’ at GCAA is an issue for them… He did not give blame, but identified the need to address these niggling problems in the interest of safety. The Accra FIR (Flight Information Region), although well respected on the continent, has much room for development – and it covers a large area spreading beyond the geographical boundaries of the Territories of the Republic of Ghana. It was proudly stated that ‘Air Traffic Services has come a long way from the early days of independence’, which, of course, it should have!

In the aviation fraternity, Ghana really does have one of the best reputations for air traffic service deliveries on the continent – and so it should, because Ghana boasts its own Air Traffic Simulator – which is used to train many other nations too!

As is often the case at these meetings, the Minister was ‘unable’ to attend. I am sure that, over my many years at such events, less than half of the ‘slated appearances’ of Ministers and other dignitaries actually result in a physical presence. However, it was particularly sad that the Ministers speech was read out by the DG, and that no single representative from the Ministry could have found the time to support this very important event and represent the Minister – and report back to him. Perhaps it is an indication that, in the ‘transport policy pack’, Air Traffic Control, and with it aviation, is not being given the due attention it deserves.

The speech acknowledged that the ATC personnel work hard to maintain safety in the air and on the ground and that the value of their function cannot be over emphasised. Referencing rapid growth, it raised the challenges of the expansion rate in our region and noted that ICAO has made it known that it would prefer to see the ‘decoupling for optimisation and appropriate monitoring’. The minister’s speech talked about ‘best practices’, and that there was an indicated desire to have this topic tabled for ‘cabinet consideration’.

There was reference made to the concept that ‘full support would be given to the ATC personnel to discharge their duties’, including reference to the new ATIS (Automatic Traffic Information System) and VOR (VHF Omnidirectional Radio) as well as the on-going work at Kotoka International Airport.

As we listened to the closing paragraphs of the ministers ‘second-hand’ speech it was clear that it is not a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’ decoupling takes place, and with that the question of ‘how’ must be raised.

Growth and expansion was raised frequently in all of the presentations and comments of the day, as well as ‘improvements to infrastructure’, including ‘more airfields to be opened up by Government’. Recently it was announced that KIA is being closed to traffic, for five to seven hours each night for the next two years for maintenance and development work (which I am sure will create some interesting manoeuvres for the cargo and ‘late-night-early-morning’ flights that will need to slide their slots for a while). Furthermore, Tamale and Kumasi are slated for investment to maintain their current levels of service, surface and equipment and then to expand some more. Great talk, but we have heard this before – when and if will we see the reality? I hope we do, for air transport has the potential to open up the country and to change the way we all do business, as well as contribute massively towards a reduction in the North-South socio-economic divide.

Personally, I was very pleased to be asked to ‘offer some words of solidarity’. This gave me the opportunity to thank the many faces that I only know as voices over the frequencies, acknowledging in public forum, and en-masse their contributions to safety in our skies, and to make it clear that, from where I see things, there is an ‘over-focus’ on the top end of aviation without sufficient support for the entry level aviation that fuels the staffing needs for sector-development in Ghana.

For the Key Note, Maxwell Arthur, Head of the GATA centre, took centre stage, opening with a disclaimer statement that his deliberations were ‘his own opinion’. He had a clever set of statements that reflected how the different chapters of regulation interact that brought home to all how the many aspects of the aviation industry operate together, seamlessly, in order to keep aircraft, crews and passengers safe - on the ground and in the air. Maxwell, a time served GCAA man pointed out that traditionally, all over the world, ATC was part of the ‘government controlled oversight of the industry’ package, and yet today we are witnessing, worldwide, that ‘private practice is more efficient than government management’.

He explained that ‘If there is only one structure covering all functions, it is like being a referee for your own game’ – which compromises safety. It was reiterated that both ICAO (International Civil Aviation Authority) and IATA (International Air Transport Association) are in favour of ‘restructuring and de-coupling’ in the interest of ‘efficiency and safety’.

One of the charts shown and discussed, divulged how many nations have decoupled, using varied methods – from ‘Not for profit, independent entities’, through ‘Government Corporations’ and to ‘public/private partnerships’ – the fact being that in each case there were advantages with the decoupling. (No mentions were made about the disadvantages, so I assume that a separate ‘disadvantages’ meeting will take place!). Demonstrated improvements in the models discussed have included ‘improvements in safety, technological investments and developments, service quality, cost reduction, financial stability, labour relationships, service to small communities, support for general aviation and better civil/military relationships’. It was made clear that whatever model is undertaken for Ghana that ‘The model should serve the purpose for which it is intended’ – which I am sure we are all relieved to hear!

We all need to ‘watch this space’ for the forthcoming changes, which we hope will be transparent and led by an appropriately experienced team, to the way the Air Traffic Control structure is transitioned towards ‘independent body’; and with it I hope that our dedicated and hard-working ATC staff will find a more ‘appropriate, focused and supportive’ environment, for they really do ‘watch over us’ and ‘bring us home safely’ as we leave our contrails across the West African skies.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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