Have you ever been in a flight, told to strap on your seat belt because it’s time to commence landing proceedings when suddenly, the captain’s voice comes over the public address system,” Hello this is your captain speaking and although I just said we will be landing in the next 5minutes due to VIP movement we will be spending an extra thirty minutes in the air before we can land, this is because there are queues of aircraft mid-air waiting to land and even some behind us have been given emergency priority. We will keep you posted but in the meantime, enjoy the rest of the flight.”
Now that is one information every passenger can do without, and one information of how much more a flight just got more expensive for an airline owing to a runway close because the President or his Vice or anyone else deemed dignitary is about to use the runway and airways.
A VIP movement technically called a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is action taken by the airport authorities to restrict flight operations for a specified amount of airspace, on a temporary basis, in order to provide protection for person(s) or property in the air or on the ground.
VIP movements have become a norm in Nigeria since the re-emergence of democracy in 1999. In fact it was made popular by the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo who would, every Friday. Fly into Lagos from Abuja and then commence by vehicle to his Ota residence before returning back on Sunday or Monday morning.
As flamboyant as it was the seeing the president in his convoy majestically moving about, it was one trip that the airline area of the aviation sector dreaded because of what the VIP movement meant to them safety wise and financially.
In fact VIP movement became so bad that in June 23, 2012, Lagos lawyer Mr. Femi Falana gave then Minister of Aviation, Princess Stella Oduah, seven days to provide the name of a “very important personality” (VIP) who caused the delayed landing of an Arik aircraft at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, for over 25 minutes on June 19 of same year.
Falana made the request in a letter to the minister, entitled: Illegal Prevention of Arik Plane from Landing At the Nnamdi Azikwe Airport Due To VIP Movement.
The lawyer said he and other passengers were subjected to unwarranted mental and psychological torture while the Arik plane was hovering in the air.
These VIP movements in the aviation sector touched the fabric of the country’s life that the Senate moved against VIP abuse in airports in a motion to curb the abuses of Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) orders by Nigerian airport commandants and security officials.
The motion, sponsored by Osita Izunaso and 29 other senators, followed the June 19 incident in which an Arik Air Boeing 737 700 series 7.15 am flight from Lagos to Abuja and six other flights were, without an advance warning, suspended in the air for a long time because a VIP was using the airport.
The Senate considered the practice dangerous stating that the Arik flight and other aircraft were “not given advance notice of any VIP movement in Abuja before take-off as is the procedure in other parts of the world.
According to the reported incident: “On that day, the Arik plane was turned back into the sky after the pilot has pulled out its tyres to land. Shortly after the pilot made back into the air, he was given clearance to land; for the second and third time, the pilot was ordered back to the sky after he pulled out tyres to touch down.
Safety and Economic Implications
While speaking to Nigerian flight Deck many expects said that the situation was both a safety concern as well as a financial one for the airline especially if something goes on unexpectedly in the air.
“As of today Jet A1 in Nigeria cost between N170 -N190 per litre and to hover in the air for an extra 15 minutes to 2hours usually cost fuel and that means money and that also translates to the operating cost of the airline of which Jet A1 already accounts for 40% to 50%. This financial implication is also tied to the safety implication, there was a time airlines would cut corners and instead of them carrying the required amount of Jet A1 for the journey and back (A two and half hour fuel for a one hour flight) some would, in the past fly with the exact one hour fuel and if held up by a VIP movement mid-air, they would have to resort to emergency landing putting lives at risk.”
Inasmuch as people would want to believe that those dark days when regulations were flouted are over, it would also be wise to err the side of caution and commence as if things are what they were so there can be preparations for such situations.
A pilot who craved anonymity said that although one of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulation rules state that aircraft must have enough fuel on-board for a one hour flight and back the other way in case of an emergency but that there is no need to test fate as “There is no parking space in the air and anything could go wrong. People who are of perfect physical health slump and die and that is God’s perfect creation not to talk of a machine that man created.”
Another pilot had this to say on the situation,” Financially, VIP movement affects in the area of fuel consumption because the aircraft keeps hovering till the pilot gets a signal to land. If the aircraft has issues it becomes a problem. If the pilot in charge doesn’t know the land very well and how to manoeuvre, then that becomes a problem. So VIP movement affects financially as a result of fuel consumption. The safety angle is if the aircraft doesn’t have enough fuel for circling or underestimated the situation, then the unexpected is the situation.”
The senate while debating the issue already said as much even when they are not technically sound in the field, they believe this practice is dangerous and endangers both the VIP and the passengers on board the stranded aircraft because, most times, the airport commandants and the security officials do not consider the fuel level or other technical challenges of the aircraft being turned away.
According to Mr. Izunaso, 30 nautical miles for planned VIP flights and 10 nautical miles for unscheduled flights restrictions is the global standard but in Nigeria, the airport commandants and security officials, including the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authorities flagrantly abuse the process.
The NCAA in one of its explanations in the past disclosed that the practice of shutting down the country’s airspace during a VIP movement is mainly to protect the president, adding that all countries, except the United States close their airspaces whenever a dignitary is travelling.
The body added that all aircraft in Nigeria that are about to take-off, or those already airborne, are expected to put their flight on hold, or divert their flight by landing in the closest airport as soon as there is a VIP movement order.
In Nigeria, 15 minutes before the VIP takes-off and 15 minutes after landing, which is mainly to prevent any act of terrorism.
However, it is key to note that the United States of America does not follow the VIP rule as it has a private airspace specially assigned for the president and no one dares use that airspace; however, the main difference is that other countries of the world have varying times allocated during the period.
On 20th September 2014, no fewer than six passenger aircraft were made to hover around the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, to allow the then President Goodluck Jonathan and his advanced team solely use the airspace.
The process lasted for about two hours, starting some minutes to 9:00 a.m. and ending after 11:00 a.m.
The incident happened while President Jonathan was visiting the Synagogue Church of All Nations where a guesthouse collapsed on 12 September and killed at least 115 people most of them South Africans.
The airspace was first closed some minutes to 9:00 a.m. for the President advanced team. It was opened for some minutes but closed again almost immediately.
An airline scheduled to leave Lagos for Abuja at 9:00 a.m. did not take off until minutes after 11:00 a.m.
The aircraft had to be refuelled to compensate for the two hours lost while the VIP movement lasted.
A Lagos – Abuja flight last only about an hour, and the aircraft is fuel sufficiently enough for that distance.
When the airspace was reopened, our correspondent counted at least six big planes that landed before other parked aircraft were allowed to proceed.
Many ask for the creation of a separate flight path for the president to ease the airline’s travails but according to the spokesman of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Sam Adurogboye, creating a separate flight path for the president is unthinkable because of the cost stating that only the United States has that.
Adurogboye however said that to have a separate route for the number one man, the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) is in charge of airspace management.
” VIP movement is inevitable all over the world. The number one must be protected because of the office, the responsibility attached and implications of untoward occurrence. However, what is done to reduce discomfort whenever it arises is reducing the time of the closure of the airspace from what it used to be. To hover during such a period is a matter of choice as the pilot can decide to go to an alternate airport instead of hovering,” Adurogboye explained.
” There are other cases that are mind boggling but the question asked is can we not go the way of the USA and ask the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency to chart a route for the Presidential aircraft and help airlines save money and take less risk hovering around the airspace like vultures waiting to land? The Senate that had once brought this up, have they decided it is a no go area and have dumped the idea instead of passing a bill that can ease the woes of the airlines?Can the airlines themselves not come together and sponsor a bill that would help guide the senate do what needs to be done.”