Critical ATC equipment falling flat at TIA

Kathmandu, June 4

Critical air traffic control equipment recently installed at Tribhuvan International Airport under the Asian Development Bank grant continues to be unpredictable and routinely fail to perform, complain users and stakeholders.

Most on-duty air traffic controllers say the VHF ATC equipment necessary for air-ground communication on approach and area control frequencies continue to be plagued by unwarranted noise often leaving ATCs high and dry with no radio means to communicate with aircraft crew during critical phases of flight.

The approach control provides services to aircraft in the terminal areas whereas the area control frequency serves the entire Nepali air space.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation requires extremely reliable equipment to prevent aircraft collision and ensure optimum utilisation of air space.

“Unwarranted noise often impairs critical communication and maintenance personnel blame unknown-interference at TIA,” an ATC officer told this daily.

Interestingly, no evidence is available with Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal of flight crews reporting any such interference, which should be the case, if indeed any unauthorised transmissions were taking place to affect the ATC equipment.

Besides, an unproven electronic–flight strip equipment costing more than Rs 250 million repeatedly freezes, preventing controllers from making entries necessary to record aircraft positions to ensure separation. All past attempts to bring this to the attention of head office-based regulators have fallen on deaf ears, the controller informed.

The electronic-flight strip that had earlier been deemed user-unfriendly by the TIA controller community (and lay unused for over a year) has been put to coerced use since the fall of 2014 thanks to a diktat of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, which responded to a complaint about an unutilised expensive system.

“However, the CIAA failed to adequately comprehend the controller’s initial antagonism towards a purportedly advanced system that has not been implemented in most of the other Asia-Pacific countries,” the controller claimed.

The characteristics of air traffic in the terminal airspace around Kathmandu comprise both visual and instrument flights, where visual flights pre-dominate, according to pilots. Whereas, the countries where the electronic-flight strips are implemented have predominantly instrument flights with well-anticipated flight trajectories. The comparative low traffic has allowed the forced but risky use of an ill-advised piece of equipment that can display only a handful of flight-strips simultaneously, they added.

CIAA spokesperson Krishnahari Pushkar said that it was the responsibility of the aviation authority to install only suitable equipment, but such critical tools couldn’t be left unused after their installation. “The CIAA, as per the people’s aspirations, wants TIA be a world class airport,” he said, adding that the anti-graft body would further inquire about issues with the concerned authorities.

The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, which carries out safety investigation of air crashes, is simply unwilling to investigate such recurring air traffic incidents as they do not entail the perks of carrying the flight recorder to the US, Canada or Singapore, a member of Nepal Air Traffic Controllers’ Association, said.  “This duplicitous behaviour in air safety investigation is sure to invite air disasters in future, that’s for sure,” he added.

Nor have regulators approved the problematic ATC equipment — a requirement in terms of aviation regulations — clearly demonstrating the inspector’s attitude towards air safety, a senior TIA official said.

“It seems that CAAN, the monopoly aerodrome and air traffic control services provider for Nepal, is in no mood to mend its unsafe ways as the recent spate of incidents affecting air traffic control facilities show no sign of abating,” another captain concluded.