Taking to the skies

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

After what felt like a lifetime in incarceration, global skies have opened up for domestic and international travel for those suffering from bouts of itchy feet.

This as South Africans dust-off their luggage to travel locally or abroad for either business or leisure.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us and requires all to act responsibly, for many the further easing of travel restrictions could not have come at a better time not only for individuals but for the aviation industry as well.

Air traffic movement experienced a drastic reduction in the last few months as a result of travel restrictions put in place by many countries around the world.

The pandemic, which is responsible for over a million deaths across the globe, has also led to the loss of livelihoods and the disruption of lives.

Acting Chief Executive Officer of state-owned enterprise Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS) Dumisani Sangweni says travel restrictions have had an adverse impact on the entire aviation industry and other sectors of the economy.

For him the words “adverse and instructive” come to mind when describing the impact of the pandemic on the activities of the entity.

The pandemic he says has required aviation organisations and entities, particularly airport service providers and air navigation service providers (ANSPs), to analyse and review the way they operate.

It has also validated concepts of modernisation that support the concept of the “office of the future” where certain functions including operational ones may be operated remotely.

The ATNS, provides air traffic, navigation, training and associated services within South Africa and a large part of the Southern Indian and Atlantic Ocean, comprising approximately 10% of the world’s airspace.

Guided by the communique published by the World Health Organisation, South Africa gradually reopened its international borders for business, leisure and other travel with the exception of high-risk countries, from 1 October.

The entity like many across the world has had to adapt to operating amidst COVID-19 regulations.

While disaster recovery and business continuity has always been part of the ATNS strategic risk assessment and mitigation planning, nobody would have envisaged that a virus would upset the apple cart.

“In all our role play and scenario planning for an impending disaster, we envisaged physical destruction and damage to our core operational facilities that would render them inoperable.  Little did we imagine that a virus that cannot be seen, could have [had] the potential to bring some of our critical facilities to a screeching halt,” he says in an interview with SAnews.

Sangweni says the resilience to recover from such an event is reliant on data and advanced analytics that supports a more agile operating model, involving but not limited to core infrastructure redundancy, as well as operational workforce planning and rotation.

With South Africans enjoying the easing of restrictions, the entity falling within the ambit of the Department of Transport is expected to provide uninterrupted air traffic services at all its airports.

To do that measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 infections in the workplace and among employees have been put in place.

The entity also continues to monitor traffic demand and adjusts measures as and when required.

Travel volumes

In his statement regarding level 1 regional and international travel earlier this month, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said civil aviation activities had previously come to a halt and that between  1 April – 30 May 2020, when the country was on Level 4, a total of 19 206 passengers landed at South African airports. 

Most of the flights were mainly for essential services and the repatriation and evacuation of foreign nationals and locals respectively. 

The Minister said when domestic travel commenced at the beginning of June 2020 during level 3 of the lockdown, this number went up to 391 720 passengers that landed at approved airports in total.  

In addition, statistics showed that in the past five years the average number of passengers traversing South African airports amounted to an average of 1.8 million per month.

The highest recorded figures indicated that over 2 million passengers per month landed at South African airports during peak travel seasons such as the Easter and Christmas periods. 

Business continuity

The pandemic, which has claimed 18 492 lives in South Africa, has also highlighted the importance of digital transformation.

The ATNS Business Continuity Plan formulated by the ATNS COVID-19 Response Team has been critically important in outlining how the business would continue to operate during an unplanned disruption in service.

COVID-19 has also highlighted the requirement for additional capacity building and skills development to support a remote-based workforce.

“Additionally, we see a potential and significant innovation effort that must drive the organisation towards ingratiating and accelerating the digital business agenda. This is critical to ensuring ATNS achieves its mission critical priorities and strategic objectives.”

During the various stages of the lockdown, some airports with the exception of OR Tambo International Airport, Cape Town International Airport, King Shaka International Airport and the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport had to close for operations.

That he said, led to air traffic personnel taking time off until the reopening of those airports.

“The retraining of our air traffic service personnel had been a major challenge facing ATNS. The expired licenses of our personnel was also a factor, where the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) had to clear the backlog of all technical personnel licenses. We are hopeful that the SACAA will change this situation around before the end of the year,” he says.

The SACAA is mandated with controlling, promoting, regulating, developing, enforcing, and improving aviation safety and security.

While the travel numbers have painted a grim picture so far, the psychological impact of the pandemic on everyday life has also had an impact on the sector.

COVID-19 impact

“The catastrophic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on aviation is devastating to everyone involved in this sector, and by the looks of things, that will be the case beyond. What makes it more worrying is the knowledge that none of us can be spared from this ailment.”

He said that for human beings the natural and first response when faced with threats and adversity is to escape and dissociate.

“We either try to find comfort by positioning our mind-set into the past or fast-forwarding it to a future state of being. It is at this point that the threat and or the discomfort we are faced with, triggers other psychological distress.

“Rumination, anxiety, obsession, depression and confusion are some of the forms of uncontainable stressful conditions that takes charge as we struggle to make sense of what is happening. We become preoccupied with the thought of trying to get rid of or fix the distress and in the process, get caught up in the circle of extreme anxiety,” he explains.

He said one of the things that could be done is to focus our attention on things that can be controlled. He also speaks of the need to be realistic about the current situation without falling into despair.

This he says applies to those in the aviation industry as well.

In keeping up with an ever-changing world, last month the entity announced that it had started offering virtual training courses.

This as training operations that were effective at the ATNS Aviation Training Academy (ATNS ATA) were halted in order to comply with lockdown regulations.

At the time when academic operations were suspended, the majority of students at the academy were from abroad and had to go back to their respective countries.

“The pandemic gave us an opportunity to embrace virtual training earlier than planned. To date, the delivery has been successful, with the ATNS ATA also administering examinations virtually.”

He noted that the move towards virtual learning has been a journey, with the internet infrastructure posing the greatest challenge.

Looking to the future

Lessons learnt in this respect include the need for robust communication channels with recipients of virtual learning programmes as well as adequate advanced planning.

“This is the new way of doing things that industries such as ours should embrace and fast-track some of the activities that had been earmarked for a medium to long term. Early adopters of these technologies stand a greater chance of retaining their market share,” he advised.

The entity operates from nine airports run by the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) and 12 other aerodromes.

The ATNS earlier this month announced that it continues to engage the industry through various forums to define and implement airspace efficiency procedures that will enhance operational efficiency whilst improving safety performance.

It is implementing an airspace management efficiency initiative, known as the Gauteng Airspace Performance-Based-Navigation Plan (GAPP) to assist in the recovery of the industry post-COVID-9.

 “GAPP is the reviewing, re-designing and enhancement of current procedures within the Gauteng and surrounding airspace with specific focus on O. R. Tambo International Airport based on global performance-based navigation principles,” said Sangweni.

Meanwhile, ACSA spokesperson Gopolang Peme said operations at airports owned by ACShave been running “pretty smooth” since 1 October.

“International travel for ACSA never really stopped as repatriation flights continued [under lockdown]. We have also used the time to prepare for the new normal. It has been a seamless process,” says Peme.

State-owned ACSA owns and manages a network of nine airports in South Africa, including the three main international gateways of O.R. Tambo International, Cape Town International and King Shaka International Airports.

He adds that there is an appetite for flying while also urging travellers who intend to travel outside South African borders to ensure that they stick to the guidelines of the countries they intend to visit.

With October marking Transport Month in South Africa, the impact of COVID-19 on the sector has highlighted the critical importance of the sector in getting the economy to take off once again.

“The future looks bleak but we can see light at the end of the tunnel. As more countries open their borders, people will have the appetite to travel. We are hopeful that we should reach 85% of our pre-COVID-19 traffic by April 2021,” says Sangweni. –SAnews.gov.za