Aviation experts, pilots raise concerns after SA air traffic control communication breakdown

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According to ATNS, it has a number of operational contingency plans that may be operationalised at any given time, depending on the levels of service disruptions or risks identified.
According to ATNS, it has a number of operational contingency plans that may be operationalised at any given time, depending on the levels of service disruptions or risks identified.
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  • A breakdown in the Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) over a vast ocean area for which SA is responsible, has been restored, according to South Africa's Air Traffic and Navigation Services.
  • It is a system through which air traffic controllers transmit text-based messages to pilots as an alternative to voice communications to aircraft.
  • Although the breakdown has been restored, aviation experts and pilots caution that the incident still raises serious concerns.
  • For more financial news, go to the News24 Business front page.

Although the breakdown in an air traffic control communication link with pilots in a vast ocean area for which South Africa is responsible has been restored, aviation experts and pilots caution that the incident still raises serious concerns.

South Africa's Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS) said on Tuesday afternoon its Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), a system through which air traffic controllers transmit text-based messages to pilots as an alternative to voice communications to aircraft, has been fully restored. 

This follows a failure of the CPDLC service that took place on 6 December 2022 over a huge area of airspace over the ocean to the south of Africa and extending all the way to Antarctica. The airspace has been delegated to SA by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). It was restored in the early hours of 7 December 2022. 

"ATNS is working closely with its data link service provider to determine the root cause of this failure. It must be emphasised, however, that this incident is unprecedented as ATNS has never experienced an occurrence of this nature before," ATNS responded to News24 Business. 

"Various redundancies are embedded within the CPDLC architecture, and as part of the ongoing investigations, such will be reviewed to identify possible improvements and prevent future recurrences."    According to ATNS, it has a number of operational contingency plans that may be operationalised at any given time, depending on the levels of service disruptions or risks identified. 

"Air traffic volumes are naturally low within the oceanic air space. Therefore, no separation risks were identified during this incident," said ATNS. 

"Safety is our number one priority. We are part of a global collective that has been rated topmost when it comes to aviation safety. The recent International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) safety audit report is indicative of the South African aviation industry's stance and commitment to safer skies."

DA member of Parliament Chris Hunsinger, said in a statement the party will lodge a formal request to Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula to explain the circumstances following the CPDLC failure.

"The collapse of this system also revealed that the back-up system which is a conventional High Frequency Voice-communication system has been broken and not repaired for close to a year. Without both systems pilots and ground control had no way of communicating with each other," says Hunsinger.

"This communication 'blackout' raises serious concerns with regard to air traffic safety and is a serious breach of the international obligation which South Africa and ATNS must uphold for aviation safety in three different flight information zones."

Aviation expert Linden Birns, managing director of Plane Talking, says the communications failure did not just impact on South Africa's ability to provide communication for en-route navigation, but also compromised the country's maritime search and rescue coverage and coordination.

Birns says through the Airline Association of Southern Africa (AASA), the industry has repeatedly raised its concerns with the relevant SA authorities over the severely diminished capability and capacity of the SA Air Force and SA Navy which has compromised their ability to provide the required air and sea-borne maritime search and rescue services that the government has committed to under civil aviation and maritime treaties. 

"In addition to South Africa's own zone of responsibility - which extends halfway across the South Atlantic towards Brazil, all the way to the South Pole and halfway across the Southern Indian Ocean towards Australia and from the sea surface to the ocean floor - it has undertaken to provide similar services for other countries in the region," explains Birns.

In his view, it is far from ideal to have air-to-ground data or radio communications systems failures like those recently experienced by ATNS. However, he points out there are standard procedures, which air crew are required to adopt as a safeguard in the event of such breakdowns.   

"Given that South Africa has just been elected onto the ICAO Council, that the Helderberg tragedy is still clearly etched in the public consciousness - we have just commemorated the 35th anniversary - and that the fate of Malaysia Airlines MH370 remains an even fresher mystery, one would hope these air navigation services - which passengers and airlines pay for as part of the charges levied on each air ticket sold - would be sufficiently secure and the equipment they rely on was properly maintained and serviceable," says Birns.

The regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Kamil Alawadhi, said in his address to the 2022 General Assembly of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) in Dakar, Senegal, on Tuesday that, when it comes to safety there is no room for compromise. 

"It is essential we review the processes for contingency coordination for the region, not only to ensure minimum operational disruption, but to ensure at no point there is any degradation to service provision or safety," he said. "Safety is paramount and the focus on this must be unwavering."

A seasoned South African pilot, who wants to remain anonymous, but whose identity is known to News24, said in a case such as the breakdown of the ATNS link as well as its high frequency radio system not working, in theory a pilot could log onto the high frequency CPDLC of another country and ask them to, in turn, make telephonic contact with ATNS in SA.

Another very experienced pilot adds that the area for which SA is responsible is so vast and not having proper prompt response in case of an emergency could create a huge problem.

"Imagine how long it would take before search and rescue is activated? We do have high frequency radio as back-up, but that's not that reliable at times. Thus, real time communication, position reporting and the like is most advantageous to flight safety," he says. "Hence the need for CPDLC systems to operate correctly during long cross Atlantic flights."

News24 has reached out to Mbalula's office, and this article will be updated if a response is received. 

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