Public Eye (South Africa)

Tough landing conditions for aircraft at Pietermari­tzburg Airport

- Chris Ndaliso

Bad weather and poor visibility makes landing difficult at Pietermari­tzburg Airport due to a higher minimum descent altitude requiremen­t; that’s why pilots have to sometimes avoid landing in such conditions and divert to other airports.

The aviation regulator has increased the landing altitude from 500 to 820 feet.

A traveller contacted Public Eye recently after their Airlink flight was redirected to Durban as the flight could not land due to bad weather conditions.

Msunduzi Municipali­ty dispelled rumours that the air-ground equipment had experience­d problems, confirming that in fact the equipment “was working optimally”.

Msunduzi spokespers­on Ntobeko Mkhize said with inclement weather, the cloud base will be much lower and the visibility will decrease.

“Inbound aircraft follow approaches and those are associated with descent profiles which are linked and dependent on a minimum descent height (MDH). Should an aircraft reach the prescribed MDH and still not have the runway in sight then they cannot land as per the prescribed compliance and safety requiremen­ts. In days of severe weather and where the cloud base is lower than the MDH go-arounds, diversions are to be expected,” said Mkhize.

She said Pietermari­tzburg was known for its high terrain, which has a slightly greater bearing on the MDH. Airport management and Airlink are working closely with the regulatory authority to revise the MDH, she said.

Airlink said the change in landing altitude was a challenge for the company and the situation worsened during bad weather conditions.

Linden Birns, company publicist and media relations advisor, said the United Nations Internatio­nal Civil Aviation Organisati­on (Icao) sets the global standards and recommende­d practices for civil aviation. He said Icao periodical­ly audits civil aviation authoritie­s and civil aviation infrastruc­ture service providers such as air navigation services. In SA, this is the Air Traffic Navigation Services (ATNS).

“Each country is then required to establish a civil aviation authority that formalises Icao’s standards and practices in the form of civil aviation regulation­s and legislatio­n, which it then enforces. An air navigation service is responsibl­e for designing the airspace surroundin­g and above airports and the routes between them. This includes designing the departure and arrival routes and altitudes that aircraft must fly to join or leave an airway. In 2010 an arrivals procedure for Pietermari­tzburg was approved, which allowed for an obstacle clearance height of 359 feet. An obstacle clearance height means the pilots must have establishe­d visual contact with the runway by the time the descending aircraft reaches that altitude. If they cannot see the runway at that point then they must abandon the approach and either climb and try again or divert the flight to another airport,” said Birns.

He said a few weeks ago the ATNS raised the obstacle clearance height by around 500 feet to 820 feet, even though no new obstacles have been erected under the flight path.

“As a result, in cloudy conditions, the new height is often too high for the pilots to see the runway and obliges them to abort the descent. Airlink has engaged the ATNS and the South African Civil Aviation Authority and requested the reinstatem­ent of the previously approved procedure, which was designed in full compliance with the Icao standards and practices. It had been perfectly safe for Airlink’s aircraft, which are equipped with the latest radio and satellite navigation equipment and its pilots are trained and licensed to operate them. The discussion­s are ongoing,” he said.

He said the airline was “painfully” aware of the frustratio­n this was causing its customers and the impact on its track record as South Africa’s most reliable on-time airline and apologised for any inconvenie­nce caused.

In instances where a flight is unable to land at Pietermari­tzburg, the pilots will probably divert the flight to Durban where the aircraft would be refueled and wait for conditions to improve before flying to Pietermari­tzburg to make another attempt to land. He said if the conditions were still not suitable, the flight would return to Johannesbu­rg.

“Passengers who want to leave the flight in Durban are free to do so but will have to make their own way to Pietermari­tzburg. Should the flight need to return to Johannesbu­rg, the passengers onboard will be rebooked onto the next flight or may apply for a refund,” he said.

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