Jun 17 , 2023

The Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA) entered a two million euro deal with the global aerospace giant Leonardo to secure spare parts and maintenance services for its ageing radar system. The decision comes after numerous attempts to replace the existing system fell through due to prohibitive costs.

Despite the cost, radar technology significantly enhanced the safety and efficiency of modern aviation and enabled improved information-sharing capabilities, even between aircraft. Aviation authorities hope the recent deal with Leonardo will support Ethiopia’s aviation sector. Modernizing the radar system is no small feat.

Leonardo, the eighth-largest aerospace company globally and one of Europe’s prominent defence contractors, has a third of its shares owned by the Italian government. The company installed the original radar system 13 years ago, with the radar and automatic dependent surveillance system (ADS-B) costing 10 million dollars at the time. The system helped to reduce landing times at Bole International Airport by half an hour.

An average of 250 daily flights operated by 24 airlines use Bole International Airport, also serving as a hub for the Ethiopian Airlines Group, with over 145 planes under its fleet.

“This was an important deal,” Endale Kidane, the communications director, told Fortune.

Over the years, the Authority has tried to attract potential bidders to supply parts for the aeronautical message handling system (AMHS) as well as communications and navigation surveillance (Radar & ADS-B). Air navigation radar systems from most aerospace suppliers are priced upwards of 10 million dollars, compelling officials of the Authority to search for an alternative, according to Endale.

After discussions with suppliers and within the Authority, it was concluded that purchasing the parts and maintenance was the most suitable approach, Mengistu Nigussie, deputy director, told Parliament two months ago. He highlighted the issues caused by the old radar system, which surveils a specific part of the airspace from Bole International Airport.

Radars are pivotal in the aviation industry, ensuring aircraft location within a defined radius and sequencing arrivals. The Minister of Transport & Logistics, Alemu Sime (PhD), emphasized the necessity of purchasing a new radar system or initiating targeted maintenance operations.

The Authority, established in 1944, a year before Ethiopian Airlines, has since been providing air navigation and regulatory services. Although its mandate to develop and maintain airports were transferred to the Ethiopian Airports Enterprise in 2003, the Authority continues to charge air navigation fees to any user performing a flight in one or more national airspaces to cover the costs of the provided services.

Any flight over a national air space incurs a navigation charge, determined based on the country’s scale. For Ethiopia, these charges depend on the maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) and the distance covered, according to data from the African Airlines Association (AFRAA). It reported 2.2 million dollars in revenue as of April this year.

Ahmed Kello (PhD), former CEO of Ethiopian Airlines and now managing director of First Consult Plc, pointed out the significant role of a radar system in fostering automation in air traffic control. He stressed the remarkable difference globally between the pre and post-radar system era.

Yegzeru Belete served Ethiopian Airlines as a pilot before retiring recently.

“We’re queuing up in the air,” Yegzeru recalled discussing the challenges of landing aircraft without a radar system.

Pilots had to rely on radio communications with air traffic controllers to verify their altitude and coordinate descent patterns. The arrival of radar technology not only eased these logistical complications but also added to the safety, speed, and information-sharing capacities between planes.

He remembered flying challenges before installing a radar system to monitor Ethiopian skies. Over 15 years ago, planes would circle in the air until air traffic controllers confirmed a clear landing space, leading to excessive fuel consumption and extended flight hours.

"Radar systems were and continue to be expensive," he said.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 17,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1207]

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