The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) is planning to discuss and examine the status of what is known as air traffic safety electronic personnel (Atsep) in South Africa. Atsep comprise the engineering technicians responsible for the maintenance, repair and overhaul of ground-based air traffic navigation aids and communications equipment. Atsep have been the forgotten, or missing, link in the aviation safety chain. Not only the general public but also the aviation industry and regulators have thought of aviation safety as involving pilots, air traffic controllers and aviation technicians and mechanics (who maintain, repair and overhaul the aircraft, their avionics and engines).
“For a long time, there has been a lack of oversight regarding these Atsep technicians,” points out SACAA senior manager: air navigation services Sandile Maphanga. “For a long time, Icao (International Civil Aviation Organisation) has had a system of oversight for aviation technicians. But there has been no oversight of the technicians looking after the navigational aids – hence, the concept of the ‘missing link’.”
Icao is the intergovernmental organisation responsible for overseeing global civil aviation. It is an agency of the United Nations. Although, worldwide, concern about the status of Atsep has been growing for at least 15 years, it is only in the past five years that Icao has really taken up the issue.
Icao has decided that national regulators can develop their own regulations covering ground-based navigational aids and Atsep, appropriate to their own national and regional circumstances. “But, so far, the focus has been on the equipment, not the people,” he explains. “Atsep . . . have pushed to be included as well, so as to ensure the integrity of the system.
“Here, in South Africa, we’re still in the drafting stage, drafting a proposal to include Atsep in our regulatory framework and standards,” he reports. “One proposal is to license them, but that must be debated. We haven’t reached that point yet. As SACAA, we still have to consult with the relevant stakeholders.”
Most Atsep in South Africa are employed by the country’s air traffic management agency, Air Traffic Navigation Services (ATNS). The South African Air Force also employs some. A number of companies that manufacture and service ground-based air navigation and communications equipment also employ a number of in-house Atsep to look after their own systems. And the SACAA employs a few serving as inspectors.
“Regulating Atsep is a complex process,” explains Maphanga. “We’re starting from the ground up. It will involve changing the regulatory framework, which requires government approval. So it will take a few years – but, hopefully, less than five years.”
Maphanga participated in, and addressed, the 7th International Federation of Air Traffic Safety Electronics Associations Africa regional meeting, recently held in Johannesburg. ATNS, the host organisation, operates at 21 airports in South Africa. In 2016, it commissioned French group Thales to supply and install new ground- based air navigation systems, comprising Wide Area Multilateration surveillance radars, Star Next Generation Primary Radars, RSM 970 Secondary Surveillance Radars and distance measuring equipment (DME). The new radars are being installed at four sites, inclduing Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport, and the DME at 31 sites across the country. All these, plus ATNS’s existing systems, will need to be maintained.