During a networking session at the end of a recent travel workshop, it occurred to me just how many misconceptions people have about air travel.
Someone commented that the current US administration was more pro-Kenya than the previous Obama administration because of the upgrade of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to Category One status.
And who can blame them when several publications in Kenya and the region carried the story under the banner “JKIA gets Category One status.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through the International Aviation Safety Assessment programme carries out an assessment of the country’s civil aviation authority, and not of individual foreign airports or airlines.
In this case, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) was assessed, and the process will continue, to determine if it was providing adequate oversight to carriers and maintaining aviation standards as per the International Civil Aviation Organisation guidelines.
Individual airlines from Kenya can now operate commercial flights to the US, but they will still have to independently comply with and meet other US regulations over and above FAA.
This assessment of Kenya has been going on for several years now, and has nothing to do with a change of guard in the US administration.
Category 1 status is not permanent, and Kenya can be relegated if it does not maintain standards.
Airports are also categorised according to the difficulty of landing.
Airports and runways worldwide have different equipment installed to help flights land safely under varying conditions.
Pilots will either be making a non-precision or a precision approach during landing. In the precision approach, the pilot uses less automated equipment, while in the latter different systems and additional automation are used to guide landing.
Referred to as Instrument Landing Systems, these usually fall in three categories classified as Category I (CAT I), Category II (CAT II) and Category III (CAT III).
An airport can fall into any one of these three categories depending on the sophistication of the equipment to aid landing in either good visibility and minimum systems or near zero visibility conditions with more systems.
Most airports in Africa would fall under CAT I or CAT II meaning that at a specific altitude and range the pilots must have made certain visual references with the ground or runway to continue, otherwise the landing should be aborted.
Busier airports like Heathrow and Gatwick and those with near zero visibility approach airports are classified as CAT III.
Airlines that fly to CAT III airports must have aircraft fitted with specific equipment onboard to aid automatic communication with ground based equipment that aids the landing process. In addition, pilots flying to those airports are usually required to have specific training and experience to land there.
For many flyers, a go-around or rejected landing is cause for concern and panic, and many would cast doubt on the pilots’ skills and abilities without factoring in the extraneous factors at play.
While “aborted landing” is the common phrase passengers will use, pilots and air traffic controllers refer to these occurrences as “missed approach” or “go-around.”
It is common for travellers to assume that mechanical problems and weather conditions would be the most common cause of a pull-up during landing.
However, storms, fog and crosswinds are not the only causes of rejected landings.
When weather factors are in play, flights wait in the air until visibility or conditions on the ground improve.
If there are severe weather conditions prevailing, a flight may be diverted to another airport.
Even in perfect weather, heavy airport traffic at peak take-off and landing times can create landing challenges.
In most cases, a go-around is initiated as a safety measure and there are detailed procedures that factor these into the training of pilots and air traffic controllers.
Whatever the circumstances, as a passenger there is little to do except to remain calm and adhere to safety instructions until the aircraft is safely on the ground and the seat belts signs are switched off.
Michael Otieno is an aviation consultant based in Nairobi. Twitter: @pmykee143, E-mail: [email protected]