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Dangerous to fly over Africa, pilots are told

Airline pilots warned yesterday of an impending air disaster because of a "critical deficiency" in safety standards in most of African air space.

Representatives for the world's air traffic controllers said last night they had called a meeting with the pilots and that airlines could soon be warned that it was no longer safe to fly over large areas of the continent.

A bulletin issued by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations (IFALPA), which represents 100,000 pilots, warns that African air traffic information is often "innaccurate" and "unreliable". Pilots often have no contact with the ground and have to prevent mid-air collisions by issuing radio broadcasts to other pilots notifying them of their position and speed.

It claims thatrunways are covered in rubber tyre marks, rendering brake action ineffective. Airports are surrounded with high concentrations of birds, and non-existent security allows people, animals and vehicles on to runways.

The bulletin said there had been 57 safety scares, including air-misses, over Africa since August last year and that "giving the flying public and pilots the impression that they are flying through an area in which their flight is continuously regulated and safeguarded could not be further from the truth".

It added: "The [lack of air traffic control] coupled with a demand for more traffic in the region increases the risk, on a daily basis, of a tragic accident or incident occurring."

The overthrow of apartheid in South Africa has led to a 300 per cent increase in air traffic from Europe. At the same time, other African countries have lifted bans which had prevented South African Airways flying in their air space.

Tony van Heerden, president of the Airline Pilots Association of South Africa, said Angola effectively had no air traffic control at all. "All it is is a billing service. They want to know your time of departure, aircraft registration number and destination and say `we will send you the bill'," he said.

Airlines must pay US$1,000 (pounds 600) for each flight over Angolan airspace. Angolan air traffic controllers have no telephone contact with their counterparts in neighbouring Botswana, and a similar lack of communication exists between neighbours Congo and Zaire.

Mr Van Heerden said there were also tremendous congestion problems over Chad and Algiers, where there is no radar, and pilots are told to make their own collision avoidance arrangements with other pilots. In Francophone Africa, pilots and air traffic controllers speak in French, in breach of international safety regulations, which require that they communicate in English.

IPALFA said it would be meeting pilots' representatives in London in January, when a joint warning could be issued to airlines saying that it was no longer safe to fly over Africa.

Preben Lauridsen, president of IPALFA, said: "Some of these criticisms are very valid indeed. The main problem is that all the money airlines are paying in route charges is not going to air traffic control but on road construction, industry or even arms deals."

Mr Lauridsen said the situation was so serious that airlines might have to soon re-route around the continent. "Unless something is done, we will all have to say to the airlines `you must not fly through this area because safety is not what it should be'," he said.

The warning does not apply to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana Namibia, Egypt, Western Sahara or Morocco.