A series of measures have been implemented in response to air safety concerns in Djibouti, where numerous errors in recent years by local air traffic controllers have put both military and civilian aircraft at risk, U.S. military and diplomatic officials said.
Reforms include sharing best practices with Djiboutian civilian air traffic operators, establishing bilateral task forces and the addition of a special military-controlled radar to improve the situational awareness for military pilots taking off and landing at Djibouti’s Ambouli airport, which is next to the U.S. military’s strategic Camp Lemonnier.
“We have been very proactive. The safety of our air crews is our No. 1 priority,” said Capt. Brenda Malone, a spokeswoman for U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa “We’ve been working hard on this the last several years.”
In an April 30 report, The Washington Post revealed a host of safety issues and violations by Djiboutian air traffic controllers. In some cases, they reportedly worked under the influence of narcotics, slept on the job and expressed hostility toward the U.S. military mission — in particular, drone operations launched out of Djibouti.
In some cases, air traffic control teams even refused to allow military aircraft to land in a timely manner, putting aircraft and personnel at risk, the Post reported.
U.S. officials said the issues reported by the Post occurred mainly in 2012 and 2013 and that actions have been taken both at the military and top diplomatic levels to improve matters.
Among the measures aimed at reducing risks for U.S. personnel was the establishment of a U.S. manned and operated terminal advisory radar, Malone said.
“They cannot direct the aircraft, but they provide traffic advisories to U.S. military aircraft when they check in with them,” Malone said. “In other words, they have the ability to properly advise them on a range of issues before they develop into a potential safety incident.”
U.S. ground controllers have also been assigned to the airport’s control tower to work closely with Djiboutian air traffic controllers, which reduces the work load on local staff, Malone said.
The U.S.’s top diplomat in Djibouti said conditions have vastly improved, particularly in the past year.
“We’ve worked this issue very intensively,” said Tom Kelly, the U.S. ambassador to Djibouti, by phone.
To ensure air traffic concerns are dealt with swiftly, the U.S. and Djibouti have set up a special working group to focus on aviation safety. And when a Djiboutian delegation of senior officials visited Washington in February, air traffic safety was a point of focus, Kelly said.
“I think since they’ve (the Djiboutian delegation) been back in early March, we’ve seen continued improvements in aviation safety,” Kelly said.
The U.S. now routinely takes incident reports of violations or points of concern to Djiboutian leaders for action, he said. “Since we’ve done that the number of incidents has dropped sharply,” Kelly said.
Malone said there are signs that such efforts are making a difference.
For example, in 2012 there were 11 air traffic incidents reported by the military. That number dropped to six in 2013 and five last year, Malone said.
Air traffic incidents include the landing of an aircraft on the wrong runway and the inadvertent clearance of two aircraft by controllers to the same altitude, Malone said.
“It is trending in the right direction,” she said.
In 2014, there were more than 30,000 flights flown from Djibouti’s Ambouli Airport. About 17,000 of those were U.S. military and government flights.
According to The Washington Post, a surge in military air traffic and drone flights was one reason for anger among the Djiboutian controllers. Some were against the drone flights. However, there have been risks for civilian aircraft as well.
“In May 2013, a private plane carrying Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh almost collided in midair with a Kenya Airways jet,” the Post reported, citing documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Camp Lemonnier — a short drive from the Somalian border — serves as Africa Command’s operational hub for the Horn of Africa and is the only enduring U.S. military installation on the continent.
In a sign of the country’s importance, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is slated to visit Djibouti on Wednesday to meet with leaders as well as U.S. diplomatic and military officials. His stop will include a visit at Camp Lemonnier to meet with servicemembers.
In 2014, the U.S. negotiated a new long-term basing deal with the Djiboutian government that will ensure a U.S. military presence in the country for decades to come.
The base is home to a joint force that includes special operations troops, Army crisis response units and Air Force personnel.