Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah
Experienced Nigerian pilot and Chief Executive Officer of Mishaviation, Captain Ibrahim Mshelia in this interview x-rays the problem in the aviation industry, saying that government agencies in the sector must adopt policies that will enhance growth of air transport in Nigeria. He spoke to Chinedu Eze
Federal Government vs British Airways on High Fares
Well, if you look at it, I am not an economist but the basic principle of investment and profit says that it is the man who is willing to take some risk that would make the profit. BA may be right in a sense because they are charging us and we were paying without complaining. So, if we were not complaining now that we have started complaining I am sure you will see a reduction somehow, but to force BA is overdoing things.
To me, the only person that has the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) that we signed with Britain is the Minister. If we had been reviewing BASA with Britain probably we might have been checkmating a few things because most of these people review these things a lot, but we do not. Now, it should come down to government. By the time you talk of the government you now have departments who are in charge of advising government and encourage business and the welfare of the ordinary citizens.
It is not the people that get elected into office that do that, it is the people in the industry that do it, so we in the industry have failed government by not advising government appropriately. And this has always been the same; that is why if you look at it from the beginning, somebody should have advised government to look at it from a different angle, not looking at it from the point where now that some ‘big man’ has been affected and is complaining and someone is now beginning to take action. No, it is something that they should do and most of these things are fieldwork which should be under the Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) because from inception they have economic regulation.
NCAA and Regulation of Aviation Industry
You should ask the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) what does the Act that enables them to operate tell them, what is their duty? Is it not to assist government in formulating policies; to encourage aviation development, isn’t it? If you check it, it is written there and at the end of the day government cannot be everywhere, that is why we have government departments and parastatals. So they send back to Minister and the Minister sends back to President, isn’t it? So if we fail in our own little bit and shift back to another, we are just passing the bulk.
Poor Political Will in Policy Execution
First and foremost, I believe one of the problems in this country is that we believe in theory, now aviation itself begins with theories and ends in full practice so you can say aviation itself is 70 per cent practical. Now, when you have people in the system who claim they are professionals and are ill-advised, ill-trained and they actually practically worked in the system, they will perform woefully. We have so many people in the system, not only aviation that go to the government and talk plenty. For example, you cannot go into the Minister’s office and take a plane with you for explanation but when you show him/her a slide and talk fluently you have won them over; they should stop believing those people.
Nigerian aviation has refused to move because we have made it political, it‘s like politicised aviation now; that is the problem we have. I am happy that government is beginning to call public hearings. What I appeal to the government to do and you press men should help push for it is for the government to call public hearing on quarterly basis with professionals. They will start with stakeholders and when we say stakeholders we should be specific which stakeholders that we mean.
We have everybody under that category, the man who has student pilot licence, engineering school to the man who is financing aviation, everybody comes there and starts talking as stakeholders then we end up with jamborees of talking and arguments, we should classify them. The people who are the real stakeholders are the people who manage and finance aviation, they know the pain, and you cannot join them in the general fold because they are the ones who know where the shoe pinches.
When it is for policy making, who are those that they will call upon, those that will be invited to advise government? These should be the people who have invested in the industry trying to improve it so that others can benefit and take something from it too.
Those are the people government should talk to when they want to make a policy. I will give you a few examples why engaging stakeholders is necessary. There is airspace, there is fuel, and there are aircraft parts. Recently, the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) designed routes for aircraft to fly but we were not consulted. I called Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) secretary general on whether they were consulted. He said no. So NAMA just sat down and charted the routes without any input from industry operators.
One day I was flying into Calabar from Abuja and they said I had to fly through Togo I refused because that would give me an extra flight time of 20 or 25 minutes at my aircraft’s speed and that is a lot of fuel. I had a big argument until they allowed me fly direct but until I got to Calabar there was not one aircraft flying there. The operator spends extra money to buy fuel they designed it which is good but you see they did not carry the real people along.
They should call us to put minds together to provide a route that is feasible not wasteful because eventually we transfer that cost to the passengers. Now fuel price is always escalating, we have gone through fuel price regimes for how long? The last fuel I bought (last week) was N185 per litre. You see, I believe that government should be able to do something to support the airlines as well but when you make the policy, you find out that the people who sat down there and helped government with the paper and document they used to do this policy, these people have never registered to operate airlines or anything and government has listened to them, you see the problem.
The sad part of it is that those of us who are in it do not come out to complain. I believe the government will hear you better, this is the reason I am complaining now because I cannot have achieved all I have achieved through aviation, I should be able to now come out and say look, I should be able to give something back. I can’t just sit down there and we are allowing the whole world to develop around us and we are living in the past, that’s the problem. So we should be able to encourage government, tell them certain ways they can do things.
Imagine how much it cost government to build highways from Lagos to Kano, to Abuja and all that and these highways cost government money, isn’t it? But how much does the truck that is almost the weight of an aircraft pay to drive on these roads? By the time the trucker drives from Lagos to Maiduguri for instance, how much would he have paid for road taxes? The airlines are delivering goods and services to the people same thing that the trucks are doing but we are not sensitive in our policies to the plight of these airlines. We are made to pay all kinds of charges. For instance runway, landing, domestic operators, domestic people is helping our internal economy isn’t it? We should waive some of these charges and not introduce more. We should waive these landing fees like the runway at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos.
Decay of the Industry
We professionals are to blame, I take the blame, I am one of those who should be ashamed of ourselves that we allowed our government to continue to be fooled for this long. That is why we should stop it, that is why we are standing up and we are talking, if the rest like they can join, if they like they can keep quiet because to them this is absolutely wrong. There was a situation with an Arik Air aircraft from Gombe, my cousin was on that flight, I think the pilot experienced some problem and decided to go back and check it which is a normal thing: smart, brilliant and after everything they found out it was a small problem and you know NCAA has to go and clear it and so on.
Now see where the problem is, who in NCAA is more experienced than the engineer that is licensed and is working within the approved context of the manuals they have given them and approved by the same NCAA, that is the engineer who approved that the aircraft can take off to its destination? First, when you qualify as an engineer, you get licensed, you get trained as a pilot you get licensed you are type rated on the airplane, you have company’s procedure how to become captain, co-pilot and all that.
These are qualified pilots doing their job with their engineer and they find a small problem and they fix it, they return and they are told they cannot fly again until NCAA comes. First, NCAA should even be taken to court for taking the rights of those pilots back from them, because they have qualified and until you violate it it’s not taken away from you and even taking it away requires another process. While you have privileges, you have the right to exercise that privilege. He aborts the takeoff, returns for landing because he carries his engineer; what we called flying spanner in those days but now it is useless because you are still grounded anyway, NCAA has to clear, and you will find out that the person that is clearing you is not type rated on the aircraft, so how is he clearing you, he is looking at the documentation of the aircraft but you have done it. We are running this civil aviation systems like a joke; otherwise why will you be calling somebody to clear you.
They have so dramatised safety in this country to fool our unsuspecting leaders. It is very unnecessary, absolutely unnecessary and it’s wrong even. The NCAA is not supposed to do anything outside its regulation and this is not in its regulation. Even this current regulation was shoved down our throats; the Act says they should send proposed notice of amendment to all stakeholders. The idea is that you are making these new rules for the end users, we are the end users of this rule, and we should be kept abreast of developments.
Nobody sent any proposed notice of amendment in this 2009 regulation. It was January 2011 that they called airlines to come and talk, I went there when I got to the room I saw already published heaps of the 2009 civil aviation regulation, what we call the Blue book now. It was already finished, it was a book and there was nothing to be discussed there. We of the AON wrote a 38 page report, the secretary general captain Muhammed Joji has submitted it long ago but till date, they have not responded to it.
Non Operators as AON Leaders
These are some of the problems. When you call yourself AON and you are not operating then let me ask you a question, what is the meaning of AON? The operators can send delegates, agreed; but then if you are here with people who are not operators they are just there saying they are AON then what are we talking about? It is still part of these problems we must all address
They are just over dramatising safety so they can get the attention of the leadership. The safety of an aircraft lies with the airline operator because he is the one who does the maintenance, they pay the engineers, they buy the parts, they provide the shade for maintenance. NCAA does not have anything but its regulatory function and they make sure they do it right. So the safety of an aircraft lies on the operator himself.
Instability in the Sector
To be honest with you, any investor at all would like stability and that if one man says something the next man who takes over must continue with it. They must have had their experiences but we are all Nigerians and we must have heard, when one man leaves, another man starts to makes noise. I have seen lots of Ministers come and go; this one comes, sits down says one thing another one comes probably with another set of professionals with him and does another thing and so on. From that time till today, there is one Minister that did something that has never left my mind; Mallam Isa Yuguda.
The man had a passion. There were parents who sold their houses got the money and sent their children to Nigeria College of Aviation Technology, Zaria (NCAT) to become pilots, they told them that 21 weeks they will be pilots, six and half years and they are still there, some of them borrowed money from the banks, sold their cars and property, they lost all. When this man came on board and heard the story, he wept and asked for how to revive the school. We went there advised him on what to do and he took action and revived the school.
Challenges Establishing Pilot School in Ghana
From the time we opened our door the first challenge we had was when we opened, and that was the only challenge, we bought brand new generating systems for the school, and some equipment and we ran the equipment two weeks before, I checked the equipment and checked the generator which we ran for three days to make sure everything was fine, but it was on that particular morning that the generator simply packed. After this we had a twenty four hour call from the company that supplied us and they came in before most of the parents started bringing in their wards and we got it started.
The politics of Ghana has been very fair and very well. Government policy is fair and it is very, very helpful, they can encourage even a lazy man to do something there; very good policy. Incidentally, one of the reasons this school is in Ghana in the first place is that we started from Nigeria but the policies are very strangulating. We had spent over N6 million already to establish the pilot school here in Nigeria, but we had to abandon it and go to Ghana because luckily they say travel and see and because I have travelled especially around west Africa, I worked in Ghana as chief pilot for about 18 months or there about and it is based on that that I decided to go to Ghana.
When I got frustrated here, I left. I submitted manuals and then the manual got missing and then you go asking and they say bring another manual. You bring another manual after a week and somebody starts tossing you about, nobody tells you a clear policy on what they want, but that was when the regulation was not harmonised and even now that it is harmonised, so to speak, it is still ambiguous, it does not help small operations, it has no room for general aviation at all and general aviation is the backbone of airline operations in the first place.
We did our first application in 2005 and within that we spent almost a year before we abandoned it and left and registered Mishaviation in Ghana in 2006. And the aeroplanes we are using in Ghana I bought them then with the purpose of bringing them to Nigeria, I have got ministerial approval during Mallam Yuguda’s time to bring in these four aircraft but the two of them I bought now are diverted to Ghana.
The remaining two we decided because the cost of refurbishing them is too much, we contacted Cessna Corporation and we have hope that they are going to finance brand new aeroplanes for us and based on that there is no point to refurbish an old aeroplane when you are going to get a new aircraft. So we decided to discontinue the refurbishment and sell them as they were so we use the money to put as down payment for the new aeroplanes.