Chinedu Eze recently sampled opinions of airlines operators and stakeholders, who maintained that government has a major role to play in revamping the air transport sector
Airline operators, members of Aviation Round Table (ART) and other stakeholders believe that the myriads of problems plaguing the aviation industry would be solved if government has the political will, commitment and vision to do so.
The experts said that Nigeria can develop its aviation sector when it limits the operations of foreign airlines to create opportunity for local airlines to flourish and modernise the airports through public private partnership.
They noted that government must have set goals and design the strategies to realise these goals and also develop a quixotic disposition to give support to Nigerian airlines to ensure that they operate profitably and successfully.
The stakeholders pointed out that there are key issues government must tackle to give new lease to air transport industry to realise the plane to increase its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and also create thousands of jobs.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) projects that enhanced intra Africa air connectivity and improved domestic services would generate about 17, 400 jobs and add about $128.2 million annually to Nigeria’s GDP. This cannot be realised with the present infrastructure decay at airports and hostile operating environment threatening their existence.
Industry operators said for Nigeria to grow strong, indigenous airlines government must create opportunities for them to maximise the huge passenger market, which presently is exploited by international carriers. The stakeholders argue that every country protect its own indigenous airlines, provides them incentives and also protect their interests. But on the contrary, Nigerian government gave foreign airlines unlimited opportunity to airlift Nigerian passengers without any kind of partnership with local carriers and government does not have any policy that would encourage foreign airlines to invest in the country, help train Nigerian personnel or even give Nigerians job opportunities in their international operations.
The stakeholders are critical of the situation whereby one foreign carrier is given the opportunity to operate to more than one airport in the country, hop from one airport to another and contribute nothing to aviation development in the country.
The Chairman of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema has frowned at the way government allows foreign airlines to operate in Nigeria and said government gave them endless latitude to explore destinations in the country.
“The problem we have noticed is the multiple entry points given by the Nigerian government to foreign airlines. No country in the whole wide world allows foreign carriers the kind of access they get in Nigeria. Nowhere under the sun can you imagine that some foreign airlines fly from Port Harcourt to Abuja then Abuja to their country. That is very, very bad. The country should not allow it. They are draining this country to stupor. This permit to operate multidesignation didn’t start with this government but it should put an end to it,” Onyema said.
Travel expert, Ikechi Uko said by granting multiple frequencies to foreign airlines without benefits to local carriers and even the aviation industry, Nigeria may be frittering away huge resources and getting nothing in return.
“The normal thing is that every country should get the benefit of its own resources. The best resource Nigeria has is its population. And that is why population counts in the size of GDP; the biggest GDPs are usually the countries with large number of people because that is the market. When everybody invites Mr. President to sign an agreement, what they are actually looking at is your market. But we as Nigerians don’t see these markets, even when we know it, we create obstacle to prevent people from using the market in Nigeria.
“Some people in this country have the fear of Nigerians getting rich on Nigerians and they try to prevent it. They will rather allow foreigners to enjoy such benefits than to allow their own citizens to gain from that. Our official budget is how much, $4.2 million according to the Minister, that is the travel budget. The whole of that amount will go into the pocket of foreign airlines. So why do we do that? No matter what Arik, Air Peace, Aero has done to Nigerian, it does not justify the fact that we carry our national wealth and give to foreign airlines. So Arik has more staff than any foreign airline in Nigeria. Aero has more staff than any foreign organisation in Nigeria, so it is necessary that we drive most on growing the skills of these people,” Uko said.
The stakeholders suggested that government should review its foreign airline policy and ensure that in the new arrangement there should be provisions for partnership with local carriers, which may include technical training, aircraft maintenance and code-share.
Forex and Aviation Fuel Scarcity
The major challenges Nigerian airlines are facing is their inability to obtain foreign exchange to maintenance their aircraft, carry out training of their personnel and buy spares. Although the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) gave them a window but they said that giving out huge amount of Naira to be exchanged after three to four months is not enough because on regular basis airlines need forex.
The CEO of Medview Airline, Alhaji Muneer Bankole, said, “Airline is the backbone of aviation anywhere in the world. Air transport in Nigeria is dollar denominated and the non-availability of foreign exchange is not helping the situation. You are all aware of what is going on. We have cried out to the government. Everything we do in this industry has nothing to do with Naira. We carry out maintenance at the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul organisation overseas. In most cases we do D-check for a minimum of $2 million. In D-check we change a lot of components on the aircraft and bring the aircraft back home for the next 18 months.
From the concerns expressed by the airline operators it has become obvious that the CBN window given to them is not working, so they expected government to review it and make forex more readily available for them.
The airlines agreed that what would determine their fortune this year would be determined by the availability of aviation fuel. Flight operations are down after peaking during the Christmas holiday, so some airlines are still maintaining skeletal service. However, the solution to aviation fuel scarcity is local refining of petroleum products.
The Chairman of Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON), Captain Nogie Meggison said, “Aviation fuel is not a stand-alone issue in Nigeria, petrol is an issue, kerosene is an issue. Speaking to the marketers, one of the main issues or two issues if you look at it, government has promised to put the refineries on stream. We pray that this is achievable; that they focus on it. We are hoping that once that comes on stream it will kill the scarcity. But before then the government has to look at aviation as one of the pivots for our economy. If we say we will shut down or there is no airline for two days the country will go into a shock. So you need aviation to move the economy and one of the catalysts for us to recover the country from the current economic downturn is aviation; we need aviation as a driving force.”
Chief Onyema said if government facilitates the establishment of maintenance facility in Nigeria it would generate huge foreign exchange for the country because airlines from West, Central Africa and other parts of the continent would be bringing aircraft for maintenance in the facility. He said that for Nigerian air transport industry to grow, the airlines must save the huge amount of money they spend to maintain their aircraft overseas.
Meggison said, “Government needs to come out with a clear policy. As we discussed and as I have mentioned severally; if you acquire four to five airplanes and you do not have MRO facility in your country, you wont be able to sustain your operations profitably. Government needs to come out with a clear policy to support or to sponsor an MRO. We need to build a maintenance facility and we need to come out with a clear policy on training schools and subside them to put things on track. The MRO is a must; it is not a maybe situation; it is 100 percent must.
It must be on ground for us to survive. And it is one of the foundations for aviation development in any country. What we have now is like attempting to build a train line without putting tracks. You don’t build a train without tracks on the ground. Or as I said, you don’t import a car and you don’t have the mechanical know-how to maintain and manage it. The car maybe as beautiful as a Rolls Royce in London Street or a Cadillac in America but when it comes to Nigeria if you don’t know the know-how, in one year that car will be an eyesore. The same thing with the aircraft, if you do not have the maintenance know-how in Nigeria after about three years or four years it becomes an issue.
Key factors in enabled airline operational environment are availability of modern landing aids; including airfield lighting and Instrument Landing System (ILS). Most of the Nigerian airports lack these facilities. The federal government is in the process of concessioning airport facilities. Although, if done transparently it is going to take a relatively long time to finish the process, but industry experts say that it is the responsibility of government to provide safety critical equipment at the airside of airports, including ILS and airfield lighting. This becomes pertinent because a concessionaire managing the airport may be a foreigner or consortium of investors, it may not be safe to expose them to sensitive security apparatus that guides the nation’s sovereignty.
“Enabling environment must be created for our airlines to thrive. If the landing aids are there if I want to land in Calabar by 10 pm let the airport be open for me to land. And this can even energize the business environment in the country, when people know they can travel at any time. This is how to make the economy buoyant. The economy can be energised by making these airports vibrant,” Chief Onyema said.
It remains the responsibility of government to transform the aviation industry to generate more money for government, investors and boost the nation’s GDP and above all, to create jobs.