Onyejeocha: Lawmakers are Worried about the Future of Aviation Sector

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The Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Aviation, Hon. Nkiruka Onyejeocha, has reached the conclusion that the aviation sector is bedeviled by sundry problems that are threatening the future of air transport in Nigeria. She spoke to Chinedu Eze on actions being taken to rejuvenate the industry. Excerpts:

What was the purpose of the House Committee’s visit to the Lagos airport recently?

We went for the oversight of facilities because we had a motion to carry out on-the-spot assessment of some facilities at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos and look at the issues, which we did. Those issues concern the new terminals being built by the Chinese and the criticism concerning the remodeled old terminal. Some people had complained about the facilities at the old international terminal, so we needed to ascertain the facts and we also looked at the chillers, which they also complained about. There was allegation that the roof at the terminal was leaking.

We inspected the facilities and from what we saw, the way they painted the picture to us before our inspection was a bit exaggerated. Most things are not functioning properly but not as bad as they painted it. It was good we went for that oversight. For the chillers, we asked them to ensure they are improved because of the heavy traffic we will expect during the Yuletide and then the weather would be warner than it is currently. So we asked them to make sure that the chillers are working. The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) promised to work on the chillers that were not working.

We came hard on FAAN on the issue of the terminal being built by the Chinese at Lagos airport. This is because from the agreement that terminal was supposed to be handed over by December, 2016 and from what we saw, no magic will make them deliver it by the end of the year. So we directed them to make sure they improve the pace on the work. This is because we know that the slow pace of work has nothing to do with the federal government budget appropriation.

We went to the Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) and stressed on the importance of air safety and also commended them for meeting the expectation and sustaining the high safety standard. This is important because in aviation you don’t sleep; you work 24 hours and make sure that everything is kept to standard and that every facility is working. We also implored them to be proactive on the issues of safety. Calibration (testing airspace equipment) should be taken seriously to make sure that all the equipment is working optimally.

We went to NCAA and we discussed issues concerning the capacity of the workers to make sure that they train and retrain their workers to meet best international practices in the industry. Aviation is a well-regulated industry and once you cut corners there will be a lot of consequences, which verge on safety and possible loss of lives. So our on -the -spot assessment in Lagos was very timely because having experienced recession, it is pertinent that everyone is kept on his toes to ensure safety is not compromised because these are challenging times. So no matter how much money we are losing; no matter the level of devaluation of our currency, you cannot compromise on safety standards.

We implored them to ensure they do not cut corners because of the economic issues we are facing. Recession is not an excuse to cut corners. We should do the things we are supposed to do and that is it.

Are you worried that foreign airlines may leave the country because of economic recession and how do you see the challenges Nigeria airlines are facing over forex?

Honestly I am worried. That is why we are doing public hearing on how to rescue the industry from imminent collapse. We are facing issues of recession, inadequate supply of Jet A1 and airlines not performing optimally due to hindrances like lack of airfield lighting on some runways. And now some airlines may go under. Aero Contractors has already stopped operation. IRS Airlines, Chanchangi and others have been out of business for a while, so I am worried. As a Nigerian I am worried because aviation should be one of the sectors that should fund our budget. It should contribute to our GDP and if it is not, every right thinking person should be worried. This is more so when I am the Chair, House Committee on Aviation, so everything that is not working towards the upliftment of the sector should keep me worried.

What happened today (during the hearing) is that we were able to seat with the stakeholders and, of course, the local and international airlines and it was revealing. Emirates said they would leave Abuja operation because of, one, forex issues, and he buttressed the point very clearly that if somebody buys ticket for $1000 at the exchange rate of N300, 000, for example, by the time they will exchange the money from the parallel market to repatriate their money it will be devalued and they cannot get the $1000 ticket again; sometimes it devalues to $600. So they are losing money operating in Nigeria, so they said they could not continue because the exchange rate fluctuates. So the naira is not stable and the policy is also not stable.

How are you going to push these issues to the executive to make sure that they take action?

We are going to make recommendations. The Ministry representatives were at the public hearing. The Director-General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) attended the public hearing. Our recommendation will be based on what is obtained internationally. We must apply best international practices because there is no way Nigeria can be charging airlines VAT while in other countries airlines do not pay VAT.

And in Nigeria it is only the airlines in that pay VAT in the transportation system. As far as I am concerned, aviation is a global sector; while certain regulations could be localised but the mode of operation must follow that international standard because Nigeria is a member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). So we must do everything in compliance with ICAO standard. The way to go is to do recommendation and we have seen everything and I did not see them fault those submissions concerning over taxation.

When we are talking about how to revive our local airlines we must take critical look at the services and the fees they are being charged. You cannot charge them out of business and if you listened to the last submission by the Rector of the Nigeria Aviation College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria, he said that all over the world that there is no way government does not intervene to help its airlines. This is because air transport plays catalyst roll in every nation’s economy. So government should intervene because of the invaluable services the airlines are rendering; they must intervene to waive some fees and charges just to encourage the airlines.

Most importantly is that we want CBN to come up with a policy that will have position impact in the aviation sector, moving forward. So government cannot continue to rely on the flexibility of the naira. The consequence of that is not good on the airlines. You can see that some of them are already losing money. The reality is that Nigerian airlines do not have the capacity now. That is where government should assist the local carriers, so we cannot say that we should allow these foreign airlines to go so that our own airlines will start operating international destinations. Our airlines do not have the capacity yet, so we have to be realistic about this. We have to continue to encourage the movement of people and goods, so we must support these airlines both local and international carriers.

At the public hearing we told CBN that it ought to take concrete action to help the airlines to continue to operate in Nigeria by facilitating their access to forex. The airlines also pointed out that the Abuja runway, which is bad is one of the reasons why they decided to withdraw their services from Abuja. That runway issue borders on safety and it is critical item in flight operations.

In consideration of that reason you cannot say, no, they must continue to fly until a solution is found. So we are not going to tell them to continue flying until the runway is repaired in the short term and another one built in the long term. It is good that the stakeholders listened to them; the officials of the Ministry also listened to them. What we shall do is to go back to the drawing board and look at our budget. We have to also examine the runway they are talking about and get it fixed. We are taking everything seriously to ensure that we don’t leave any stone unturned.

There is report that the Warri Refinery is producing about three million litres of both petrol and kerosene, but nothing was said about Jet A1 and part of the pressure on forex is the cost of importation of aviation fuel. I don’t know what the House is doing about this?

We are looking at it already. That was why we invited the Minister of State, Aviation. We also invited the Minister of State for Petroleum and the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) but they didn’t come and we didn’t hear from them. We cannot discuss moving forward without hearing from these people. This is because Jet A1 is very critical to the whole problem and its availability will make a significant chance.

Hopefully they will appear in the next hearing. What the stakeholders are proffering is that aviation fuel should be produced locally here so that they will stop its importation. Once they stop its import the issue of forex and the cost of the product will be resolved. With its local refining it will be available and cheaper and this will reflect on the cost of ticket and at the end of the day it will have positive multiplier effect.

What is your view about the industry and how it could be improved to have viable airlines and functional airport facilities?

My view about the industry is that aviation is critical to any economy. It is a sector that we should not treat with levity. It should be a priority of the government and any other government because of the critical role it plays on the economy. So moving forward, I believe that the recommendation that we will come up with from this hearing will lead to the solution of the many problems in the industry. We know that there is problem and we have agreed that there is problem. We are also looking at the issues concerning concession so when we put everything together we will be able to come up with solutions to these challenges.

We are going to have short term, medium time and of course, long term solutions to these problems. In the short term, government must intervene. One issue of Aero and Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), the airline has operated in Nigeria for 57 years. AMCON took over the airline, but the critical question is, why did AMCON take over the airline and the airline is not yet back on its feet? My take on this is that everybody: the executive, the judiciary and the legislature should come together to move this sector forward.

The Minister during the hearing talked about transparency. There is no doubt about that, but when everyone is complaining what you should do is to pause and then listen. This is because if you carry everybody along and they understand what you are doing there will be less rancor. It is not that at the end of the day everybody will agree.

There is no policy of government that can appeal to everyone. But if you carry majority of the people, especially the labour, you will go a long way. The constitution of Nigeria said that government should provide for its citizens. This is a fundamental responsibility of government, so government should think if it wants to do anything that could remove food from the people’s table. But in doing that we must do it according to the law and we must do it according to the dictates of the constitution. This means that we must obey the law. You cannot do it outside the law.

I am of the view that anything that should be done must abide by the act that established. If it is in terms of law we are ready to assist. This is because if you introduce policies that are not implementable you are back to square one.