Outcry on Aviation Sector Falls on Deaf Ears

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In the last few months, the National Assembly has raised concerns about the state of the aviation industry. But despite the efforts to draw the parlous attention to the Nigerian authorities, their solutions appear to have fallen on deaf ears, writes Chinedu Eze

About two months ago, the House Committee on Aviation came to Lagos on a fact-finding mission, to confirm reports about impairments at the international terminal of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos.

This was followed by a public hearing about the ills threatening the aviation industry, which include paucity and high cost of aviation fuel; the grounding of Aero Contractors scheduled operation; the obsolete facilities at the airports and issues concerning planned concession of airport terminal facilities and controversy over the concession of the Murtala Muhammed airport domestic terminal, known as MMA2, given out in concession to Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL).

Last week, the Senate Committee on Aviation visited the Lagos airport and lamented financial wastages of past administrations on unrealised projects and the prevailing infrastructure decay at the airports.

For the first time a searchlight was beamed at the inadequacies of Nigeria’s navigational and communications facilities in the airspace, forcing the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) to acknowledge the failure of equipment and the well-known blind spots in the airspace where pilots cannot communicate with air traffic control while in-flight.

Last Monday, the Senate Committee on Privatisation visited the Lagos airport, had a tour of the facilities at MMA2 and berated the federal government for its failure to honour agreements and explained how this infraction has damaged Nigeria’s image abroad and discouraged foreign, direct investment.

Implementation

While these issues were raised by the National Assembly, industry observers express worries that these myriads of problems are never solved after all the hoopla of media frenzy and in the next political section, the legislators will start all over to drum attention to themselves with the same problems. They would always say they would issue reports at the end of the day to the executive. But no one can forget the circus show with so much media hype, which public hearing on aviation and other sectors attract. Industry critics say that the National Assembly should go steps further beyond doing reports to nudge government to execute their recommendation in those reports.

When the House Committee visited the Lagos airport and toured the new international terminal facility, the members were not so much attuned to the present clamour for the concession of airport facilities. They were also eager to see the problems of the industry solved.

More Action, Less Words

The Chairman of the Committee, Hon. Nkiru Onyejeocha said the House would assist the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to take deliberate action to alleviate the pain occasioned by the current recession on the airlines, noting that if such action was not taken the airlines might collapse and requested from the Director-General of the regulatory authority, Captain Muhtar Usman if any measures had been adopted already to support the domestic carriers.

“We want to help the airlines overcome this recession period. We do not want any other airline to go under. Now that Aero Contractors has stopped scheduled service many people will be out of jobs if it does not resume and the industry will be adversely affected if another airline is allowed to go under,” Onyejeocha said.

Onyejeocha said in an interview with THISDAY: “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. Asked how the House will ensure these problems are solved?, she said: “We are going to make recommendations.

The Ministry representatives were at the public hearing. The Director-General of the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority 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.’’

She added: “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.”

Poor Navigational Aids

When the Senate Committee on Aviation visited last week, the members pointed out issues with the nation’s disclosing that navigational aids are obsolete and some of them are in disrepair so it is difficult for pilots to fly through some parts of the airspace.

They also pointed out that the communication between pilot and air traffic control is impaired by blind spots; that is, the areas of the airspace where there is no communications between the pilot and air traffic control, where the pilot has to use experience to manoeuvre through. All these the Senate noted constitute danger to safe flight operation.

Vice chairman of the Senate committee on aviation, Senator Bala Ibn Na Allah who is also a pilot spoke about the hard decisions pilots have to contend with on a daily basis in order to fly safely through the airspace with inadequate navigational equipment, noting that ineffectively communication in the airspace has become inimical to air safety.

N’Allah recalled that these problems have been there over the years and despite huge amount of money spent on projects to improve safety in the airspace, the problems have continued to exist.

The Committee berated the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, saying that the later failed in its oversight functions to regulate the airspace management agency, while decrying the billions of Naira spent on equipment procurement and execution without any discernible improvement in airspace safety.

Na’Allah observed that in the aviation industry contracts are inflated and when compared to other countries, a 10th of what is budgeted to execute a project in Nigeria is used to provide the best of similar project overseas, adding, “The navigational aids we have in Ghana, Togo, Dakar, Senegal, we have spent five times of the money they spent, yet we are yet to have the kind of equipment they have. So when we talk about funds the problem is much more than that. Collectively we have failed, so individually let us correct those mistakes that we made in the past. We do not have the funds now. We will never have the kind of funds that we had in the past in the foreseeable future. So we need to change our attitude now.”

Honouring Agreements

The Senate Committee on Privatisation led by its Chairman, Senator Ben Bruce spoke to newsmen with fury after inspecting the facilities at the domestic terminal of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos.

The Committee berated the federal government for its failure to honour agreement it entered into when it concession the domestic terminal of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, known as MMA2 to Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL).

The concession agreement, which was reached in 2006 stated that BASL would build a new terminal after the old one was consumed by fire and it would be done on built, operate and transfer (BOT) arrangement with the terminal operating as the only domestic facility in Lagos state and also allows the company to operate regional services.

The agreement had attracted a lot of flaks from industry insiders and legal luminaries because the terms of agreement were not kept by government and since that agreement was reach in 2006 and the terminal flagged off in 2007, the controversy has refused to go away.

The Committee Chairman, Senator Ben Bruce noted, “We have just been presented by Captain Jari Williams (COO of BASL) about the difficulty Bi-Courtney has had with government either with the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) or the Ministry of Aviation representing the federal government of Nigeria. You concession this facility and having done that you had an agreement, which is binding legally but you do not intend to honour any aspect of the agreement. That is what is fundamentally at stake. Why go into an agreement, and I am assuming the federal government has very intelligent lawyers, who were protecting the interest of government.

“If the agreement says, for instance, West African flights should leave or land here, why has that not happened? If you say, for example, all the flights in Lagos should take off from here; why has that not happened? Why would you concession a terminal and you go to government or to the public and collect money to built another facility when you have a private sector individual funding this by himself? That is a fundamental issue, which makes no sense in law or logic,” Senator Bruce said.

The Senate Committee noted that if government signs an agreement that it does not intend to honour the consequence is that it damages the image of the that country and “you frighten people who otherwise would want to get involved in a concession in the privatisation any other government concern.”

These issues brought to the fore are germane and they are the acute problems the industry has been suffering from over the years. But the pontification of the National Assembly seems to be a cycle that comes with so much furry and ends without any implementation.

And while the National Assembly may still be lamenting about the failure of government to honour the agreement it reached with BASL, another controversy is presently in conception: the future concession of Nigeria’s major airports to the Tav Group of Turkey.