Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Capt. Muhtar Usman

The Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Captain Muhtar Usman, said in this interview with Chinedu Eze that the Authority has intensified surveillance of Nigerian airlines. Excerpts:

There have been reports that NCAA diverts money meant for training for the building of your new headquarters in Abuja. Is this true?

That is not true. First of all, in budgeting the National Assembly appropriates funds to projects. Even the internally generated revenue is still appropriated by the National Assembly and each appropriation has a title, so you cannot take one budget and put it in another budget. Training was given its own budget. The corporate headquarters has been rolling over since. Since I came in 2014 it has rolled over and we have not even commenced. The physical work has not started. In fact, award of the contract has not even been made. As I am talking to you now international training is going on and local training is going on. The only thing we want to do is to prioritise in view of the resent economic recession. The budget was done at the time dollar was below N200 and now it is about N400. So it is due to prudent management of resources that we would carry out the stipulated training; if not, we won’t be able to do more than 50 percent of the training programme.

Gone are those days when money was there. Now we want to prioritise and use that training as a tool to make the individual to perform the duties he is employed to do. So we have not really fallen back; we are prioritising and we ensure that all necessary training are done and that is the only way we can implement those critical elements as required by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Currently as I am talking to you the local trainings are going on. Those foreign training are also taking place. Some of those that are supposed to be foreign we are even training instructors locally within us to be able to impart that knowledge, so that instead of training few people we will be able to train more because we are going to conduct it in-house. So certainly what we have put in place right now will help the system more than what we used to have before. This is because the amount we will save in air ticket and estacode we will be used to train more people now.

What is the significance of the re-election of Dr. Bernard Aliu as the President of ICAO Council?

It is very significant to Nigeria and to Africa for an African, a black man to be re-elected as the President of ICAO Council. This is very important to us. The ICAO Council is a permanent body of the Organisation responsible to the Assembly. It is composed of 36 Member States elected by the Assembly for a three-year term. In the election, adequate representation is given to States of chief importance in air transport. So you see how significant it is to Nigeria. And not only that; a Nigerian was able to retain its part two membership of ICAO. What this means is that the international body has recognised the important role Nigeria is playing in aviation development and our contribution to air transport in Africa and in the world. The countries in part one include the nations that manufacture aircraft; even countries like United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey which has carried out so much research in aviation, are still in part three. This will tell you the significance of Nigeria’s position being in part two. So we achieved all we set out to achieve in Montreal. Aliu was re-elected as ICAO Council President and we retained our part two membership in ICAO.

Infrastructural status of an airport plays a role in safety and security to air travel so NCAA should be concerned about airport facilities in the country. So what is your disposition in the present campaign for airport concession?

Nigerians travel a lot and many of them travel to London and Dubai and would want our airports to be like what they see in those countries. For us to have such sophisticated, modern airports we need private sector investment in our airports. And if you check all over the world, airport development is done through public, private partnership (PPP). If you look at Heathrow Terminal 5, it is dedicated to British Airways. Government did not build it and it is not managing it. The terminal was built by the private sector and they are the ones managing it and government is getting revenues from there. Government has ceded it to the private sector and even some levels of security is managed by the company in charge of the airport and at the end of the day the airport still belongs to government.

If you look at our airport infrastructure you will see that they are very old. So for us to have such modern airports we see in other parts of the world like London and Dubai, the private sector must have to invest in airport development and they are not taking away the airport; they still belong to us but they will add some values to them and transform them to better facilities and that will even enhance revenue for government, boost passenger facilitation and increase our rating in the world.

With economic recession there are fears that Nigerian airlines may begin to cut corners, it has become obvious that airlines’ revenue has plummeted with the low value of Naira. So what are you doing to ensure that the airlines still fly safely?

One of the major components of the regulatory agency is surveillance and we have intensified that especially since this recession started to ensure that all operators are abiding by the provisions of safety and security regulations and in the areas of enforcement and compliance we have done a lot. There are those that thought they would slip under our radar and do things that they should not do, we were able to sanction a number of operators; even individuals who had license and were trying to operate in ways contrary to the privileges given to them in their license, such as the pilots we caught and suspended from operating flights as a result of testing positive to illicit substances and some flying without necessary documentations and other infractions. This makes them to know that they are being monitored. The objective is to ensure safety and security and we are appealing to all the operators to ensure they follow the laid down rules and regulations. The rules are there to ensure safe and secure air transport. We have also resolved several cases of missing baggage and delayed flights and other tickets issues.

Few years before you came, there was significant effort being made by NCAA to relocate to Abuja but there seemed to be a lull on that decision. Is there any effort being made to revive that plan?

I think you are right on that because sometime in 2008 there was Presidential directive that few agencies, including NCAA should relocate their corporate headquarters to Abuja and some buildings were put up in Abuja. Unfortunately those building have degenerated. We found a lot of defect on them that we really need to re-do the whole thing because it has become quite dangerous. They have developed a lot of cracks on them so they cannot support what we want to use them to do in terms of safety. So we have looked at that and provisions have been made to erect befitting corporate headquarters.

People keep saying, relocation. Yes, the relocation is to relocate the corporate office; it does not mean that Lagos will be closed. The operations in Lagos will still continue; it will operate as regional office, just like we have regional office in Port Harcourt. We have in Abuja, we have in Kano and Kaduna and if need be, we can create other regional offices because the essence of having regional offices is to bring services to the operators and that will increase the efficiency. It will even reduce the cost on the operators because you are bringing services close to them. As I am talking to you now Abuja has started processing licenses, personnel licenses. Now, renewal of licenses for people around Abuja is being handled in Abuja, so people don’t have to come to Lagos. It saves costs and time.

If the corporate office is relocated to Abuja it will reduce costs for the CEO of agencies. They need to interact with the Ministry of Transportation, which is located in Abuja, Central Bank is in Abuja, National Assembly is in Abuja, Accountant General, Auditor General are all located in Abuja. National Security Adviser’s office is in Abuja; so all those people are in Abuja. This will significantly reduce the cost of movement from Lagos to Abuja.

What do you think will be the contribution of the Nigerians who are heading international and regional aviation organisations to air transport development in Nigeria?

We have a lot to benefit from them. First of all, it is a recognition that Nigeria’s aviation sector has come of age. We have a Nigerian as head of ICAO Council, we have a Nigerian as secretary of Africa Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC), we also have a Nigerian elected as President Airports Council International (ACI), African Region; that is the Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Saleh Dunoma and currently the Director General of NCAA, Captain Usman, is the Chairman of the Banjul Accord Group Safety Oversight Organisation (BAGASO), which is located here in Abuja.

We have a lot of cooperation and assistance coming from ICAO in the areas of concession also in the areas of establishment of the aerospace university of which this administration is fully committed to. We stand to gain a lot by having Nigerians in those high places in the aviation industry.

Seven countries in West Africa came together to form the Banjul Accord, which is aviation body comprising those seven states. Five of those states are English speaking; one is Portuguese speaking, while the other one is French. The eighth one is coming as an observer and it is Portuguese speaking. The group comprises of Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Cape Verde and Guinea. The eighth one that wants to join is Guinea Bissau. Under the group we have the Safety Oversight Organisation; that is Banjul Accord Group Safety Oversight Organisation (BAGASO). There is the Accident Investigation Agency, which is called BAGAIA. So BAGASO is for safety, while BAGAIA is for accident investigation. BAGASO is very, very successful to the point that ICAO always cites it as an example for regional cooperation and asking other regions to emulate what BAGASO is doing.

What is the benefit of the group in the sub-region; do you think it will enhance the planned open sky for Africa?

One of the reasons why the group was set up was to encourage and improve on the air transport connectivity within the sub-region. That is one, and secondly to harmonise and standardise regulations; whereby you have common regulations within those states. We are working towards common economic regulations and common safety regulations and common aviation security regulation. And also because we are pulling our resources together, members can seek for assistance at any time from the group, including manpower exchange and development. This tallies with the programme at ICAO, which says, No Country is Left Behind.

Let’s talk about the Yamoussoukro Declaration (YD), which is liberalising Africa’s airspace for African airlines, which Nigeria is not only signatory but also spearheading the kick-off in December 2017. But some countries in the region and even some airlines in Nigeria don’t seem to be enthusiastic about it. How do you think Nigeria will benefit from this?

What we want to have is open sky for Africa. This is where the continent is looked at as one single market when it comes to the utilisation of air travel. The fear with some people is domination by some major carriers but everybody can have his own bite based on his own capability. You don’t have to be everywhere but wherever you think you can make headway. You just concentrate on where you will have advantage. It is just like in the domestic market where everyone wants to fly to Lagos and Abuja and Port Harcourt. People should look at other areas and develop.

We have very, very poor connectivity within Africa. Once we implement the YD I believe that connectivity in Africa will improve. You can imagine somebody going to Brazzaville; you cannot take direct flight. Last time I attempted it I had to go through Lome to Kinshasa and from Kinshasa to Brazzaville. Then coming back I had to fly from Brazzaville to Kinshasa and then overflew Nigeria and went to Abidjan, stayed on ground for nine hours and connected a flight back to Nigeria. This is a flight that will take not more than two and half hours from Lagos that I spent a whole day and almost a whole night.

Liberalisation of African airspace will improve on those connectivity and also improve on the economy of the region because if only few people are going it becomes very expensive for them, but if you have so many it will be cheaper to travel. It will also increase competition, which brings out the best. It will also improve trade and tourism. There are so many things available in Africa but people will fly to Europe to go and get it. This is because connectivity in Africa is bad. For example, if you are flying also from Cape Verde, you have to fly to Dakar and then spend some hours and if you are lucky that day that there is a connecting flight you will be lucky.

But for some people from Ghana and other countries in the region, they will have to go to Europe. That is the best way, you go to Portugal and from Portugal, you come back to Africa. If we have connectivity in place it will cost you less to move around. Then what you are looking for in Europe you can get it here and even at cheaper cost. So it will improve trade and also tourism.

Will you encourage the Nigerian airlines to operate regional service in a way to make it competitive?

Certainly we have been encouraging them. We have been giving them the approval to fly in the region and even international. So it is up to them to start. But somebody has to go and sit down and look at the figures and take commercial decisions to show they can break even, because other people are doing it. People fly one hour from London to Paris. So many airlines operate there, so why not in Africa. When we were growing up we used to fly Lagos to Ibadan and some even flew Lagos to Cotonou also.

When I was in the national airline, Nigeria Airways, it developed the Dubai route, but then it was not even a daily flight but it grew and eventually Emirates started coming and at one time it was coming to Nigeria three times a day. So people should do their business model very well, put the right equipment because others are also doing it because they are even making profit. British Airways fly into Nigeria two times a day.

I think one of the major issues now in Nigeria is how to enhance local airlines to partner with international carriers and I think NCAA has a big role to play in this. What steps do you think can be taken to facilitate this?

First of all, code-share, partnerships are commercial in nature. If you want somebody or an airline you wish to partner with you will have to meet each other person’s requirements. In a way, there is a standard set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is the IATA Operational Audit (IOSA) and I am happy to say that we have six airlines that have met that requirement, so it is much easier now and other airlines are also in the process of meeting that requirement. That is a basic requirement for many airlines to go into partnership. So we have to learn to operate to international standard. Once you are operating at that standard it makes it much easier. You cannot force that kind of marriage. This is because if you don’t meet somebody’s standard he would not want to partner with you.

Recently there were rumours that some briefcase helicopter companies were getting bids from exploration and production oil companies for air shuttle contracts. These are companies that are said not to have Air Operator Certificate (AOC) and no base or maintenance hangar. How do you monitor the activities of these helicopter services?

Before you operate any commercial service in Nigeria you must have the necessary permit, including the AOC. All the airlines providing service to oil and gas companies have to do business only when they have met these requirements. It is also in their own interest to ensure that this is done. In fact, some of them place a higher standard more than the minimum standard set for the operators of such services. Some of the oil companies even have their own independent audit and subject such operator to more scrutiny in addition to what we have done. So even if they give out contract to an operator; that operator must be up to standard.

Recently during stakeholders meeting in Lagos the Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika gave a hint that the restructuring in the aviation agencies, especially the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), which gave rise to people losing their jobs, would continue. How will this affect the industry?

What I understood from what the Minister said was that people were not placed in their rightful position. It was a process that started even before the coming of this administration and it arose from petition that some people brought to the Ministry; that some people with less qualification and experience were put over and above those already in the system with better qualification and experience.

Then a committee was set up. It was headed by the present Head of Service. She was then a permanent secretary. It was the report she presented and its implementation that took place in FAAN. It cannot be said to have led to loss of jobs because to the best of my knowledge I don’t know of anybody that was sacked because of that. It is only that people were placed where it was believed they should be. Naturally some people felt they could not accept what they were given and they left. If he said it would be extended to other agencies, it may not necessarily lead to job losses.

I don’t think anybody has anything to fear as long as he has the qualification and experience and he is doing the job in line with his job title. It is not about retrenchment but right placement of personnel and I believe that this would increase efficiency in the system and also would boost the morale of the people who have been there so that they will continue to put in their best in the system.