FG’s Penchant for Foreign Airlines

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Aviation industry experts posit that despite the fact that Nigeria has a renowned aviation college established in 1964, Nigeria is nowhere, near Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa in terms of the number of citizens employed in the aviation sector both locally and abroad.

Ethiopia may lead the pack as the country with the highest number of aviation professionals employed overseas and these experts note that this is because the country has comprehensive training programme and accompanying facilities for aviation development, despite the fact that it has less than half of Nigeria’s population and possibly about 30 per cent of the country’s resources.

Ironically, Ethiopia’s first aviation training school was established at the same time Nigeria’s was established by the same international organisation, the United Nations. But that of Ethiopia experienced exponential growth as it expanded and became arguably the best aviation training institution in Africa.

Industry observers attribute it to commitment, patriotism and altruistic disposition of the leaders of Ethiopia who saw aviation as a niche for economic development. The success of aviation was built on the country’s national carrier, Ethiopia Airlines.

Today, Nigeria’s federal government woos Ethiopia Airlines like a coy, beautiful princess; celebrating an airline its government took time to prepare to conquer Africa. When the federal government moved Abuja airport to Kaduna following the repair the former’s runway, it was Ethiopia Airline that first landed at the airport a day before it was opened for Abuja designated flights. Also, when the repair of the Abuja airport runway was completed, it was Ethiopia Airlines that landed at the airport a day before it was reopened.

The question industry observers and other Nigerians were asking, does it mean that the government cannot use any indigenous carrier to promote the relocation of operations to Kaduna and return to Abuja airport. Obviously Nigeria has greater opportunities and more resources than Ethiopia to establish the most viable and profitable airlines in the continent.

But a source at the Ministry of Transportation, alleged that top officials of government “don’t really care for Nigeria; they care for their pockets; therefore, it will be difficult for government officials, from the Ministers to those in charge of the critical decisions and implementation of policies in aviation to show the kind of commitment and passion needed for Nigeria to grow the aviation industry.”

Over the years, the federal government and its officials have shown that they have more confidence in foreign carriers and they encourage them to operate in Nigeria, give them more frequencies when they demand them, give them landing rights to the airports of their choice and even beg some of them to come to Nigeria. Many of such top officials, including Ministers would excuse their actions, saying that Nigeria does not have capacity; that the local airlines do not have the wherewithal to operate international routes. But the domestic operators would argue that that the major reason why domestic airlines are not developing is because of government’s disposition towards indigenous operators in its policies and its attention to the development of airport facilities.

In a recent press conference, the Chairman of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema noted that many foreign airlines that operate in Nigeria do not allow Nigerian airlines to operate to their own countries and they do this by refusing to give Nigerian airlines landing rights. These are what Nigerian government easily gives to these foreign airlines. He noted that Nigerian airlines will never grow if there is no conscious effort by government to protect the airlines through its policies.

One example will suffice. Few years ago Arik Air wanted to operate to Brazil, which used to be a very viable route when Varig, the Brazilian carrier was operating to Nigeria. Now more Nigerians and more Brazilians have both business and cultural ties but no Nigerian airline or Brazil airline operate directly to both countries. When Arik made a request to Brazil, as the law of reciprocity goes, a Brazilian airline has to operate to Nigeria and Gol was to come to Nigeria. But Gol largely operates domestic destinations. In fact, as at that time, Gol was operating only one international destination and it is a big airline in Brazil. Arik made request for landing rights in Bazil. Brazilian authorities sat on it. Gol made request to operate to Nigeria to the country’s Ministry of Aviation then. The request was immediately granted and frequencies were given to Gol. But Brazil sat on the request of Arik till today. Gol despite all the approval never operated to Nigeria.

An operator told THISDAY on Wednesday that when a country opens all its doors to foreign airlines it loses forex through capital flight. He noted that no country really allows open skies; every country protects its own indigenous carriers and in the negotiation of Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA), most countries go with their local airlines.

“We recently made a request to operate to one country and the authorities told us to meet their own airlines that are already operating into Nigeria and seek their approval, which we did. We were not surprised because that is the way it is done. It is only Nigeria that does not protect its own airlines. Nigeria’s aviation industry has the potential to create over a million direct and indirect jobs, but we have to grow our airlines into strong, viable carriers to achieve this,” the operator said.

Industry experts and the secretary of Aviation Round Table (ART), Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd) has frowned at the way government has been encouraging the dominance of foreign airlines in Nigeria. He said, “While I commend the government for allocating six or seven international routes to Air Peace, without including Addis Ababa, there must be something very uncommon in the way and manner we allocate multiple destinations to foreign airlines in this country to the disadvantage of our domestic airlines. Sure, there must be some financial inducement from the airlines to some persons. Ethiopian Airlines is making about 20 weekly flights to about five of our airports; and I ask, why can’t the Nigerian airlines participate or compete with Ethiopian Airline on this route?”

If government really wants to develop the aviation industry, it must do everything possible to grow strong, viable domestic airlines and enunciate policies that will encourage airlines to train aviation personnel along with other agencies.