Mohammed: Expatriates Use Our Airlines as Training Ground

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The Rector and Chief Executive of the College of Aviation Technology, Zaria, Captain Abdulsalami Mohammed, in this interview, said that the college was established to cater for the training needs of the industry, but expatriates pilots employed by Nigerian airlines use the country as training ground for juicier jobs in the Middle East. Chinedu Eze presents the excerpts:

The federal government has said it would no longer fund its agencies 100 per cent; rather, it expects to engage in some kind of public, private partnership (PPP) to earn more revenue. How is NCAT going about this?

The issue of revenue generation is foremost in our minds because part of our funding here is from internally generated revenue. Even though it is a government institution, we get part funding from government, the rest of our expenses are covered under the IGR. So we have to come out with programmes that will increase our revenue generation by introducing more courses and we are getting approval by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to introduce a number of courses that have international content.

So we will be getting international students and we will be charging full fees for the cost of the courses, unlike the current situation where the most of the courses being offered here are subsidies by government. So we intend to introduce more courses. As you are aware, we have two helicopters that have been operated for some time, right now they are undergoing annual inspection after which we intend to start using them. They are not the most ideal for initial pilot training, they are more for advance training, so we intend to bring the smaller helicopters that the students can use for ab initio, and then they can upgrade to the advanced version. As to the Diamond aircraft (which are being delivered), as you heard in my speech earlier in the day, the present fleet of aircraft we have are on the average 15 years old. Though it is not much of a concern with aircraft when you maintain it properly, the main issue here is availability of spare parts and the aviation gasoline which is the fuel that the aircraft uses. There are very few aircraft operators in the country that use that type of fuel, so  the fuel importers are not really keen on importing because the demand is in small quantities. And this is a common problem with most training institutions. So there is this trend of re-fleeting to more modern aircraft that use Jet A1; that is why they choose the Diamond aircraft.

There have been encroachments on your land by communities that are closer to you and these has been a difficult issue over the years, what are you really doing to ensure that the lands are recovered from them?

The issue of encroachment is a very serious thing for us, the Minister (Senator Hadi Sirika) was here in January just before I was appointed to this position and he saw for himself the areas that are affected by the encroachment and he promised to take up the issue with the executive government of Kaduna State who promised to assist in reclaiming this land. And I am pleased to say that he is an action governor and he is already started taking action.

Your effort to acquire 20 aircraft is a huge investment. How much is each aircraft costing you?

We are getting them in the region of $20 million and it is not just the aircraft; when you buy an aircraft you buy spare parts, you train the pilots, the instructors and you also have support from the manufacturer for a certain number of years. So it is not just the aircraft. As part of the package the manufacturer is training about 20 pilots and 20 engineers for us. And already that has started. We have already trained some pilots and engineers.

It is alleged that pilots here don’t graduate on record time; I want to know what measures you are putting on ground to ensure that pilots training here graduate within the specified time?

As you are aware I am a graduate of this school? During my time the planned duration of the course is 18 months. We were able to complete the course in two years and the main reason which still remains the reason here now is weather of which we have no control. During the harmattan season when visibility drops below a certain minimum, we cannot conduct training. So our pilots have to sit and wait until the weather improves before we can continue with the training. So that is a big factor in the length of the time it takes to complete the training.

This is a common thing in aviation. If you look at England where it is always raining, they had the same problem, so their own solution was creating campuses in Arizona in the US where it hardly rains. So they take the students there where they do the basic training until they get to the stage where they can fly via instruments, in which case the cloud or rain is not a factor before they take them back to England. So this is a common thing in the industry but another factor that causes this elongation of the course is the epileptic supply of aviation gasoline (AVGAS); the fuel for the aircraft.

Sometimes you run out of fuel and the contractor is not able to supply in time, so that causes a disruption in the training. So we have taken measures, right now we have a stock that will last us six months and we have already started the process of resupply .So during my tenure here I will make sure that we don’t run out of fuel for the aeroplanes. But in terms of weather, it is an act of nature; I am afraid there is nothing we can do.

One of the things I told my staff when I assumed duty here, is that I told them that I want us to go back to where we graduate pilots in 18 months. So people will say that they do it for shorter periods in other parts of the world. But based on the syllabus that we are operating here, every region has a syllabus, we have a different one here, we are graduating pilots with what the industry call frozen ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence). So they are trained up to the airline, transport pilots stage, so all they will need to get that license is experience which they will build on after graduation from here.

When are we going to have a training system, perhaps in  collaboration with local airlines, that we can bring out a high number of cabin crew, pilots and others that could be employed by foreign airlines and overseas, as Ethiopian and Kenyans are employed all over the world?

You know I just came back from Addis Ababa, so I had the privilege of visiting the Ethiopian airlines’ academy where they train the pilots and the cabin crew. Ethiopian academy is tailored to meet the training needs of Ethiopian airlines. The airlines in the Middle East they all have training academies to cater for their own airlines. This institution (NCAT) was setup to meet the training needs of the whole industry not a particular airline. So we cannot train the kind of numbers that we are talking of because Ethiopian airlines for instance has over 60 aircraft, Emirates has the largest number of aircraft and is the largest airline in the world so they are always employing people.

If you go to Emirates there are Nigerian pilots who trained from here, there are cabin crew who trained from here in Emirates. So you find pilots that are trained here in Nigerian all over the world. The academy in Ethiopia also just trains pilots, mechanics and cabin crew for the airline. We train pilots, mechanics, cabin crew, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, technicians and management staff. So we have broader scope of work but the issue here is when the pilot graduates from here they need to go and build experience somewhere else even the airlines in the Middle East that you are talking of they will not take anybody who comes straight from a flying school. There is a minimum experience level that is required before they can be accepted.

And in most cases they use this as a training ground; they use our airlines and industry as a training ground and then go.  If you go you will find a lot of pilots that are working there gained their experience over here. I am hoping that by the time the national carrier is setup you will see a reverse in the trend, because people only go out because there are no jobs here. If there are similar jobs available locally, they will come and support the national carrier. This was what happened in the days if Virgin Nigeria, when Virgin Nigeria was setup virtually every pilot in Nigeria applied to join Virgin Nigeria. I left my work in the UK and came to work for Virgin Nigeria. So I believe when the national carrier is setup you will see huge droves of aviation professionals coming to join the national carrier.  And this is where also this college tends to play a big role in meeting the training requirements of the national carrier.

How can NCAT key into the training policy of the planned national carrier?

 Normally it depends on the type of aircraft the national carrier starts with. If they come with aircraft that Nigerians are qualified to fly I can assure you that majority of the pilots will be Nigerians. But if they come with aircraft that are not flown by a lot of Nigerians, they will start with some expatriates pilots who will train the Nigerian pilots which is usually the case. Even for insurance purposes you will not want to start a new airline with people who are not familiar with the aircraft. So there will be a mixture of expatriate pilots who will do the bulk of the training for our own pilots until our own pilots are comfortable enough on that aircraft for them to take over which is a short term thing.

Are you partnering institutions like banks to help the less privileged to benefit from the training?

As I mentioned earlier, this college being government owned, the school fees are subsidised by the government. I know to an ordinary person it sounds expensive when you say you need to pay about N9 million to train as a pilot; but if you go out to train or even if you go down the road to Ilorin (International Aviation College, Ilorin) you are going to pay about double that because it is full fees. So government already has done enough subsidising the cost of training. Then there are cases where we also offer scholarships or sponsorships to certain categories of students because we know that they are not able to pay the school fees, sometimes the collage sponsors people. I am a beneficiary of that. During my training here I was sponsored by the college and I stayed back to work as an instructor to pay back. So we still have that arrangement, whereby we sponsor people. We also offer sponsorship as part of our social responsibility and then to other people from within the industry.