Director-General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Captain Muhtar Usman, in this interview, says Nigeria’s airspace is safer because the agency has taken stringent steps to ensure that all operational aircraft in the country are airworthy. Usman also says concrete measures have been adopted to secure the country’s airports against intrusion. Chinedu Eze provides the excerpts:
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) recently intervened in the invasion of the Sokoto airport by the supporters of a political leader, what are the measures you are going to take to ensure that such doesn’t happen again?
Well, as usual, with all incidences, especially this unfortunate incident where there was a breach of security by some persons who came in, though not with the intension of doing any damage, but because they came to receive their political mentor. From the regulatory agency, based on the International Civil Aviation Act, Annex 17, which covers aviation security, we regulate and we monitor those regulations for full implementation. And so, as soon as that came to our notice, we quickly intervened by launching investigation to determine the immediate and remote causes with a view of preventing such from happening. Luckily, we have been able to determine certain findings, we have made appropriate recommendations, and we are monitoring the implementation of those recommendations to prevent such from happening again; not only in Sokoto but in all the other airports of Nigeria.
But specifically, we cannot say for security reasons what we have put in place but we want to assure Nigerians that we are alive to our responsibility and all agencies are working in concert to ensure that our aviation environment is secured.
The few aircraft we have in operation in the country has made air fares high, as demand increases over supply, are you envisaging that a new airline or airlines will join the market soon?
You know we have responsibility to ensure that any aircraft that flies within our airspace is airworthy. So, if an aircraft is on ground doing nothing, it is because it has not met the airworthiness level or standard for us to allow it to go. So, we will rather have fewer aircraft flying than to have so many that are not airworthy. Having said that, we have to recognise that the rule of demand and supply applies. When you have fewer seats available as against the demand that is high, certainly you are going to have increase in fares. This is because we have deficit in terms of number of seats that are available, that will not push us to certify operators that have not met the required standard. Regardless of the situation of seats availability, we will ensure that whatever or whichever operator that we approved has met all the international safety and security standards. But we are also working with prospective operators to ensure that they have met the standard for us to certify them, so that they can fill in and take care of the deficit in terms of availability of seats.
Want has the NCAA been doing to ensure that safety standard continues to improve in the country?
Again, I will talk about the standards that are set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), of which Nigeria is a signatory. We get audited based on that and, luckily, because we have insisted on that standard. ICAO standard guides our regulatory activities, and this has positively impacted on our operations. It is not something people can see physically, only when something bad happens that people see. But a lot happens behind the scene to ensure such things don’t happen. So, we insist on standard and also a lot of it is the effort we put in because we cannot fold our hand and start praying, so we have to work very hard behind the scenes to ensure this level of safety is being achieved. We thank God for the last three years we have not had any commercial schedule accident that claimed any life. And we will continue to push for that and also pray to ensure that that is sustained.
When oil price slumped few years ago, some member countries became indebted to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Nigeria has paid off all its debts. What role did NCAA play in ensuring that the debts were paid?
Well, we made a representation to government and a lot of the credit should go to the Honourable Minister of State for Aviation, Hadi Sirika he took it personal. He intervened. He went to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Ministry of Finance and all agencies that will make it possible and thank God that the efforts were rewarded, and Nigeria so far is not owing the airlines. And the airlines did not face any difficulty in repatriating whatever is agreed, based on the Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA).
Many Nigerians are looking up to the national carrier, Nigeria Air because it is expected that it would provide the platform for aviation development in the country. But some people are saying in order not to kill the domestic carriers that the national carrier should concentrate on international and regional routes. How is this possible?
First of all, we have identified the deficit in the seats that are available within the country and even outside the country. We have also identified that Nigeria is losing a lot of foreign exchange because we don’t have carriers that are strong enough to take advantage of the bilateral air service agreements we have with those countries. The strong flag carrier or national carrier is envisaged to fill in the vacuum created. And it is our believe that there is enough market for everybody because with the population of at least 180 million people, highly mobile, also the location of Nigeria, natural location, I believe there is enough room for everyone to operate.
On the issue of Nigeria airlines operating in ECOWAS region, there has been this issue of charges such that when the foreign airlines come to Nigeria, they are not charged as high as their countries charge our airlines that fly to their cities. Have you had a meeting with other ECOWAS countries on how to have uniform charges or to moderate the charges to acceptable level?
Some few months ago, there was a conference which was under the auspices of the ECOWAS which took place in Accra, Ghana, to address that those charges. A committee was raised, IATA which is the umbrella body for the airlines was also involved and the committee has submitted its result to ECOWAS with a view of harmonising those charges. In addition, even locally, a task force was setup by His Excellency, the Vice President who was then Acting President, on the harmonisation of the charges of which a report has already been submitted. So, we are trying to see if all those can be harmonised together so that we can have uniform charges to ensure a level playing field for all the operators within the sub-region.
Many Nigerians have agreed that the facilities at the airports are obsolete and inadequate and airlines have attributed some flight delays and cancelations to poor airport infrastructure and have expressed support to the government’s plan. What could be the benefits if we concession the airports?
First of all, we have to look at our airports, for example Murtala Muhammed International airport was built about 40 years ago, which was built for specific maximum number of passengers which it has exceeded now. So, for you to have a hub you need to have seamless connectivity; and Nigeria is a natural hub geographically. And we have what it takes to put in place to make a very efficient hub. We need to get the airport improved for facilitation and security and of course safety.
Now we know the modern trend nowadays, government goes into partnership in form of concession so that private hands can come and invest and bring the airport to the international standards where there will be seamless connectivity. And along with the concession that the government is planning because it has already embarked on it through the transaction adviser, other facilities such as availability of fuel, maintenance repair and overhaul and of course, a national carrier. This is because you don’t build a facility without full utilisation, somebody has to take advantage and use it. And that is where the national airline or the flag carrier comes into play, to take advantage of the bilateral air service agreements that we have in place.
Concession of airports would make possible efficient and modern airport facilities and other supporting facilities for efficient coordination such as the MRO, as I mentioned earlier and availability of fuel at reasonable prices. The advantage is that this will create more jobs. You will have employment because when you expand the airport facilities, certainly you will need people to work. When you establish maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) centre, you will also need people to work and they will all be Nigerians. The carrier is certainly going to employ a lot of people; the fuel facility will also create more jobs and make employment to go up, and the chain reaction continues in a positive trend. So, there are lots of things that we stand to benefit as Nigerians if we are able to concession those airports, put the MRO in place, make fuelling facility available and also establish MRO centre.
Some people seem to oppose it even while some airlines are looking forward to it, does it mean that they are looking at the smaller picture?
I believe people are looking at the smaller picture. If you look at the forecast the potential is there for the growth and like I said, in terms of the concession of the airports, you need to have an efficient hub for people to be able to use your hub. It is not about Nigeria being a destination, in addition it can also serve as a hub to other destinations, which include going to Europe, going to South Africa, to the Middle East and Far East and of course to South America. We are naturally placed where we can take advantage of all these destinations.
For easy supply of aviation fuel, are you looking at the possibility of revamping the pipelines that connect Mosimi to the Lagos airport, then reawakening the hydrants at the airside of the airport?
Again, government has been looking at those possibilities. Government is looking at the possibility of reactivating those lines wherever possible to curb flight delays and the high cost of aviation fuel.
On the issue of MRO, there is birth of local maintenance facility now: Aero Contractors and there is 7 Stars Aircraft Maintenance hangar, do you think this will assuage the need for major aircraft maintenance facility in West Africa?
Let me start by saying the more the merrier and what we want is an MRO that is strong, that is able to compete with MROs anywhere in the world. The MRO should be able to one: help Nigeria in saving foreign exchange, as the local facilities will accept naira for payment; two create employment because the companies will need both technical and administrative personnel and Nigerians will be the ones that will work there.
Three, the facilities will attract other operators to come into Nigeria to maintain their aircraft thereby attracting more foreign exchange to Nigeria. This will also help Nigeria to develop technological advancement in the area of maintenance and also design of aircraft. Just like the passenger figure, the need to have that strong MRO with the capability to handle all the aircraft in Nigeria. We expect them to be competitive so that they can handle all the aircraft in West Africa and even in Africa and probably some parts of Europe and other continents of the world. This is because if our cost is lower and also, we have availability of spares and our standards are high in line with international standards, we will be able to attract other operators from outside the shore of Nigeria.
The passenger traffic doesn’t seem to be growing in tandem with our population, what do you think is responsible for this?
Don’t forget we had recession a few years back and thank God we have been able to recover from that recession. The economy is growing and correspondently we expect increase in air travel. The reason is because everybody accepts that the safest and the most secure means of transport, not only in Nigeria but in the whole, is aviation.
Recently there were reported cases of de-marketing among some airlines. It was expected that NCAA would make an announcement or issue a statement to douse the tension given the misleading messages that have been peddled on social media?
I believe we did and we also had discussion with the operators and also requested that there should be no unfair competition. We are talking about safety and security. We don’t do spiritual flights. Our flights are physical flights, we put a lot into it to ensure that they are safe and secure. If an aircraft is on ground and NCAA says they are not to operate, it is because they have not met the standard to operate.
I want to call on Nigerians, especially the travelling public that we are here to ensure safety and security in the air and we are alive to our responsibility and we will continue to do what we need to do to ensure that our aircraft are safe and secure. Not only the aircraft but even the airspace and the airports are safe and secure. So, people should discountenance such social media messages when they see it because NCAA is live to responsibility. We will not allow any aircraft that is not airworthy to fly.
Are you optimistic that interlining among domestic carriers will be a success?
I believe that it is a possibility. Because if you remembered you mentioned one airline that lately that do not have flyable aircraft because they have gone for maintenance and they made arrangement with other operators to carry their passengers, that is the kind of spirit that we want to see. We expect that kind of corporation among the operators. If we have that we will have fewer problems. We want a situation whereby somebody buys one airline, he comes and for one reason or another he is not able to get on that plane he will be able to get on another airline plane going to his destinations and at the end accounts reconciliations will be made. We are working towards that but as you said, the standards have to be the same both in terms of safety and security. We are working with the operators to ensure that this becomes a reality.
How do you see international airlines’ operation in Nigeria?
Well, the government identifies that people are in business to remain in business. Of course, we appreciate our friends and normally you know your friends when you are in need, and government appreciates those that stood by Nigeria during the hours of need. The others that took commercial decisions during the economic recession we faced in 2016 and let the country they started coming back when they saw the situation has improved. And that goes to testify that the economy has improved because you can now see those that have stopped operation in the past have come back and some are even asking for more routes and entry points into Nigeria and more frequency. So, it is a testimony that the economy is picking up.
When you became the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, the agency was facing financial challenges. What did you do to enhance its revenue?
Financially when we took over, precisely on October 21, 2014, we witnessed a situation whereby the staff and third-party contractors were owed over a billion naira in claims and huge debt profile respectively. One, we sat down and discussed with the stakeholders and came up with a programme of schedule of payment. But most importantly, we had to look at the areas of leakages initially in order to stop or to reduce the leakages so that at least we would be able to save the funds that otherwise would have been lost. We targeted that the money saved would be used to take care of the claims. However, some of the claims were spurious. We verified them and those we were satisfied were genuine were paid and over time we stabilised. Since that time, we have been meeting our financial obligations, which include salaries, contractors, as at when due. We also worked on how we would improve on the collection of earnings that are due to us. It has been very challenging working on how to collect what is due to us without interrupting the services. It is also very difficult regulating in an economy that was going through recession. But we had to strike a balance where possible, reduced the wastage and leakages, tried to improve sources of income. We thank God that we are no more in recession. As you are aware, the civil aviation authority operates mainly on cost recovery. As you are also aware, NCAA is still being put as a revenue generating agency where we are expected to pay certain percentage of what comes in to the agency into the federation account. We have been working and government has quite understood. I believe we still have some small work to do in order to be able to overcome those issues.
When you were appointed, some of the workers were not happy about so many things, especially issue of overseas trainings that were stopped and there seemed to be a kind of clampdown on expenditure. Those measures you took to revamp the agency’s financials might have pitted the management against the workers?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, in trying to address the financial issues, we had to reduce those wastages and also try to optimise the application of those funds. We prioritised mandatory things first before doing others. For example, in the area of training, it is not that we have reduced training; far from it; we did more training now than before. The only difference is that some of those overseas trainings that were costing us huge amount of money were domesticated. We domesticated some of those courses. And it also gave us an opportunity to monitor the quality of those courses because the training and studies were being and are still being done in Nigeria.
This saves huge resources because the money you are going to use to train, maybe, two people outside Nigeria; you may be able to train about 10 people with it locally. So, far from it that we have reduced the trainings; we have really increased the trainings. This is because one of our major capital projects is training. In NCAA we invest in human beings. We are a regulatory agency and so the quality of the manpower and the quantity must be up to international standards. This is because the International Civil Aviation Organisation requires that we attract and retain qualified and experienced manpower in sufficient number and that is what we have been trying to do.
The positive response we have been getting so far showed that we took the right decision and we are still working on that line and things are getting better.