Usman: Accurate Data Gathering Critical for Economic Devt. of Aviation Sector

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Muhtar Usman
Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Captain Muhtar Usman

The Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Captain Muhtar Usman has said to maintain air safety and economic development of the aviation industry, there is need fort accurate data gathering and harmonisation. He also said objective criticism by industry stakeholders will help drive progress in the sector. He spoke to Chinedu Eze

There were reports that some aircraft were stolen from Nigeria, is it possible for aircraft to be stolen from the country?
We thank God that such has not happened. Such cannot happen in Nigeria’s airspace. In fact, it came to me as surprise when I saw it as the front page headline of a major newspaper, that aircraft was stolen from the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. We are not aware of that. The allegation was said to have come from the perceived owner of the aircraft. The fact of the matter is that there were two aircraft and two helicopters. These were leased under the Cape Town Convention by an airline operator in Nigeria (Topbrass Aviation Limited) and we are also aware based on that agreement. By the way, the Cape Town Convention allows airline operators to lease aircraft at affordable prices. In the past, before the Convention was introduced, people leasing out aircraft (lessors) were having difficulty repossessing their aircraft when there was default. So that Convention took care of that by providing irrevocable deregistration authorisation for the civil aviation authorities where there is default should be able to deregister their aircraft and for the owner (the lessor) to repossess his aircraft. In other words, if the airline that obtained the aircraft does not keep to the terms of the agreement under which he leased the aircraft, the Civil Aviation Authority can deregister the aircraft and allow the lessor to take it over.

That has made it possible for our operators to access leases. It is not only Nigeria, so many countries have signed to the Convention and Nigeria has domesticated it. But unfortunately because of the acts of two operators now Nigerian is about to be blacklisted and this would make it difficult for other operators to have access to aircraft on lease. Coming back to the aircraft in question, the person making the allegation, who claims he has gone to court, should have waited for the decision of the court before he would say that the authority is making it possible for some people to repossess the aircraft that he believes belong to him.We as an authority we have it as duty to protect all stakeholders; not just one but all stakeholders, which include the lessor, the lessee and essentially the Nigerian traveling public. If the person exercised, which is true because we have it on records, authorised and signed and executed an agreement and assigned the NCAA to deregister the aircraft, there should be no court order. NCAA has done the right things and it is to protect the operators who wish to go and lease and to protect Nigerians at large.So, as far as we are concerned, no aircraft was stolen but the aircraft which are no longer under the registry of Nigeria are still within Nigeria and within Lagos jurisdiction of the court. It is also on record that the same operator has been suing and joining NCAA and NCAA has lost a lot of money on legal costs in connection with those aircraft that he claims have been stolen. Those aircraft have not flown for over three years. This is unfair to the system. The owner has not been allowed to utilize their aircraft. The accuser has not utilized his aircraft. The aircraft that is on ground is depreciating and this is making Nigeria a pariah state when it comes to leasing aircraft and I think it is a very bad influence so we should not allow it to happen.

Some stakeholders in the industry question the recent figures on ticket sales charge and passenger traffic. Why are some people questioning the authenticity of the NCAA figures?
It is true we published some figures from NCAA. NCAA figures are harmonised. NCAA does not sit down and reel out figures. The agencies including the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) are also involved and the officials of these agencies and that of aviation department in the Ministry of Transportation form a harmonization committee set up by the Ministry of Transportation. It is a technical committee on aviation data harmonization. The committee also involves the handling companies like the Sky Aviation Handling Company Limited (SAHCOL), the Nigerian Aviation Handling PLC (NAHCO) and the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS). It was set up since 2010 and it meets biennially and the figures reeled out in 2016 and 2017, the figures are not so much from the figures that one of the stakeholders who question the figures, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retd) displayed. But the application is different. We don’t assume figures like those critics. The figures we have are derived from all flown coupons and verified. Some from the international airlines come from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and in the case of the local we have electronics coupon, we have copies that verified. As I said, we don’t assume figures of tickets.

Ojikutu is claiming N350, 000 per ticket, but some tickets are very low because if somebody is going to Lome for example, you cannot say the ticket should be up to N350, 000. For example, the ticket booking we did today (September 18) on Lagos-Accra, and return ticket is going for N94, 000; another example is Lagos-Singapore , which is going for N322, 500; another one is Lagos-London-Lagos N354, 000 and Lagos-Johannesburg, N295,000. So you can see, apart from one, all the others are under N350, 000 that he used for his calculation and he sat down and assumed the figures. We do not do that. We do not speculate.Also the basis of our calculation maybe different because the figures were given for the tickets both numbers of passengers and movement may not be the same. There are some passengers that don’t pay, the crew that are positioned don’t pay, diplomatic travellers also don’t pay, deportation don’t pay, government personnel movements and some few others, they don’t pay because they are required not to pay. But Ojikutu assumes everybody is paying tax, the charges are not applicable to everybody. And also on the cargo statistics, the airway bill is submitted in accordance with the civil aviation regulation. And the statistics available for five per cent cargo sales charge is not the same as the harmonised figures.

This is because cargo data captures the total weight of the cargo which is both import and export. But NCAA is allowed to only charge for the export; so it means whatever is captured probably depends on the amount of cargo that goes out of the country and what goes out of Nigeria is not much. So we need to work harder to encourage the export because we import more than we export. That is why the amount of money earned from cargo is very low. And for the purpose of the calculation of that 5 per cent; it may interest Ojikutu and all Nigerians to know that our 5 per cent is chargeable after the service charge from FAAN has been removed and also the VAT. So it is whatever that is remaining that the 5 per cent is applicable to. That is the basis for the calculation.

The critics say that they want to improve the industry….?
My take on all these criticisms is that those who identify themselves as experts in the industry should try to strengthen the civil aviation through constructive criticism. I know somebody who has been trying as a company to take over the business that has already been given to somebody and if he is not able to succeed I don’t think he should come out and start criticising because it is now more of personal gain rather than being objective. As a Nigerian, we expect industry stakeholders to ask for business but it doesn’t mean that because they have not been able to succeed in that business they should come out and start attacking agencies. This is an attempt to bring the aviation system in Nigeria down which is uncalled for. In other words, we expect objective criticism but we expect this to be done dispassionately without selfish or ulterior interest. You don’t criticize an airline because you request for free tickets and they refused to give you. You criticise an agency because your companies applied for contract and it did not meet the requirement, or some other company won the contract. If your criticism is motivated by such pecuniary interest it means you are not a genuine stakeholder who really has interest for the industry. Your interest is your pocket and when you misinform people, using media platforms, your negative connotations go beyond the shores of this country. So you are damaging the image of your country because you did not get what you want. That is not fare to the industry; neither is it fair to the country.

Airline operators allege that Dana is bringing Asky and Ethiopian airlines to operate domestic service in the country. They added that NCAA grounded one of their aircraft because of that. Can you please throw more light on that?
Well, an airline operator by name Dana Air approached the authority that as a stop gap they want to bring in an aircraft on wet lease from Asky. They have earlier on applied and got approval to import a Boeing 737 aircraft, three of them have been registered and awaiting checks and inspection to ensure they are fully airworthy before being allowed to come into Nigeria to resume operations.

So to fill in that gap they requested to deploy a wet leased aircraft which is in line with the provision of our regulation under Part G. Now, it is the mode of operation that is not fully in compliance with the Part G. And we saw it and we stopped that operation shortly after it commenced. When we realised that the application is not in line with the provision of our regulation. And until their operation is brought in line with the provisions of our regulation; that operation has been suspended. And it will remain suspended until such a time that it is fully in compliance with the provisions of our regulations.

Is there any plan by the federal government to review frequencies of international operators?
When it comes to bilateral air service agreement, it is within the purview of the federal ministry of transport, aviation sector. However, all those are based on bilateral air service agreement, in some cases multilateral air services agreement. And there are also other considerations such as the single African Air transport Market (SAATM). Since the coming of this administration, there was hardly any operator that requested to operate and he was denied. As Civil Aviation Authority we are calling domestic operators that have been designated on international routes to fully utilise those routes. Having said that the bilateral and multilateral air service agreements are not permanent documents in the real sense of permanent, they are subject to review. And we have been having reviews of those BASAs and in some cases the form of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the implementation of those BASA. So reviewing these agreements is continuous and where there is need to review such agreements.

On the age of aircraft, knowing that modern aircraft are more fuel efficient and are installed with up to date navigational aids, are you contemplating regulating the limit the age of aircraft that could come into the country to ensure that airlines operate modern aircraft?
Well, the choice of aircraft is normally best left to the operator because it is more of commercial in nature. However, left to us we will even prefer to reduce the age of the aircraft in order to benefit from the advantage of the modern aircraft with is qualities which include fuel efficiency and up to date navigational equipment. That will improve the overall efficiency of the operator’s profitability and so many other things. For example, we have certified and approved some performance based navigation approach because of their precision and they are satellite based. This facility does not depend on the terrestrial radio aids for the aircraft to come in and land. Most of our operators here lack the necessary equipment onboard their aircraft because of the age of their equipmment. And that is why even when weather is below certain minimum, you will find that Nigerian operators’ aircraft is on ground waiting for the weather to improve; and a foreign operator with modern aircraft will be flying to its destination. So, an old aircraft is on ground because it is not compliant. So, you can see the capacity of the modern aircraft is enhanced by the gadgets that are available onboard. Unlike the older ones that consume more fuel, they break down more often because they are old and also they lack those sophisticated landing and approach aids to be able to land under certain conditions.

After certifying the Abuja airport last, Airport Council International (AIC Africa) gave it safety award, which means that it one of the safest airports in Africa. What is your reaction to this?
Well, my reaction to that is that the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority deserves a path on the back. This is that because as a regulator, we are able to work closely with the airport operator or manager, FAAN to be able to achieve that feat and if the agencies that are being regulated by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority are being recognized, by extension the civil aviation authority is being recognised. And certification of the airport is one of the achievements of the current management of NCAA, the government of Nigeria and even the management of the airport authority along with the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA).

There are several other achievements that are too numerous to mention, they are quite obvious. What the civil aviation authority does is mostly safety and security related. These are things that ordinary person does not see directly except when there is an incident or accident then they will know that all the other operations that are carried out were carried out safely. If you look at the number of departures, the number of arrivals and the flights as against the incidence that took place, which we thank God we have not had any fatal commercial scheduled operation accident in Nigeria, I think we deserve kudos.

IATA said that Nigerian airlines have a lot of opportunity to create markets. For example, there is no Nigerian airline that operates from Nigeria to Niger Republic and some other places. IATA said Nigerian airlines are not taking advantage of potential markets that are unexplored in the African continent. What is you view about it?
I agree that Nigeria being the most populous black nation deserve that more routes in Africa. We are well located with a highly mobile population and we have influence in terms of being the largest black economy in Africa. Also we all know that the connectivity within the West Africa and within the African continent is very, very poor.
Earlier on I mentioned that some Nigerian airlines have been designated to operate on behalf of Nigeria as Nigerian carriers. There were about four domestic airlines that were designated to operate from Nigeria to Niger;
unfortunately none have been operating on regular basis. And that is just one example of countries where Nigerian carriers have been designated and they are not going. So, I agree there is a lot of potential, Africa is not connected the way it should be connected and it is only when our operators see the opportunities to fill in the gap that exist that they can take advantage of it.

Back to the story of the lessors, an airline operator said lessors have denied him the requests to lease spares. He said sometimes he would apply for aircraft parts and they would refuse to give to him because he is from Nigeria. According to him, there is this scepticism about Nigeria. I think Nigerian airlines are being blacklisted already, are you getting signals about that?
Well it is true. I only mentioned aircraft leasing but it goes beyond leasing of aircraft. Engines are also being leased so that Cape Town Convention also covers such mobile movement, engine and so on. And Nigeria has even been put as a member of the working group in that Cape Town Convention and it can be very embarrassing if Nigeria that is a member and who has signed and domesticated the convention will be seen to be breaching it. One of the consequences of this action is possible categorisation of Nigeria as none complaint to the Cape Town State. This has severe implication to the Nigerian aviation industry. Or even refusal by lessors to lease equipment to Nigerian operators and may even also translate into higher lease rentals because of that difficulty of repossessing and it will also give rise to higher insurance premium. And most importantly, lack of access to new aircraft which is what we have been advocating, getting new modern aircraft.

What is the legal implication of all these things to NCAA?
Well, the thing is that this particular operator, Topbrass Aviation is in the habit of going to court at even the flimsiest excuse. And each time he goes to court he will join NCAA and several times we had to engage lawyers at cost to the civil aviation authority to get ourselves removed from the case because in the first place we should not have been joined in such issues. This has cost us a lot of money and the little money we have been trying to conserve and invest in the area of safety and security. It is on record that we have gone to court several times as a result of being invited to join by the this same operator. He always expects us to give him a head start even when he is competing with a local rival. NCAA does not get involved in such competitions. Our own involvement is to ensure we promote aviation, and also in the areas of safety and security and also the quality of service.

What will Nigeria gain if major airports in the country are given out in concession?
The federal government is at the process of concessioning the airports. Government wants to follow due process that is why it raised Advisers to go through the process in a transparent way. Nigeria has many advantages to be operational hub. Some of those advantages include our population, the economy, mobility and the geographical location of Nigeria. There must be very good facilitation as a destination and also as a transit point and that is why the concessioning of the airport will come in, expansion of the airport to be able to enhance facilitation both as a destination and also as a transit to other places. The availability of aviation fuel also is all part of the facilitation. Flights can make technical stop and refuel and also airlines coming will be assured of fuel and they can move around. Also the Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility, training facility and also very, very important even though linked to national security is the movement of people in terms of Visa, easy access to get Visa, if people can’t move freely then all those things are negated.