The Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Captain Muhtar Usman, in this interview says the agency ensures airlines abide by regulation in order to keep nation’s airspace safe. He also says the aviation industry is taking advantage of the local content policy to create jobs for citizens in foreign companies that operate in the country. Chinedu Eze provides the excerpts:
There is report that a team from the US Transport Security Administration (TSA) is inspecting the Lagos airport. What is the objectivity of the inspection?
Well, the Transport Security Administration of the United States, as you are aware, is responsible also for the aviation security matters as regards the United States. And also to states or countries where there is direct air link between it and the Unites States of America. They go on inspection in foreign lands where there is direct air link. Nigeria happens to be one because Nigeria has been adjudged as meeting the requirement of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Category 1 Safety Status and that is why there is direct air link between Nigeria and the United States. So they do the inspection almost on six months basis, to come and assess the aviation security for the airport. To consolidate on whatever happened before, they were particularly interested now in the area of security because we have been able to conquer the challenges associated with the airside security and we want to concentrate on the landside security. That is the area before you get onto the secure side of the airport. This is because if we are able to secure the landside, the airside will be even more secured.
There are indications that Aviation Security needs more personnel. Is the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) supporting the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to boost personnel in that area?
Well, let me start by saying that aviation is very, very dynamic. If there are challenges in the area of security, it is our responsibility to face such challenges. We try to be proactive to ensure that we don’t react to something that has already happened. We don’t want it to happen. There is a programme of recruitment, because it is not enough to just provide the equipment but the manpower. It is not just to provide the manpower; the workers must be trained, so we emphasise on the quality of the manpower and they must be in sufficient number. We have been working as the regulatory agency, with the implementing agency, that is FAAN, to ensure that there is no gap whatsoever. I am sure that you are aware that recently FAAN’s aviation training centre was accredited by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) as a regional training centre of excellence for aviation security to cover West and Central Africa.
Since after 2013, Nigeria has had very clean record of safety, the country has not recorded any accident or major incident, how do you intend to ensure that this status is carried on in 2019 and beyond?
So far we have been able to achieve so much in that area. The first thing is that we want to be able to continue to consolidate. There was a lot of hard work that was put in place to ensure that our airspace is safe. We will continue to keep and even improve on the standard of work we are doing and going beyond that. After consolidating the safety standard, we want to improve on what we have been doing in the area of training, provision of equipment and personnel. Also we are consolidating in the area of surveillance and enforcement. The major thing we have been doing, which has been yielding positive results is the direct engagement of the operators and service providers. This is to ensure that they operate within the safe and secured regime. This has been the secret of our success so we will continue to do that.
Since you took over as the Director General of NCAA, the airlines seem to have improved in their safety standards, as few that have breached the regulation have been sanctioned. What did you bring into the system?
First of all, we encouraged the effective implementation of the civil aviation authority regulation. It is a regulation for the industry. As civil aviation authority we are supposed to come up with a draft in line with the international civil aviation organisation requirements for safety and security and also economic regulation. We normally involve all the stakeholders for them to be part of it, to understand that it is not about waiting for somebody to fail to comply and then to sanction. It is to educate and make sure that the operators and service providers understand their own responsibility.
So it makes it easier for us, if they understand and they implement. It is not for them to be self-regulating and that is why we are here. We set the standards, monitor the implementation of those standards through the regulations and where there is breach we go for the enforcement. But the enforcement is always the last resort. The aim of sanction is to get the operator to comply. When a doctor makes an error, one person dies at a time and the person that made that error; chances are that he will walk away. But in aviation the margin for error is very, very small. When there is an error many lives will be lost both in the air and probably on ground. So that is why we have to move, monitor and ensure that those regulations that are meant to sustain that safety regime are strictly followed.
Recently you hear airlines say they are being over regulated, that the NCAA is very tough on them, do you think it is so?
Most certainly not. This is because we are guided by standards and also like I said earlier, all stakeholders were given opportunity to make input. So I don’t think it is fair to say they are being over regulated. We have been able to achieve this level of safety because we have been monitoring and ensuring compliance to those regulations. We will rather have over regulation and a very good safety regime than to have no regulation or little regulation and we end up investigating reasons why certain mishaps are happening.
Recently there was this saying that the number of aircraft in Nigeria is too small considering the number of passengers, have you felt that way as a regulator?
Sometimes yes, especially during peak seasons such as the Christmas rush and other holiday seasons where people move a lot. Sometimes too, there is reduction in the number of operational aircraft as a result of down time in terms of maintenance and other challenges. You have that situation where it will appear as if the number of seats available is less than the demand. And we have been trying to encourage all prospective operators and the ones that are already operating to increase their fleet but not just increasing the fleet but bringing modern aircraft and complying with the regulations to address such issues.
Nigerians are highly mobile, they move around a lot and the more airplanes that we can have the better will it be for competition. And with that also you can expect drop in prices to a reasonable level based on demand and supply.
In terms of registering new airlines, do you foresee new airlines joining the market before the end of this year?
I believe so because there are so many prospective operators that have done their numbers and they believe, just like we believe that the aviation industry is growing, there is need to come and start up and that you can even see from the applications we receive from even foreign operators wanting to increase their frequencies into Nigeria. They are demanding multiple designations to go to several airports in Nigeria, entry points and exit points. So the potential is there and people have identified and we have been receiving applications of people wanting to come in. Of course, they have to go through all our requirements to ensure that whatever airlines we approve are operating within the law.
Increase in passenger movement seems to be more on international destinations?
Yes, there is increase of passengers for international destinations. Almost everybody wants to be able to take off and land nearest to where ever he is from outside the country and that is why the foreign airlines are asking to operate in and out of various destinations within Nigeria.
Aircraft charter operators don’t seem to be meeting the demand for charter services because the political season seems to have tempted private aircraft owners to give out their planes for charter. In terms of regulations, how is NCAA managing this?
First of all, let me say that the certifications for charter operators and privately owned aircraft are different. The requirement for commercial operation in terms of safety and security is much higher and the one for private aircraft owners is lower. However, the people patronising the private operators have been warned to desist because they are not adequately protected. So far we have not been able to get any breach but once we do, we will sanction them. This is because the essence is not to catch people but to ensure that people are doing the right thing. Anybody that has private certification and he wants to operate commercial service should upgrade to ensure he meets all the requirements. And then we will have a sanitised charter or non-schedule sector. It is not for somebody who has been approved on the private category to now come in through the back door to do commercial operation. They spoil the market and they compromise on the safety.
Do you think the campaigns have stretched the non-schedule airline operation in Nigeria?
I think so. As I mentioned earlier there are seasons where the demand is very high and this is one of such seasons because of movements for political campaign. And also the connectivity, there are times when a party that wants to go on campaign and wants to go from one state to another state, there may not be that direct link and the time it takes also to do the connection and also to be all together to charter aircraft. So certainly, the demand this time around is higher than when there is no activity. It happens once in every four years. It is very normal for the demands to be high. But it calls for us to do more work, which we are geared towards doing. And that also explains the warning we put out because there is that temptation for somebody to want to risk it. Our inspectors are on ground, we are monitoring and any violation would be treated in accordance with our regulations.
For almost a year or so no Nigerian airlines is operating international destinations like London, Johannesburg or destinations in the United States. Don’t you think we are losing something, looking at the monies the country could have been making in terms of foreign exchange?
Again, that is why Nigeria needs very strong viable airlines to operate those routes. The government has done what it needs to do, designate the operators to operate those routes. I know airlines have been designated along the routes you mentioned such the United States, United Kingdom and some other countries both in the Middle and Far East. It is for the operator to explore it and operate because we have other international airlines coming from those countries. The caveat is always for that operator to meet the requirements for both countries they want to operate into. So nobody who has been qualified has been denied the opportunity to go. It is in the interest of Nigeria; that is why we have been promoting our airlines to operate along those routes because we will be able to attract foreign exchange or at least conserve what we have instead of the current repatriation by foreign airlines. If our airlines operate international destinations it will encourage employment opportunities, expose our culture and also encourage competition.
Is there no way government can use policy to encourage foreign airlines to partner with Nigerian carriers that have met the international safety standards?
Most of the bilateral air service agreements signed by Nigeria have those provisions in place, code sharing and so on. But the airline has to meet the requirement of the countries they want to fly to. Provisions are always there for Nigerian operators to explore and in most of the bilateral air service agreements, we go with airlines that have been designated on those routes to be part of the team for those negotiations.
ICAO and even IATA projected almost double the increase of passenger movement in Africa by 2030. Do you think the progress we are making in infrastructure development can meet this target if we have a double number of the people that presently travel?
I believe so, from what we have on ground and what is going on now. Government has started investment in the expansion and modernisation of our terminal buildings to accommodate more passenger traffic, especially the international passenger traffic. And that is why those contracts for the new terminal buildings for international passengers in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano have been awarded. Port Harcourt has been commissioned, Abuja has also been commissioned. Lagos is on the way and Kano. These new facilities will greatly increase the ability to process passengers in those airports. And I believe more will soon join, because Enugu too has another terminal that is coming up.
Increase in passenger movement will also give rise to increase in aircraft traffic so government is modernising the air traffic management system and improving manpower. The civil aviation authority is also up and doing, we are also modernising our own regulatory tools and also preparing our manpower for the increase to cope with the expected growth in the aviation activity.
In the area of pilot training, the airlines don’t seem eager to take in pilots in training so that they can type-rate on their aircraft. Why?
Well, as for employment I know that government is interested in seeing all qualified Nigerians get gainful employment. People invest a lot in aviation training because it doesn’t come cheap. However, there are certain requirements that needs to be met. As far as an airline is concerned, the insurance demands certain level of experience before they are allowed to operate. And just in line with the government desire to have Nigerians that are qualified gain employment, the government has directed the implementation of the local content. And towards that end, the aviation sector is working closely with the Ministry of Interior and through NCAA, so that we work with the operators to ensure that where Nigerians are qualified they are given priority first before employing a foreigner.
It is a very good policy, we will continue to follow up and pursue it to a logical conclusion to address that issue. And also in the process of the bilateral agreements we sign with operators we also request them to utilise Nigerian personnel wherever possible. And towards that end we have a number of Nigerians in other countries working there with some airlines that operate into Nigeria and I hoping we would be able to get more both locally and also with international operators.
So that when our new mega carrier or carriers come up we will have enough trained personnel with relevant experience to man the new outfits. I am sure if we had something like a national carrier or mega operator, whether national or a flag carrier, we will be able to address a lot of those issues of the manpower, raining of Nigerians, the unemployment issues can be solved with that and also competition that can drive down price and improve efficiency and so many other things. We will conserve foreign exchange and we may even attract forex; because if the national carrier is come along with maintenance, repair and overhaul organisation, you will find out that some people may come just for the purpose of coming to maintain their aircraft.
You have given some organisations aircraft maintenance certificate and training certification, do you think that in the foreseeable future Nigerian airlines will be conducting C-check for substantial number of aircraft in the country?
Well, that is the essence. In fact, we will hope that they can even go beyond C-check and up to D-check if necessary. But at least to be able to do C-check so that we can conserve that foreign exchange, we can also have employment and also qualified and experienced manpower available within our country and within the region. Yes, we will continue to encourage and ensure that they meet and they continue to meet the certification that we have given them.
With the recent experience with Max Air, whereby its pilot that took aircraft for maintenance in the UK was shabbily treated and forced out of the country on suspicion he might be a stowaway, how do you treat myriads of such cases when they come to you?
Well, actually it has not come to us officially, what we read was in the pages of the newspapers. As you are aware any crew that is operating a flight into a country, they have what they call general declaration, we call it GENDEC. And all crew that are on-board are supposed to be mentioned there with their details. So with that they are able to have access into the country. But if they are going to be there for some time, the country requires that they also have a visa in addition. And there is also a facility where you are already in and you entered as a GENDEC, any reason you need to extend, there is facility to extend. Again, since I don’t anything official I may not be able to discuss, I have to discuss based on facts available.
A lot of airlines are commending NCAA for the job it is doing. Some have said the NCAA doesn’t make noise but they do so much, I want you to give an overall evaluation of the standard now from your own point of view how you are coordinating and relating with airlines and schedule operations?
Well thank you very much. It is something positive coming from both the side of the media and also from the side of the operators. At least it is better than saying that we are over regulating. We try as much as possible to engage the operators and the service providers to ensure that the right things are done at the right time. We actually believe in doing the work first and they said a good product would always sell itself.
We believe in seeing is believing, it is not just talking but we do things the way we are expected to do them. That is why probably we have been able to achieve good results because we don’t spend all our time talking; rather, we do what we should do. And the credit should not come to us alone, but to all. This is because as I said earlier, we engage the service providers, the operators, enlighten them to ensure that the right things are done at the right time.
We thank the media also for giving us coverage where necessary to help enlighten the public on their rights. Everybody has some kind of rights and privileges and we should learn to respect everybody’s rights and privileges. Sometimes things are done and some people think they are being over regulated or pushed too far. It is in the interest of everybody. Also the passengers will come to the airport and they will say, oh my flight is delayed, why is my flight delayed or cancelled?
There are times when those delays and cancellation are inevitable; they are in the interest of safety. Because whoever wants to embark on a journey, he wants to go from A and he wants to arrive at B safely. So if the weather is bad beyond the virtual or if there are other movements or maybe the aircraft is not in good condition to go, the aircraft remains on ground until it is airworthy for it to go. Those delays and cancellations are being minimised now because government has vigorously pursued and we will continue to pursue the installation of modern instrument landing systems to a higher category that will permit operations and lower minimums. An also we will install lightings at the airport to complement those instrument landing installations. That will increase also the capacities of the airlines because instead of staying on ground when ought to be flying, they are able to do more in a given time.
Some NCAA workers have complained that they ought to be promoted, but this has not been done. Is this true?
I thank God; reasonably we have been working with the labour unions and the associations. As civil aviation authority we believe in engagement, constant engagements. Whatever we do we do it transparently so that we will all be on the same page and on the same side. And in any setup you are bound to get some complaints, especially for those who are not getting what they used to get even though they are not supposed to have been getting that. But as a management we don’t deny rights and also privileges.
All those who are due to be promoted where vacancies existed and they passed the required examinations have all been promoted to date. We act based on the vacancies and it is based on the current organogram of the organisation. The only outstanding is the one that we have commenced for this year and it is from January. The normal month for promotion process is from January because by 31st of December the previous year, we will know those who are qualified to be promoted and the process begins shortly in the New Year. So the process has already started, however, the unions have been saying that we should promote based on an anticipated organogram. The organogram that has been sent for approval is yet to get the approval; it is going through the process. And we cannot promote until we get the approval. But we have promoted those that ought to be promoted based on the current organogram.
However, last year, maybe about two or three personnel that were due at a certain level of promotion were not promoted because the unions insisted on getting promoted based on a new organogram, which has not yet been approved. But based on the current organogram nobody that is due as of December 2018 that has not been promoted. And I am happy to say we are taking the staff welfare as first priority because we believe in productivity. Salaries have been constant since the coming of this administration and I believe everybody can testify to it. And we don’t delay privileges in addition to rights, as at when due.