Transforming the Aviation Sector

Muhammadu Buhari

Following his re-election, President Muhammadu Buhari has another four years to actualise his plan for the aviation industry, writes Chinedu Eze.

Speaking at the last stakeholders meeting in Abuja last year, the Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, had explained that many of its programmes for the industry would have been accomplished if there were more time.
The minister had explained that the plan to concession the airports, establish a leasing company, build maintenance facility and float a national carrier was at advanced stage. He had emphasised that those programmes were the brainchild of President Mohammadu Buhari who he said under the All Progressives Congress (APC), had planned to reinvigorate the aviation industry and create more jobs for the teeming youths and also boost the contribution of the aviation sector to the nation’s GDP.

To many sceptics, that might sound like fairy tale because nothing on ground showed that substantive efforts were being made to revamp the industry.

However, with the re-election of Buhari, this is the time to astound doubters with the accomplishment of those programmes.

For industry experts, the expectation is that by next two years, the Buhari administration would have completed the concession of the major airports in the country and at least, establish a leasing company and before 2023, it is expected that a national carrier would have started operating and the maintenance facility would be conducting its first major checks.

This optimism was shared by the President of Air Transport Service Senior Staff Association (ATSSSAN), Ahmadu Illitrus, who expressed happiness that the Buhari administration was returned during the election and noted that this is the time the government would have to fulfil all the promises made in the aviation sector.
He said he was aware of the extent many of the programmes introduced by the administration had advanced and expressed the hope that they would all be accomplished before the end of Buhari’s second tenure.

Reviewing the past four years of the Buhari regime that would terminate in May this year, Illitrus said it was a good period for the industry because there was no fatality recorded and that in terms of safety; the government maintained a very good record.

“The past four years has been good in the sense that there has been safety of flight operations. In fact, in that area it has been fantastic because there was no fatality in commercial aviation. However, the airlines faced the highs and lows in the industry, and some went down to one aircraft.

In the area of infrastructure, Illitrus said the Buhari administration consolidated on what the previous government started on the modernisation of airport facilities and also remarked that during this period there was stability between the aviation agencies, government and labour.

The Buhari administration completed that the Port Harcourt Airport international terminal, completed the international terminal at the Abuja airport and also completed and unveiled the train station at the Abuja airport. Also work has been going on at the terminal projects in Lagos, Kano and Enugu airports and before the end of next year the projects would be completed.

Spokesperson of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Mrs. Henrietta Yakubu, explained that work on the terminal at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport was at advanced stage, adding that it would soon be commissioned. She explained that why the terminal at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos was not completed yet was because work started relatively late on the project. It took time to agree on the site the facility would be built. However, she was optimistic that the project would be completed soon.

Illitrus said industry stakeholders expect the consolidation of what was started in the last four years, expressing the hope that the planned aerotropolis would be realised by the time the administration completes its second tenure.
“I never expected that those projects would be completed in just four years. I expect them to continue the projects now they have been voted back to office. I am aware that may of those projects are at advanced level, including the national carrier project.

“We are under serious threat from our African carriers because of the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), which has opened up the Nigerian market as signatory to the treaty. As long as they follow the principle of reciprocity, other African countries’ airlines are free to come into our country.

“To march them we need to build strong carriers, which can effectively compete with other airlines in Africa and beyond. So I wish that government should speed up the process for the realization of the national carrier. I hope that government would also review the bilateral air service agreement (BASA), which have been left unexplored,” the ATSSSAN President said.

Nigerian Airlines

He said that Nigerian airlines are beset with multifarious problems, noting that they are undercapitalised with few aircraft in operation, adding that fleet size for an airline is very important because it determines how successful its operation could be and remarked that many airline operators lack the expertise and exposure to actually run successful carrier.

“Another setback for our airlines is the fact that we don’t have comprehensive maintenance facility locally. It makes maintenance costly and difficult. So we expect government to support the establishment of Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility in Nigeria.

“If this is done it will help our airlines and also the facility will make money because it will attract clients from beyond Nigeria. They will bring aircraft from West, Central and other parts of Africa to the facility.
“We have operated a deregulated airline market for over 30 years now and we cannot say that the airlines have done so well; so now let’s try a national airline, a big airline that can compete. I also wish to talk about local refining of aviation fuel.

“When the product is refined locally it will reduce overhead for the airlines and make their operations profitable. We cannot have a hub in Nigeria if we don’t have a major carrier. Arik Air had over 25 aircraft but we blew the opportunity.
“Building a hub without a major carrier is a waste of opportunity; so we need a strong carrier that can compete in the market. In the absence of domestic airlines to operate international destinations we create excess capacity for foreign carriers,” Illitrus said.

Remaining Competitive
A seasoned pilot and senior official of one of the major Nigerian airlines told THISDAY that in the last four years, government had tried to set up a national carrier, concession airports, establish MRO and leasing company. While these were yet to be realised, the lesson learnt is that “starting a new company requires a lot of framework and capital.”

“I commend government for being bold enough to call it off when it realised that it would not realise the national carrier project. By doing that it prepared itself to continue when it deemed it ready to realise the project.
“So in the next four years government should be ready to put more modern infrastructure, more framework and policies in order to encourage foreign investment and then lay a solid foundation for a national carrier,” the source said.

The industry expert said government could look at the lessons it learnt from the Nigeria Airways Limited (NAL) and the lesson learnt in the failed national hangar programme and then device more reliable ways to materialise those projects.

“ECOWAS is planning to establish a major maintenance hangar for the sub-region and it is being supported by World Bank, Afrexim Bank and others. The facility is targeted for West and Central Africa. I am aware that they have invited Nigerian carrier, Aero Contractors and have come to see its maintenance facility, which is able to conduct C-check on Boeing 737 classics. They expressed satisfaction with what the airline has. So government should encourage ECOWAS, which I learnt may establish the facility in Nigeria,” he said.

THISDAY learnt that ECOWAS has looked at the country risk, security and environmental factors and decided that it may establish the facility in Nigeria.

“Nigeria should move fast to re-establish itself as the leading country in aviation in West and central Africa. If we don’t move fast, other countries like Senegal, Ghana and Ivory Coast will overtake us.
“So in the next four years we should strive to outstrip them. Rwand Air, Air Senegal and Air Cote d’Ivoire were set up by people who don’t have two heads. So we have to start somewhere,” the industry expert said.

The President of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agency (NANTA), Bankole Bernard told THISDAY that the first four years of the Buhari administration was spent on planning and advised that government should implement the resolutions reached after the Minister held strategic meeting with industry stakeholders.

Bernard said the implementation would be the headway to moving the industry forward.
“We don’t have policies that support the growth of domestic airlines. There is no policy that supports code-share partnership between foreign airlines that operate into the country and our domestic airlines. But in other countries in Africa and elsewhere, such policies exist and gives domestic airlines the opportunity to benefit from the operations of international flights to those countries,” Bernard said.

Industry observers also noted that government should have planned, programmed policies to respond to the growing aviation market in Africa with the introduction of SAATM and also marshal out ways to protect indigenous airlines; instead of leaving their fortunes to be determined by the vagaries of the market.

Airline operators said state governments in the continent, especially in West Africa were encouraging their airlines to compete, removing hurdles like high airport charges for them, ensuring that aviation fuel is sold at relatively lower rates and also pushing them to open new markets through bilateral support.

“Many government officials from other countries visit Nigerian government just to talk about creating opportunity for their airlines. I am aware that whenever any of these major carriers in Africa want to operate in Nigeria their ambassador or even their Minister will come and visit Nigeria.

“We don’t often see that happening otherwise; like Nigerian government sending emissaries on behalf of Nigerian airlines. Nigerian government has to show that it is committed to the success of Nigerian airlines,” an airline operator told THISDAY.