The Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Captain Muhtar Usman, in this interview says the agency’s major objective is to ensure that Nigeria maintains zero accident record, which it has sustained in over four years. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:
Has the labour issues in NCAA that prompted strike action resolved?
Well, the situation as you can see is calm, it is more of miscommunication or lack of understanding but the three issues that were highlighted by the union as the cause of disruption of service were way outside the limits of approval of the civil aviation authority. However, we sat down and have seen reason and even some few issues, which are quite normal. We sat down and trash them out and there is harmony now and we are working together to move the industry forward.
How did the NCAA management go about it?
As you are aware, a committee was setup by the then Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, and the committee did its work and the unions were adequately represented; that is why they are up to date, they know what is going on and everybody is happy so far.
But there seemed a conflict between what should be implemented by the Ministry and what NCAA should do in the conditions they gave. Have you resolved those issues too?
Well, the issues that were brought up for reasons for the disruption of service, namely, the organogram of the organisation, approval for new organogram were looked at. The management of NCAA along with the unions made recommendation to the Ministry, because it is beyond the approval limit of the Civil Aviation Authority. The Ministry looked at it, setup a committee, worked on it and initially gave an approval for new organogram. It was that new organogram that the unions were not happy with so the then Minister promised to review it and set up another committee to look into it. The unions were adequately represented. The second one is the condition of service, which the Civil Aviation Authority does not have the power to implement so the management along with the unions was sent to the Ministry and it had to be escalated because it had to go beyond the Ministry. Some components of it will go to the Head of Service. That one has been sent and another component that requires the attention of the Income Salaries and Wages Commission was sent to it. And from there we are expecting an outcome. A visit was arranged and the Minister led the delegation along with the Director General of NCAA, with the members of the unions. A meeting was held with the Commission, which promised to expedite action on it. The last but not the least complain of the unions has to do with the inauguration of the boards which they were told that is way beyond the capability of the Civil Aviation Authority. The board is normally appointed by government in the highest level and then the inauguration is normally carried out by the Minister responsible for that Ministry or parastatal. However, in the case of the Civil Aviation Authority, the Act provided for certain qualifications for an individual to be appointed a board member. And from what was announced earlier, it appears that those members, as explained by the then Minister did not meet that requirement provided for in the Act. That is why that board was not inaugurated at that time. So, those are the three issues clearly outside the purview of the Civil Aviation Authority management.
Some years ago you had only about 500 workers, and I heard that you have up to 2,000 now, how are you able to cope with increase and how are you managing in terms of salary, allowances and training?
Let me say that we are not really up to 2,000, we are approximately about 1400; but even then, it is a very big increase because the NCAA as it is, is not a revenue- generating agency. It is operating based on cost recovery. There is no civil aviation authority in the world that I know of that is supposed to be making money. They all operate on the principles of cost recovery. Now, because it will be difficult for aviation to be competing with agriculture, security, health, education, when it comes to allocation of national budget, the passengers are called upon to pay five per cent to the authority in line with the provision of the Civil Aviation Act. That money is collected through the airlines and remitted to the NCAA, which is shared with other agencies in a formula as prescribed in the Civil Aviation Act 2016. It is shared among five agencies. For NCAA, it does not collect any money from government, the five per cent charge collected and shared is used to pay salaries, pay allowances, training, surveillance and on top of that; we are also now being called upon to pay operating surplus. For an organisation that is not profit making, it is very difficult to have that surplus. And also with the increase in the number of staff in the organisation, it has been very, very difficult managing the situation. We had to be prudent as required by the Civil Aviation Act 2006, and we still have difficulties paying extra money to the federal government since we are not supposed to be profit oriented and we hope that will be taking care of in the Civil Aviation Acts that will come in future. Also, in the past, the authority has enjoyed facilities from the World Bank; through the World Bank assisted programmes here in Nigeria. The authority in over some period of about three years or so benefited to the tune of about $13 million, which was used mainly for training. We don’t have such facility again and the number of staff has gone up; so it is all about prudence. When we came in at the inception we found that there was big staff claim well over a billion naira, which we had to structure and pay, in addition to a lot of third party debts that we had to pay, including the travel agencies, the institutions of learning that we have been attending for our training. So it is all about prudence, prudence, prudence; that is the way we have been going. We wish we could be let off the hook on the surplus revenue payment, but unfortunately, there is another Act, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which erroneously included NCAA as a revenue generating agency. And as I said, our prayer is, if we can get release from that then we will be able to apply whatever proceeds we are able to get and put it in training.
Training is very critical and there is also the need to equip our system. There are eight critical elements for the operation of safety oversight of the organisation. One is the primary legislation, which is the Act. We have the regulations, we have the organization and we have the manpower, the required personnel. It is worthy to note that aviation personnel are not cheap, they are very, very expensive, so the more you have the number the more money you have to spend on the overhead. You have to provide those personnel with the working tools such as vehicles, laptop computers, communication gadgets and other needs. These are necessary because we are talking about safety. Out of the 20 annexes in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), NCAA has oversight over 19 of those annexes. In fact, the only annex that we don’t have oversight over is the accident investigation. But otherwise we regulate aviation security, aviation safety and of course the economic aspect of the aviation.
What impact have you made in the agency since you took over more than four years ago?
Well, when we came in, there was a lot of decay in terms of infrastructure, especially the security surveillance equipment such as the CCTVs, which we had to put in place. Also the obsolete computers that we had to replace, in fact, it is a continuous process. We have been doing it because it is not possible with the limited resources we have to do everything overnight, so we have been modernising. In addition, when we came in the Internet facility was very, very epileptic, if at all it was available. However, we have now provided fibre optics link in all our offices here in Lagos, the regional offices, even though it is still work in progress. We are hoping that the office in Abuja will even be made a fully smart office. Part of the ICT infrastructure that we have put in place already has automated the human resources part. There is seamless link now between the finance and the human resources. Files have been digitised and synchronised for efficiency. In addition, we are revitalising the licensing and medical portal. Also, along that line a contract have already been awarded and we are working towards migrating from issuance of paper and license to plastic license to the personnel which is a big move. In addition, in the area of the safety oversight and security oversight, we are also in the process of acquiring software to enable us automate most of the processes in the approval, issuance of certificate permits, licenses, also surveillance inspections and also in line with the ease of doing business to reduce the human to human contact and increase the efficiency of the system. We are renovating our offices and erecting new ones. Our corporate headquarters’ building is coming up and we hope very soon it will be completed and it is going to be fully smart building.
In terms of technical staff, would you say since you came in their number has increased and have you met those recommended levels from international regulators?
I will say since we came in we first of all try to sustain and then after sustaining we started building and improving what we met on ground. Currently in the area of airworthiness we are able to train two ICAO certified instructors from the time we came to date and those are the only ones. Two, we have one certified ICAO auditor and this happened within the last four years. In the area of operations also, we have certified instructor from ICAO. In the area of licensing, we have one inspector, however, about 10 are being projected for the auditor certification. And once they have that auditor’s certification, they will also be utilised by ICAO to be auditing other countries. So, we are working very hard to ensure that nobody is left behind; especially Nigeria is not left behind. Towards that end we have memorandum of understanding (MoU) with countries, which include Rwanda, Ghana and Sierra Leone. We provide them with technical manpower for the purpose of inspection, especially in the area of flight operation inspection. We also have MoU with Ghana, Sierra Leone in the area of security, licensing. The same thing with Liberia and we have qualified people that we trained here that are on secondment. One of them is at the ICAO headquarters and there is another one at the ICAO regional headquarters in Dakar whose specialty is in the area of security. Another one has just moved in, in the area of facilitation and environment in Dakar. We also have one serving in Namibia under the ICAO arrangement and Nigeria is also a member of the Banjul Accord Group Safety Oversight Organisation with headquarters in Abuja. I as DG was chairman until November last year for two years. We also have memorandum of understanding in the area of safety with the body, which comprises seven West African, mainly English speaking countries. So, really in the area of human resources development, we give that as a big priority.
NCAA has been able to sustain the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Category One Safety status alongside ICAO certification under you. What have been the challenges so far?
Well, let me say that we have been doing very well as far as safety and security is concerned. In the area of security, which was the first thing that we attacked as soon as we came in, between June 1 to 9, 2015, we had an ICAO audit in the area of security. Earlier on around 2010, in that audit Nigeria scored 70.85 per cent, but the one we did in 2015 Nigeria scored over 96 per cent and it is quite a feat. Then closely followed by the safety audit, which Nigeria passed. The minimum set by ICAO is 60 per cent, the global average is 63 per cent and Nigeria scored over 67 per cent. In the area of the connection link between Nigeria and the United States under the Federal Aviation Administration audit programme, foreign assessment for civil aviation authorities, Nigeria sustained the Category One status that is enabling Nigeria to connect flights directly to the United States. The first time that was achieved was in 2010, it was renewed in 2014 and Nigeria sustained it again in 2017 ending to early 2018. So we are doing very well in that area but we will still not rest, we still want to conquer and still go towards achieving the 100 per cent score. So we have been quite successful in that area but we intend to build on that. Towards that end, we are at the verge of acquiring safety and security laboratory to help us proactively take care of potential hazards that can result into accidents or serious incidents. Government has already awarded the contract. As I noted earlier, NCAA is not part of the federal government main budget, it is a cost recovery agency. Whatever we get is what is approved for us, so it is from that small budget that we are able to do that. I think that will go a long way in enhancing the already high standard of safety. I am sure you can testify that for the last four years or more we have not lost a single soul in commercial schedule accident. And this is largely because of the hard work and training, retraining of the safety regulations to ensure safe skies. And that is why in addition to regulating the operators, the airport, the air navigation service providers, we also regulate such areas like the height clearances, because anything above Nigeria is part of Nigerian airspace. So we have to know all the height, charge them accurately for pilots to know so that they will be able to avoid any hazards or potential hazards or collision.
When do you expect the next FAA Category One safety audit?
Well, we did very well and we were commended the last time this exercise took place. We exchanged ideas and along the way they also learnt a number of things because any time they go through audit, it is just like between students and instructors. Sometimes the instructors also learn from the students, it is always an opportunity to rob minds and also share ideas. Yes, they were quite happy and they mentioned that it was one of the best audits they had had because all the open items were closed in a record time. I don’t know when next they will be coming because they don’t have scheduled time table, but apparently it looks like approximately once in every four years. So far they have not indicated when they will be coming next. And we are communicating; you know aviation is a global village. Like I said, all the civil aviation authorities in the world under ICAO use eight critical elements and the assessment are based on those eight critical elements. And Nigeria has been doing very well and we will continue to do even better.
What are the benefits of this certification and when are you going to certify the other international airports?
Let me first of all say certification of the airports for scheduled international operation is a requirement for the International Civil Aviation Organisation. It is part of the audit assessment, and Nigeria has been able to certify two out of the five current international airports. In fact, it is the first time Nigeria was able to certify any airport. And I am happy to be associated with that. The others have been slated, the first and second are Lagos and Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and Enugu will follow suit. We are working very hard to ensure that others are certified. The immediate benefit is that the assessment of Nigeria will go higher in terms of effective implementation, which is the way ICAO assesses its countries, whether it is in the area of safety or security. There is also a good chance that aircraft insurance premium will drop because you are now dealing with the standard safe and secured environment. It is something very positive and we will pursue that goal to ensure that not only the international airports but other airports met that standard. We are going to need that same international standard. That is not to say that the airports that we operate are not safe and secure but we can make them better and we are working to make them better.
Recently the federal government gave directive that the NCAA should relocate to Abuja, how are you working on that?
Let me correct this impression, the directive to relocate the corporate headquarters of NCAA was given in 2008. The process started and then stagnated; partly I will say maybe because of non-availability of offices. But the directive has been there, the process had commenced, people were posted, some even reported. So what we are doing is actually just to complete what was started in 2008. Now, the first phase of the building that will house most of the corporate headquarter staff is almost completed. It will be furnished and provisions have been made for both the completion of the building and furnishing. And as soon as that first phase is completed, movement will resume. So adequate provisions have been made in that area.
In terms of regulation, what have you done for Nigerian airlines in terms of enhancing their operation?
They say we are over regulating the industry, but good enough we are seeing the effects of over regulating. It is translating into safety, into a little bit sanity. This is because even though we give you a license, permit or certificate because you have met the requirements, the responsibility for keeping it all the time up to that standard rest with the person who has been licensed. But we also mount surveillance to ensure that you continue to be in compliance. When you are given a permit, license or certificate or any form of approval, it comes with privileges. However, there are also limitation and responsibilities and that is why when there is failure along that line, we go as far as imposing sanctions ranging from requiring somebody to go back and train, if it is training that is required. So it is not just about punishing the individual or organisation, it is about correction. Sometimes it can go on certificate action, that is suspension or withdrawal of operational certificate. Sometimes it can even lead to revocation, like it happened recently, a pilot who had an air transport license (name withheld) was flying when he was not within the medical validity. And he did it several times, indicating that it is a deliberate act and we had to use a stick in line with the regulation to revoke the license of that individual. We are still investigating. If there are ones we find necessary to impose any sanction, we will certainly do. So, because we want to sustain whatever level of safety we have now and even improve on that. So we must have sanity, we cannot afford to allow personnel working for the same organisation to have different standards; that will definitely compromise safety and we will not take it kindly.
What are your major achievements so far in the agency?
Well, I started with the airworthiness, aerodrome certification and I am also happy to be associated with the reconstruction of the Abuja runway, which was a big achievement. We hope we will be able to do the others like that of Enugu, which we are hoping will come on stream very soon. We have done the automation of our payment system. Operators owe us too much. The reason why they owe so much in the first place is because we have been using manual system for payment. So the automation of the payment system is the solution for the late payment by the airlines and we have almost achieved 100 per cent completion.
The next level is getting direct debt payment. That is, getting payment as at when due. There are two folds as I mentioned, one, knowing what is supposed to come to us, because we spend so much time arguing what should be coming to us and so on. But now once we achieve that integration which we have almost completely achieved, we will have an idea of what is coming to us. And the next thing is how do we collect it? In the area of drones, we have issued advisory circulars on the use of drones, the regulation is at advance stage of being released.