Protecting Nigerian Airlines

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Chinedu Eze urges the federal government to support Nigerian carriers in their quest to take travellers to international destinations.

At the return leg of Air Peace in augural flight, which took place on July 5, 2019, the flight operated by the airline’s Chief Pilot, Captain Victor Egonu was delayed for two hours, when the civil aviation authority of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after inspecting the aircraft that was due for departure, did not communicate to the engineers to approve the flight for take-off.

To observers, it was a form of aero-politics aimed at discouraging foreign operators on the route and thereby stem competition, knowing that if Air Peace continues to operate successfully, inevitably, the outrageous fares charged Nigerians would crash.

So, many industry observers are of the view that Nigeria should also adopt the principle of reciprocity so that when they discourage Nigerian airlines operations to their country, Nigeria would also adopt ways to discourage their own airlines from operating into Nigeria.

No indigenous Players

 In the aviation industry it is almost taken for granted that Nigerian airlines cannot operate international destinations for a long time. This is supported by the fact that many have tried and failed after a short time. One of the major reasons for their failure is inadequate equipment, high charges both at home and overseas and stiff competition from international carriers that have been designated to all the international airports in the country.

So, whenever any airline ventures on international service industry, some analysts would cynically project that their foray would not last. Industry observers however pointed out that the major reason for the set back was that government has not seen it as a necessity to have Nigerian carriers operates international destinations successfully.

Former Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika in 2016, hauled invectives at Nigerian airlines, saying that they were hugely indebted and that they lacked capacity, insisting then that it was only a national carrier that could provide the answer to the dominance of foreign airlines in Nigeria’s international flight operations.

Sirika’s disposition on domestic airlines encapsulated the view government has about domestic airlines. That might explain the nostalgia about national carrier, but also looking at national carrier in Africa, many analysts would say that it has not been a successful story in the continent. Except Ethiopia Airlines, other national carriers in the continent are groping for survival and these include South Africa Airways, Egypt Air, Kenya Airways (which has permanent fiscal feeding bottle from government) and Camair Co, a Cameroon national carrier, is about to be liquidated after few years of operation.

Airlines’ Problem

Industry analysts are of the view that many Nigerian airlines suffer under capacity. They do not have enough aircraft to operate both domestic and international service. Many of them are also cash strapped so they find it difficult to service international routes as long as they would establish themselves and begin to make profit.

 Industry experts are also of the view that for Nigerian airlines to have the capacity to compete and operate international routes they should have the needed funds, acquire enough aircraft and also up the quality of their operation to meet international standards. Many Nigerian airlines start operation with about two aircraft. Most of their aircraft are old and fuel guzzlers, which force them to spend huge money on maintenance and because there is no major maintenance locally, it is difficult for them to maintain these aircraft at that huge cost.

Government’s Failure

 The major failure of government is that it does not support domestic airlines in any way. It does not protect them against foreign carriers as other countries protect their own domestic airlines. Top government official told THISDAY recently that government decided to open the air transport market to encourage competition.  But the totality of Nigerian personnel working for foreign airlines is not up to 1000, but Air Peace that started operation about five years ago has over 3000 workers. Arik Air had over 3000 workers before it scaled down its operations and if the domestic airlines were empowered they would expand their operation and create more jobs for Nigerians.

 Former Secretary General of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Olayinka Abioye, noted that foreign airlines have not employed many Nigerians despite the huge amount of money they cart away from the country.

 “It will surprise you to see or hear how much money these foreign airlines earn annually and compare that with the number of employment opportunities they create for the Nigerian people. Shocking to say the least. “Secondly, almost on regular basis, they still confront us (labour) with redundancy, laying off staff by claiming that new technology or restrictions from home office necessitated such staff reduction.

“Thirdly, where there is no such redundant or laying off of employees, there are no regular employees as almost every staff in one or two of the foreign airlines have contract staff. As you may wish to know, contract staff has no promotion, no benefits, except the terms and conditions upon which he/she was contracted. They circumvent our labour laws through the engagement of local legal officers who help them perfect those back door policies,” Olayinka said.

Government’s Support

 According to industry analysts, there are many ways government could support Nigerian airlines.

Executive Director of Zenith Travels, Olu Ohunayo, said that one of such ways was to introduce Fly Nigeria Act in which anyone travelling on government expense must use Nigerian airline or its code-share partner. This policy when introduced and implemented would force foreign carriers to partner with Nigerian airlines and the local carrier would benefit financially and technically from such partnership.

A major stakeholder in the industry told THISDAY recently that when some officials from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) visited Nigeria and it was offered to them to use a Nigerian carrier, operating a more modern aircraft to New York then, they insisted that they would fly US airline, which was Delta Air Line. They explained that it was a US policy that government officials cannot fly a non-American airline, unless no American airline or its partners operate from that destination.

 Ohunayo, said the Nigerian government could introduce Fly Nigeria Act. This would help to develop the industry because it would enhance the growth of the airlines which would in turn employ more Nigerians, train more Nigerians and generate more money for Nigeria.

This would also increase the GDP from the aviation sector, increase revenues of aviation agencies and make more money available for infrastructural development of the industry.

Government Intervention

However, the Director General of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Captain Muhtar Usman, told THISDAY that under his management the agency has intervened many times when some countries wanted to stop Nigerian airlines.

One example was when South African authority was delaying the approval of Air Peace to fly to that country. The Director General said he intervened and immediately Air Peace was given approval.

Usman, said NCAA has done that many times to protect Nigerian airlines, noting that such intervention has helped their regional and international operations. He also urged Nigerian carriers to report to NCAA whenever they experience such treatment and observed that going to the media without formerly reporting the incident to the appropriate quarters would not solve the problem.

Reciprocity and Aero Politics

In order to ensure that Nigerian airlines are not frustrated out of foreign routes by the host airlines in collaboration with their governments as it happened to Arik Air Abuja-London route, Virgin Nigeria Airways Lagos-Dubai route, Medview Airline Lagos-London route and later Lagos-Dubai route, Nigeria must have to get involved in aero politics and adopt the principle of reciprocity, to retaliate whenever a Nigerian airline is schemed out of any international route.

 On Tuesday, Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) reiterated that Nigeria loses about $3 billion and called on the government to support indigenous carriers by fully getting involved in aero politics.

 “While we thank the federal government for its role in making this feat possible (Air Peace international operations), it is instructive to note that this next level requires strong government support, as Air Peace has become one of the pillars to the building of our nation’s economy.

“Air Peace is Nigeria’s private airlines’ fourth attempt into the international market and it would be recalled that many of the airlines that went before them collapsed due mainly to aero politics, which is 85 per cent the role of government to play. As we know foreign carriers dominate 100 per cent of the Nigerian sky with capital flight of about $3bn,” AON said.

Speaking further, the AON Executive Chairman, Nogie Meggison remarked that the issue of Aero Politics has been the bane of operators like Bellview that was frustrated out of the India market; Arik Air that was given a distant parking bay in Dubai at the far end of the terminal; Medview which was frustrated out of the London route by sheer regulatory technicalities and so called safety deficiencies, unfair slot allocation, exorbitant airport charges, levies and fees, and all forms of excuses to name a few which are mainly to discredit the airline as a means of edging it out of the route in order to get rid of the competition the carrier posed to their own local operators on the route and to protect their own.

Senate’s Campaign

 Senators on Wednesday last week advocated for the protection of Nigerian airlines from what they described as unfair competition from their foreign counterparts.

Senator Ifeanyi Uba who brought the motion to the Senate decried that foreign airlines are now designated to multiple routes within Nigeria noting that this development threatens the survival of local airlines.

“For example, Ethiopia Airlines operates in five (four) cities namely; Enugu, Kano, Kaduna (stopped), Abuja, and Lagos; Turkish Airlines operates in four cities: Abuja, Kano, Lagos, and Port Harcourt and Emirates Airlines operates two frequencies daily into Lagos and one to Abuja.”

He noted that besides multiple designations, foreign airlines are now being encouraged to do multiple frequencies into the country and within the country, a practice, which he said is not allowed in other countries.

“For instance, Turkish Airlines has just started Istanbul to Abuja, Abuja to Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt to Abuja, then Abuja to Istanbul. Lufthansa and Air France are also doing the same, thereby running indigenous airlines out of business.

For the aviation industry to really grow Nigerian must have major airlines that are fully operating international destinations and it is the responsibility of government to make that happen. This will enable the country to create more jobs in the sector, increase the funds generated by the sector and also boost ancillary services in the aviation, tourism and financial sectors of the economy.