The Rector of the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Captain Mohammed Abdulsalam, in this interview at the MRO Africa Conference in Addis Ababa, said Nigeria needs young pilots to succeed the ageing ones in the profession. Chinedu Eze brings the excerpts:
What are the take away from this conference?
Actually I have been here for the last five days. We hold council meetings of the association of aviation training organisations; NCAT is a council member so we always hold one of our council meetings at the back of the MRO event. So we have been here since Saturday and council meeting started on Sunday, before we now continued on this. As you have seen this MRO event is co-located with African aviation training, we have recently developed a road map for training in Africa with the support of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). And throughout this period we have had consultations with ICAO, AFCAC (Africa Civil Aviation Commission) on the way forward, on how this roadmap can be presented to African states and implemented. We are also soliciting for support from these big original equipment manufacturers because everybody benefits from training, training saves money even though it costs money but eventually it saves you money. So we see this as an opportunity to get the support that we need from these organisations.
Looking at what has been discussed here, NCAT was mentioned as one of the organisations in Africa that have contributed to training of pilots, engineers and others, apart from that, what arrangement do you have with other big training institution or partnerships?
All the training organisations that have been here, we have had meetings with them and one of the objectives of ATO (ICAO Approved Training Organisation) as we mentioned is harmonisation and standardisation and promoting collaboration with ATOs because we don’t want to duplicate efforts. We want a situation where if a certain type of training is provided in NCAT for instance, there is no need for the Ghana academy to go and embark on similar type of training. So we want to be able to collaborate so that we can have a more effective utilisation of these equipment and we learn to share resources, which has been absent throughout the years that we have been operating.
One of the reasons that have been adduced for a lot of people not coming to NCAT for training is the high cost fees and again the security aspect of it. Do you think that the fees are on the high side?
Our fees are not high. NCAT is about the cheapest place that you can train in the world because of government subsidy. We are not a profit-making organisation. Recently as part of the procedure for us to become a regional training centre of excellence, we had to develop standard training packages. This standard training package has given NCAT a lot of publicity and we have started attracting students from other parts of the world. Sometime last year we had students from Thailand and Kenya who came to participate in some of the programmes. And this year we have published a programme where we intend to attract more foreign students.
The issue of insecurity is just a perception, NCAT itself is secure and there is no issue with Zaria. What people are afraid of is how to connect to Zaria from either Lagos or Abuja. So for students who fly through Lagos, we encourage them to fly to Kaduna where we now arrange to have them picked up and taken to the college. And for those who arrive through Abuja, we either pick them in Abuja or at the train station in Kaduna. Like I said, Zaria is secure. Right now we have the contractors who came to Kaduna to install the fire simulator. They started work on Monday and they are from the UK and they have similar fears about security and the feedback I am getting is that they are quite satisfied with the arrangements we made for them and what they have seen they feel very, very safe and secure in Zaria. So Zaria and its environment are not the problem it is just on how to get there.
Do you still have good patronage from state governments?
Yes, we have some state governments that are still sending students. We have developed some training programmes for skills acquisition, targeted at out unemployed youths and we have sensitised the states on the availability of these programmes. Youths can learn in such areas as repairs of diesel engines, solar power, electric installations and refrigeration. Currently we even have students from Yobe state in the college that started training two weeks ago. But we are increasing our efforts to sensitise because of the way our political systems works. Every four years you have a new set of people in government so you still have to keep going round to sensitise them and we hope that when we have our open day this year on May 27, we will have greater participation from some of these states so that they will now become more aware of what training opportunities are available at NCAT.
What bold steps are you taking to add more stimulator to the one you have already acquired?
As you know for each aircraft it needs its own simulator. And we have too many aircraft types flying in Nigeria, so you cannot have a simulator for everyone. And simulators are very costly, they need to be run on 24 hours basis for you to be able to recover you investment. But NCAT is aware of these requirements in Nigeria; that is why when we started building the complex that will house the Boeing 737 simulator, we made provision for two bases. So we have made provision for a second simulator and NCAT is looking at the possibility, once the Boeing 737 simulator is installed, we will now look at which other simulator we will identify and install in Zaria.
You know that Nigerian airlines are now moving to Embraer, they are now getting the right aircraft for the distances for local destinations, would you consider having Embraer simulator?
We will consider all the options, we have to look at the market and see if there are more requirements for Embraer aircraft or ATR, depending on the aircraft type national carrier will choose. I think largely our decisions will be based on what the national carrier and what equipment the management would decide to utilise. This is because you want to identify and plan with a carrier that has the potential for growth.
What is the level of investment that has gone into NCAT, looking at the NCAT of today and NCAT of yester years, how have you been able to move the college ahead in collaboration with government to turn around NCAT as the center of excellence in Africa and the world?
As you know, we get our capital grant from the federal government, so the annual capital budget for NCAT on average has been about N3.5 billion to N4 billion. That is what is appropriated. And then you get about 50 per cent to 60 per cent maximum, released to us and then that amount, by the time you translate it into dollars it is very little. And we have a dollar denominated contract such as the re-fleeting and purchase of the simulator and some of the spare parts that we buy.
So it limits what we can do. So what I have done since I came into NCAT three years ago is to try and finish up what was started. So we concentrate in completing all the ongoing projects before we embark on new ones. I have to thank the Honourable Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika because he understood the challenges we are facing over this capital grants. So he was able to approve some funds to the college from the BASA (Bilateral Air Service agreement) funds and that was why we were able to come this far with the simulator and re-fleeting projects.
Would you advise a would-be pilot to go and train as a pilot because there will be a job for him in the industry, looking at the fact that we are yet to have a national carrier?
Somebody asked me this question; that why are we bordering to train pilots when there are no jobs. We have a lot of jobless qualified pilots in the country but then you look at the industry, you look at the outlook, we have a lot of huge aging workforce, a lot of people are going into retirement. And then you have new airlines coming up and all these figures you are hearing about growth in the industry, these are only based on aircraft orders. So there is demand for pilots worldwide. What we have is because of the problem we have in the country, there has been stagnation in the sector. That is why people are unemployed.
But once things pickup you will find that there will be employment opportunities for these pilots. If you can recall, Ethiopian Airlines academy said they are trying to increase capacity to 1000 pilots a year and that is quite a lot. And I was very happy when he mentioned that of all the pilots they are using right now, only 15 per cent are expatriates; the rest are all locals. But you can’t say that of Nigeria, more than half of our pilots are expatriates.
So, it means that there are employment opportunities for our pilots, all they have to do now is try to get jobs. I keep stressing that you don’t insist that you want to go and fly with the big carriers, you start from the bottom. Try and build the hours, build the experience in the general aviation, get the minimum requirement that the industry needs and then the rest is history. Three days ago I had a very proud experience here that I won’t forget for a long time because I had a call from some Ethiopian Airlines pilots, who heard I was around and came to visit me in the hotel and it turned out to be my ex-students. One of them I trained him from scratch, he joined Virgin Nigeria straight from school and I trained him and mentored him, he is now a training captain in Ethiopian Airlines. The other one, I flew with him, he was my co-pilot in Arik Air and he is also doing well, he is a captain on the Airbus A350. These are young men that have done very well for themselves. This also goes to show that, yes, Nigerians can work anywhere. So we train quality pilots, they are issued with ICAO licenses that are recognised worldwide, so they can go and work anywhere. We have some of our products who are captains in Qatar Airways and Emirates Airlines.