Mahmoud: Lack of Capacity Restricting Air Travel in Nigeria

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The Managing Director of Aero Contractors, Captain Abdullahi Mahmoud , in this interview insists that if domestic airlines have adequate aircraft, air travel would have returned to full capacity in Nigeria. Chinedu Eze provides the excerpts:

Congratulations, can you tell us about your new appointment?

I took over this position on the 4th of January 2021. I took over from Captain Ado Sanusi. So I am here now and I am looking forward to, at least, take the company to another level. Captain Sanusi has done wonderfully well. He was really good. He met a dying company and resuscitated it. He brought the company back to life. My own is to make it stronger from where he stopped. That is why right now I am here and I am focused and I will make sure that I try as much as possible to see that the staff are happy. This is because the greatest assets of any organisation that you have are your employees. In as much as I want to make them happy, we are constrained because of the situation in the global aviation industry due to the COVID-19 devastation. As you can see, the tourism industry has been hit so badly by this pandemic. So we are just trying to get out of it. God-willing from what we are seeing, hopefully, we will get out of it, although we are living in a very challenging environment. Apart from the pandemic, we are having a serious, forex problem. And that is one of the biggest challenges. If we will have that taken care of then probably we will come up.

Now Aero has three divisions, you have oil and gas service; you are the only airline that has a maintenance facility and then you have schedule flight service. When you look at these three divisions, what is the situation on ground now?

Yes. Like I said earlier, Captain Ado has done wonderfully well. Now, what I have seen, the potential that Aero has, Aero has special potential that no airline today in Nigeria has. It is only now for me to capitalise on those potential and see how to move the company forward. Because I have been hearing about the oil and gas of Aero Contractors, but when I went to Port Harcourt, my mind was blown with what I saw. When I look at the facility that they have in Port Harcourt, it is something that all you need little resources to bring it up to speed. It is a fantastic facility, but I know it has been laid down for a while and attention was not put to it much. So I think it is one of the things that I want to focus on apart from the airline. And another thing is the MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul), as you know, the MRO Aero contractors is the only MRO in West Africa. But I think the capacity of the MRO need to improve, we need to have bigger hangar, so we are just working on getting variation with the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to include the Boeing 737 Next Generation (NG) aircraft, like the one Arik flies. And even Allied Air just bought one of recent. So we want to include that type in our MRO. So, once we have that included, all we need to do is to expand our hangar. We are trying to see how we can expand this hangar and then, make it bigger and accommodate more aircraft into this facility. This is because it is one of the biggest assets of Aero Contractors as of today. With these challenges, I think, the MRO is the major division that is keeping the line.

I see a lot of aircraft from different airlines under your maintenance?

You can see, a lot of third party aircraft are here in the hangar. As you can see, it is not only Nigerian airlines. There is the Democratic Republic of Congo, they have their Boeing 737 here and we have already signed with the Ghana Civil Aviation and they have given us approval to maintain aircraft registered in Ghana. And so we have agreement with Passion Air in Ghana. So is Tunisia, they are working on it to get their approval and then Malta also, we are working on it to get their approval. Yes, we are working on all those approvals; once we have those approvals we will maintain aircraft registered in those countries in our facility here.

One of the major constraints Nigerian airlines have is the fact that they need to ferry their aircraft overseas for major maintenance. They face a lot of costs and the problem of forex. What more advantages do you think Aero will offer them?

I think there are so many disadvantages taking your aircraft out of the country for maintenance. If you talk about how much it is going to cost an airline to fly its aircraft from Nigeria, to probably Europe, or wherever it is going to, if you talk about the fuel that they would burn to go, navigational charges paid, the aircraft goes there, then fly it back again. All these costs are saved by having an MRO here; we have saved the airlines such huge costs. Then, if you come to the maintenance aspect, you are talking about the labour. If they go there, they pay for man hour in dollars, but here we charge them the man hour in naira. So it is easy for them if they cannot assess the forex, at least we are giving them an opportunity to pay naira here. More so, apart from that, the only thing that had now, the airline can say, okay, is tough, because they have to look for source, because they have to supply the parts that they will put on the aircraft that is it. But if we are talking about cost saving, it saves them a lot. It saves them a lot money, having their aircraft maintained here than flying the aircraft out.

Are you looking at getting additional aircraft to boost your schedule service?

Of course, we are working on it. You see this aircraft that you have right here, they are just finishing the C- check. The only thing that they are waiting for is one spare. We have paid for it. By the time it comes this aircraft is going to be out. And this will also be in the next 10 days. So we are going to have more fleet, we are working on it. We are making sure that probably this Easter period we will boost our flights so that passengers will travel to go and see their loved ones. We will make sure that we will take them to places to meet their loved ones and enjoy their Easter celebration.

Lack of cooperation and what many in the industry described as bitter rivalry affect domestic operations and indirectly the passengers. Is there any way you can canvass for airlines to come together and take advantage of working together?

One of the biggest challenges that airlines in Nigeria are having is that they find it very, very difficult to come together. There is dirty professional politics that is being played, which is unfair. And it is so disappointing because when an airline is having problem another airline is rejoicing at the misfortunes. But if the airlines agree to work together we will have what is called passenger protection. You will sign a protection agreement with that other airline. When you have a challenge, all you need to do that is look, I am having a problem, can you protect my passengers? It is like what happened to us the other day. We had a bird strike in Kano, after the bird strike, the Captain of the flight did a fantastic job. He heard the sound, despite the fact that all the engine parameters were showing them that everything was okay, but he decided not to continue to Lagos, but to turn back, land and look at what happened. So he landed back in Kano. He looked at the aircraft; there was the bird strike. He could see blood by the side of the engine and whatever it is, he disembarked the passengers, still went ahead and did power engine run. We contacted NCAA and Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) and we agreed to ferry the aircraft empty back Lagos so that the engineers will look at it properly. We put the aircraft in order and got it ready to resume service. We regret the stress our passengers suffered; although it was not our fault, it is something that happens in flying. Their departure was on schedule because they boarded the flight on schedule, but unfortunately this thing happened. But I look at it, the passengers have been out all day, because we don’t have any aircraft to go and rescue them. So we had to get this one ready, which was what we did. They fixed this aircraft. We wanted to leave for Kano when fortunately Air Peace deployed its Boeing B777 to Kano. So, I called Air Peace’s Head of Flight Operations, Captain Victor Egonu and told him about our passengers in Kano and he asked me to tell our station manager to go meet their station manager in Kano and the flight airlifted our passengers. That is cooperation. That is the way airlines should work. So the airlines need to come together, sign protection agreement. If you don’t want to sign interlining, you can sign the protection agreement. Anytime I have a challenge I come to you. When you have a challenge you come to me.

COVID-19 vaccine is now available, but the pandemic is still affecting the global economy and air travel. What is your projection of when things will get better, especially in Nigeria?

I don’t think that there is anyone who can tell when this is going to end. But at least we could see light coming at the end of the tunnel gradually. And if you look at some countries and what they are going through, I think we are good. We are doing well. The only challenge that we have is that the airlines do not have equipment. If the airlines have the right equipment we could have gone back to full capacity in Nigeria. It is not coronavirus that is restricting us in Nigeria. No, coronavirus is not restricting anything in Nigeria today because if we have capacity to carry the passengers, the passengers are there. But unfortunately the airlines do not have the capacity. In Nigeria, we cannot complain about the coronavirus because we cannot say it is restricting travel. We can operate to full capacity. So in this context, some countries around the world are suffering more than Nigeria. Yes, they are still suffering, but in Nigeria, no. We are restricted from having more aircraft due to lack of funds.

Talking about forex, can you justify why the central bank designed special arrangement for Nigerian airlines in terms of foreign exchange and also bailout for airlines?

Look at the bailout that American government gave to their airlines. They did so because they know the importance of air transport. That is the honest truth. But I think in this part of the world, we are not getting that benefit. In the US they give you money and oversea the utilisation of the money. With such bailout you can buy spare parts. Or if you want to take your aircraft for maintenance, you can do so. It is not like it is free money. The money will be paid back. The federal government does not have money to give everybody free. They don’t have it. They should give airlines forex because aviation plays critical role in the economy. The first impression foreigners see, is your airport. That is his first point of contact. So that has to be standard. And the next thing you want to see, at least you have domestic carriers that are so good, when people come, they want to travel from point A to B in your country. And you want to make them safe and make them feel good.

I know that to certain extent aviation fuel supply is stable and the price is high, do you share the optimism that if Dangote begins refining fuel products in Nigeria, it will help the Nigerian airlines?

I totally agree with that because once we are producing, Jet A1 in Nigeria, I see no reason why the price would go high. Now they are importing, they are paying in dollars. They pay with forex too. So by the time the refinery comes on stream, the price will be relatively low. But when you are producing, it is just like when we started the local production of a lot of things; the price has stabilised. I just give you an example with maintenance, when they are bringing their aircraft for maintenance here; it is cheaper for them because it is domestic. You don’t need to look for forex to buy. If Dangote starts producing, he is not looking for forex to buy. He is just producing it here. So it is just local market, all that he does is to give his benchmark.