A New Dawn in Aviation Sector

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Stella Adaeze Odua

Ministry of aviation takes bold steps to remodel some of the country’s airports and introduces measures to ensure safety in the industry, but not everyone is convinced that Nigeria is moving in the right direction

|  By Olu Ojewale  |  Feb. 18, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

IN 2011, when the multifarious problems in the aviation sector seemed to have defied solutions, stakeholders wanted President Goodluck Jonathan to appoint one of their own to head the ministry because the person would know where the shoe pinches. Their spirit seemed to have been dampened when the President, in his wisdom, assigned the aviation portfolio to no other person than Stella Adaeze Oduah. It was, indeed, a challenging assignment.

On assumption of duty, Oduah did not allow the problems she met on the ground to overwhelm her. What she saw was an aviation sector with decaying infrastructures such as airport terminals, runways, control towers, cooling systems conveyor belts among others. These were in a terrible state of disrepair. Besides, the airports constructed in the seventies, needed adaptation to modern designs and concepts which are acceptable to international standards and best practices. The poor state of infrastructures in the airports was even worsened by uncontrolled influx of all manner of persons into them. Predictably, the decayed infrastructures were overstretched thereby posing serious safety and security challenges.

Domestic wing, Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos
Domestic wing, Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos

To redress the situation, in the past few months, the ministry of aviation has taken three-pronged measures to restore dignity to the industry. One of such measures is the remodelling of airports across the country to make them comfortable and also make international travellers feel welcomed. Two, some stringent safety measures have been introduced for airline operators to make them take issues of safety more seriously than in the past. Three, the federal government has provided N300 billion aviation intervention fund for airlines to source from if they are cash-trapped.

All these are in line with Oduah’s vision of creating a world class aviation industry in Nigeria. According to her roadmap, the ministry of aviation plans to establish a world-class safety and security standard; develop airports’ infrastructure and reform aviation-related institutions, develop the sector’s capacity and increase professionalism. There is also a plan to transform key airports into a network of domestic and international hubs, grow domestic airlines and financial stability; develop airport cities (Aerotropolis) to transform airports into major centres of employment, shopping, trading, business and leisure as well as create a national carrier.

As ambitious as these may sound, Oduah seems unfazed by the challenges of creating a good aviation industry that Nigerians should be proud of. The minister has said repeatedly that her ministry considers safety, as well as having international standard airports a good way of encouraging investors to come to Nigeria. “For a foreigner coming into the country, the first impression he gets when he uses our airport is very important,” the minister was quoted as saying.

In line with that philosophy, the ministry has decided to remodel 22 airports. Eleven airports have been selected to start with. According to Joe Obi, special assistant to the minister on media, who spoke with Realnews on phone, N16 billion has been earmarked by government to remodel the first set of 11 airports.

“I have no idea what the cost of the second set of 11 airports is going to be,” Obi said. Nonetheless, he said the importance of remodelling should not be lost because some of the airports have no facilities for modern air travelling. Besides, Obi said it was very important to make international travellers feel safe and comfortable whenever they use Nigerian airports “so we have to bring these airports up to date in technology and equipment in line with international standards.”

In addition, the federal government has obtained $500 million to build brand new airports in Abuja, Lagos, Enugu, Kano and Port Harcourt. The airports will be equipped with modern facilities comparable with any airport in the world. So far, the general aviation terminals, GAT, at Lagos, Abuja, Owerri, Kano, Benin and Yola have been remodelled. Yakubu Datti, general manager, corporate communications, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, said, however, that improvement in the industry goes beyond having modern airports, but in making the industry an all-round functional, efficient, safe and something Nigerians can be proud of.

He said that a lot had been going on in terms of safety and regulatory measures for airline operators. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA, has also deployed Aircraft Automated Flight Information Reporting System, restored aviation landing lights that had been non-functional since the 1990s and got dedicated power lines for Lagos and Abuja airports.

“Our airports are not just a place where we can take a transport to the next destinations; they represent an image. It is not good that when visitors come in, they see leaking roofs, and dilapidated buildings. That is why Nigeria has not been taken seriously because it is not the true representation of who we are. We want to build an institution where people feel confident and safe using our airports,” Datti said in an interview with Realnews.

Indeed, for any airline to operate in Nigeria today, it is required to get an Air Operator Certificate, AOC, which is not easy to come by. For an airline to get the required AOC, it must go through meticulous documentation of the history of the aircraft, qualification of personnel, insurance and financial strength of the organisation, among others. Perhaps, the most crucial requirements that operators have been complaining about are that they must go through 50-hour demonstration flights; a thorough inspection of their operating aircraft and that they must have reputable technical partners to service their aircraft periodically.

Every airline is also required to acquire an aircraft tracking system installed at its headquarters. The system allows the authority, airlines and other operators to know, with precision, the exact whereabouts of any aircraft at any time. As weather plays an important role in air accidents, the tracker device has meteorological capabilities to give accurate, real time weather report for the departure, en-route and arrival of any aircraft.

The device is also critical in the search and rescue operations because of its ability to pinpoint the whereabouts of any aircraft at all times. This, the aviation authority says, would make the issue of missing aircraft a thing of the past. But industry stakeholders regard the new regulation, which was further tightened up last year, following the Dana Air crash in Lagos, June 3, as an over-kill.

One of the critics of the current regime of safety regulation is the Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, ATSSSAN, which has expressed surprised at the Dana airplane crash. The association said that notwithstanding the crash, the Nigeria aviation industry has remained the most regulated in the world. According to an airline personnel, who wishes anonymity, “phases three and four are the most challenging during an AOC certification.” He said phase three has to do with the large number of documents needed for evaluation for approval. He said that phase four requires a substantial financial commitment for NCAA inspection of the facilities both locally and abroad, aircraft inspection and the stressful demonstration flights.

Sources say the AOC re-certification requirements forced three airlines, namely Chachangi, Air Nigeria, and The Nation Airline out of business last year. Apart from the safety concerns, the airlines were also said to have been affected by their poor financial position. Chachangi has recently resumed flight operations. Of the three airlines, only Air Nigeria did not go out of business quietly. There were incessant strikes embarked upon by the aircraft pilots and engineers of the airline owing to delays in the payment of their salaries and other entitlements. They also alleged that they were being forced to fly unserviceable aircraft. Consequently, Air Nigeria suspended its local, regional and international operations on September 10, 2012. The airline management said the suspension was caused by staff disloyalty and environmental tension, “which are not conducive for (sic) business in the aviation sector.”

The case of Air Nigeria is even more poignant because Jimoh Ibrahim, the owner of the airline, received N35.5 billion intervention fund from the federal government but allegedly diverted same to another business outside the country. Obi said the case was being looked into by the relevant agency of the government. Last week, The Senate ordered the CBN to recover the N35.5 billion loan from Ibrahim.

When asked why the three airlines were not assisted to remain in business, Obi told Realnews: “We are not responsible for their problems. There must be reasons for the problems that led to the suspension of operations of those airlines. There is N300 billion intervention fund from which the airlines are expected to draw. I can assure you that most of the airlines have been using the intervention fund.” He said that as long as the airlines were ready to meet the necessary requirements, they could be allowed to draw from the funds.

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