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.
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.
Datti said the intervention fund is not what an airline can apply for, collect and divert it to another venture as was the practice in the past. He said that the process of accessing the intervention fund is for the airline to identify its pressing areas of needs like the purchase of aircraft and equipment. Once that has been done, the airline is free to apply for funds to buy either the aircraft or equipment, and the purchase would be funded by the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, in conjunction with the Bank of Industry, BoI. “Government can help airlines negotiate cheap prices for their aircraft,” he said. Thereafter, modalities for paying back the loan would be worked out with the CBN and BoI.
Another way of helping domestic airlines to remain in business and bring down the cost of flight tickets, is the removal of tariff and tax on aviation spare parts, as is the case in this year’s budget. Stakeholders agree some of the measures would help in reducing the cost of travelling by air in the country. Datti said, when airlines were asked why a flight of 45 minutes to one hour should cost as much as $200 or N30,000, they complained that the cost of running the business was too much and that was what prompted Oduah to press the federal executive Council to remove tariff on spare parts.
He expressed optimism that this would, eventually, lead to “cheaper tickets and by the time we have cheaper tickets, there will be higher traffic. If you cut the cost of doing business, then the person doing the business has no reason but to also cut the cost of running it because we believe that one hour flight in Nigeria shouldn’t cost more than N10, 000 or N15, 000. “
Besides, Datti said the revolution in the sector is a deliberate plan as contained in the aviation master plan to restore Nigeria’s aviation industry to where it truly belongs that is to make it the hub in African aviation. Moreover, the sector will be able to contribute to the Gross Domestic Product, GDP. He said the intention of the federal government is to make Nigeria an international aviation hub and a big player in the world. “We should be the centre point of aviation development in Africa. We should be the natural hub of aviation industry because of population and size,” Datti said.
He explained that the idea is to encourage serious investors to come into the aviation industry and do business in Nigeria. The FAAN communication general manager disclosed that government also planned to build 12 cargo-based airports across the country to boost the export of perishable goods. This, he said, would help farmers to transport their goods to areas of demand in and outside the country. For instance, he said, Jos airport would have a big cargo section to take care of perishable items like tomatoes, potatoes, and other food items to be transported to various parts of the country where fresh foods would be made available.
Datti confirmed that government is, indeed, planning to float another national carrier. He said this was in response to the national clamour that Nigeria should have a national airline. According to the FAAN spokesman, the modalities for establishing the airline had been worked out with inputs from experts across the world. And because of the sad experience of the defunct Nigeria Airways, “equity will be open to every Nigerian to own the airline so that it does not go the way of the Nigeria Airways,” he said.
George Uriesi, managing director, FAAN, agrees. He said the plan of the government concerning the national airline was to encourage a merger of some domestic airlines by March this year, to be the national carrier. “The Federal Government will not launch a new national carrier but it will help some new companies’ access funding to build a new national carrier. A couple of airlines will merge by March 2013 to emerge as the national carrier. The conditions that will enhance these developments are currently being put together,” Uriesi said.
But Ayodele Olorunfemi, a travel consultant, believes it is another way of siphoning money into private pockets. He said the Nigeria Airways’ experience should be a big lesson for government not to be involved in business ventures. “Are we prepared to manage it? Take for example, Aero, Arik and the others, they still owe banks a lot of money. Why is that so. The answer is, of course, mismanagement. We are very, very corrupt in this country. Everybody is looking for money and not interested in the growth of the sector. So, if you bring a national carrier, are we sure it is going to be viable? I doubt,” he said.
Olurunfemi is, however, impressed with the quality of repair works going on at all the nation’s airports. He is particularly pleased with the transformation of the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport in Kano, which, he once said, was not better than a motor park.
“Before this renovation, the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport was like a motor park. The toilets were all broken and dirty, the air conditioners were always breaking down, no public address systems, no screen to display arrival and departure of flights, the entire building was looking unkempt,” he said. Now, Olurunfemi is happy, “especially at the domestic terminal where renovation work has already been completed and where all the facilities of a modern airport now exist. What you see in Dubai or London Airports, you can now find at the Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport. Even though they haven’t completed the renovation of the international terminal, the current state of the local terminal, which already has been renovated 100 percent, is wonderful,” he said.
Daniel Young, managing director and chief executive officer of Karamba Marketing and Media Solutions, similarly believes that the transformation agenda of the aviation minister is worthy of commendation. Young therefore, enjoined stakeholders in the industry to support the government in realising its objective.
Said he: “The concept of transformation in the aviation sector is one that involves everyone and it is not going to be left to the aviation minister alone to do. We are all involved and it is important that whatever initiative that we can take to align ourselves to thoughts and ideals that the honourable minister and all the key stakeholders in the industry have put in place.”
But not everyone is happy with what is going on in the industry. Some stakeholders have argued that the decision of the ministry to spend public funds on procurement of aircraft and equipment for airlines would result in gross waste of public funds rather than boost capacity in the sector or enhance the safety of passengers.
“In effect, a public spending spree is being proposed as a solution to structural problems in a sector dominated by private sector players,” Niyi Akinnaso, a columnist, in The Punch newspaper wrote recently. He argued that giving public funds to private concerns would only enrich some people in the public sector and airline operators as well. “It will not build capacity in the nation’s aviation sector,” Akinnaso insisted.
He is not also supporting the idea of floating a national carrier either, and condemned it as another way wasting public resources. “Nigeria’s experience with public utilities, including a national airline, is that they become drainpipes in which public funds disappear while their managers grow stupendously rich, even as operations and customer service standards irredeemably plummet. It is time government left management of services that the private sector can provide,” he said.
Akinnaso is not the only critic. Displaced owners of some commercial ventures at the domestic wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja, are not happy with the minister’s action. They told Realnews that since they were relocated to the park at the airport, all efforts to get the relevant agency to reallocate shops to them in the main building have been futile. “They asked us to reapply and we did that more than three months ago, but we have not heard anything concerning our application,” one of them said. They also claimed that the minister had been allocating shops to her own persons at the airport at their own expense.
Shehu Musa, a businessman, said the remodelling of the airport was okay, but pointed out that passengers coming to the airport during the rain would get wet before getting into the terminal building because there is no coverage to shed them in front of the building. Another problem being encountered by passengers is where to park their cars at the airport. The current car park can only accommodate, at most, 300 cars at a time, but the volume of cars going into the airport has made this grossly inadequate. Although there is a plan to build a modern car park like the one at the domestic airport of the Murtala Muhammed II, the facility is not likely to be ready until next year.
Another challenge that the new terminal building may face is the maintenance of its facilities. Already, some standing fans have to be provided at the departure hall to complement the cooling system. The toilet facilities are not well kept. And perhaps, in anticipation of shortage of water supply, big kegs and buckets are made available in the toilets.
All in all, the year 2012 was not a good year for the Nigerian Aviation industry especially in the area of safety, and growth of the domestic airlines. For this reason, only one new airline known as Mid View Airline debuted despite the rigour of certification being put in place by the NCAA.
On the other hand, the crash of Dana Air in Iju Ishaga, Lagos, June 3, shattered the confidence that Nigerians were building in the Nigeria aviation industry after the 2005 and 2006 air crashes. This was followed by another crash involving the aircraft piloted by Governor Danbaba Suntai of Taraba State at the Yola Airport in Adamawa.
However, the recent recertification of Dana Air to fly in the Nigerian airspace has not gone down well with Nigerians and lawmakers. On February 1, the Senate repeated its call for the revocation of the airline’s AOC, and also demanded the sack of Harold Demuren, the director general of NCAA, for negligence of duty.
The year ended on a sour note as a Naval Helicopter carrying Governor Patrick Ibrahim Yakowa of Kaduna State, General Andrew Owoeye Azazi (rtd), former national security adviser, and four others, crashed shortly after take-off in Bayelsa State, killing all the occupants.
As the authorities in the aviation industry try to eliminate avoidable accidents, and reposition it to meet international standards, stakeholders in the sector say if measures put in place, indeed, work, the nation would be the better for it.