Aeropolitics: Grim future, landmines for Nigerian carriers

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 aside from poor corporate governance, poor equipment, or inadequate equipment is high-wire international aero politics. WOLE SHADARE writes that aero politics is a couch in some unforeseen landmines for Nigerian carriers

Fierce battles

The aviation airline business is likened to a war. It is fiercer as airlines and by extension; nations set barriers to ensure that competition is not healthy.

Nigerian airlines

The recent spat between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Air Peace that led to the deportation of Nigerians penultimate week has brought to the fore insinuations in some quarters that the Saudi Arabian authorities were playing games and economical with the truth that the deportees were indeed brought back home because they violated visa rules.

Yes, it has been verified that the 170 deportees out of 264 do not have appropriate visas to enter Saudi Arabia, not a few believe that Nigeria and Air Peace inadvertently played into the hands of the Saudis who were looking for any genuine reason no matter how flimsy it may be bare their fangs on the Nigerian carrier and to the country at large.

Saudi Arabia is one of the very few countries that has a strict and cumbersome visa regime that is couched carefully into their aviation rules and by extension seen as a weapon to be used when it is time to deploy it for aero politics or simply, politics of aviation when it is conducive and convenient for them.

The country decided to show Air Peace just one of the aces up its sleeve and may have lined up many others. It had been jokingly said that the Saudi authorities could make visa issuance available to only those who are going to fly Saudia; the Saudi Arabian airline that operates to Lagos, Abuja, and Kano.

 It has been said that in the future if they see that Air Peace is posing a serious threat to them, they might begin to tell visa applicants from Nigeria to present their flight tickets before application if they have not started introducing as most Schengen countries do as a requirement for a visa.

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Anti-competition in the airline business is not new to Nigerian carriers. Bellview, Virgin Nigeria, and Medview have tasted the bitter pill of aero politics. It could be the time for Air Peace to equally taste that bitter pill that contributed to the death of the first three airlines mentioned.

Bellview at the peak of its powers forayed into Amsterdam, New Delhi, India. It was not a palatable story as the carrier quickly as it came after the wobbling form of defunct Nigeria Airways could not cope with competition from KLM and some other European carriers.

Bellview through high-wire politics could not get designation from Nigeria and the United Kingdom. The carrier became Sierra Leone’s flag carrier and was christened, ‘Bellview Sierra Leone’. That alone was very difficult for Nigerians to fly to London via Freetown. The Nigerian market is huge. Many people who wanted to travel preferred to go directly to London from Lagos and not through Freetown. Bellview burnt money and sooner than later it ceased operations from the route.

The carrier’s experiment with New Delhi collapsed spectacularly as well and stopped operations after just a few flights.

The most intriguing of them all was Virgin Nigeria, heavily backed by the Nigerian government could not survive Emirates on the Lagos-Dubai route. Before the advent of Qatar Airways on the Lagos route, Emirates enjoyed a massive monopoly for years. The entry of Emirates to Nigeria on January 2, 2004, affected the operations of Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya badly until they devised new means to remain with the competition Emirates posed to them.

The Virgin Nigeria team had thought they had done their homework very well to prevent them from the same pitfall encountered by Arik which tried the Dubai route as well. Emirates, sensing some little troubles decided to surreptitiously crash fare on the route.

Backed by a petrol dollar economy, it became extremely difficult for Virgin Nigeria to compete and with time, they said ‘May Day May Day’ to a route that is termed very lucrative. Virgin Nigeria at the time had the best corporate governance among its peers. Bellview too was soundly run until they fell into a huge pit that swept them off into extinction.

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Unequal competition

One of the drawbacks of many Nigerian airlines to truly compete is the lack of alliance partnerships with many of the major international carriers. The point-to-point operations do not look like ones that will help the carriers in the long run as they have already cut their strength by more than 45 percent.

No Nigerian carrier is a member of global airline alliances like Star Alliance, One World, Sky Team, and many others for obvious reasons. Connectivity and reliability are keys for the global airline business.

Medview’s problem stemmed from issues of aircraft used on the route, problems with ground handling firms, and other ownership issues that were its albatross.

Privileges, rights to governments

Justice Robert H. Jackson in 1944 wrote in a concurring opinion that, “[p]lanes do not wander about in the sky like vagrant clouds.” Rather, “They move only by federal permission, subject to federal inspection, in the hands of federally certified personnel and under an intricate system of federal commands.”

Indeed, the “moment a ship taxies onto a runway it is caught up in an elaborate and detailed system of controls. It takes off only by instruction from the control tower, it travels on prescribed beams, it may be diverted from its intended landing, and it obeys signals and orders.

Its privileges, rights, and protection, so far as transit is concerned, it owes to the Federal Government alone and not to any state government.”

Concerns about how to design and manage the airways in the sky were not a concern for American jurists and lawmakers alone but an international issue in the post-war 1940s.

Nigerian airlines

Experts’ views

Industry analysts 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 operations with about two aircraft. Most of their aircraft are old fuel guzzlers, which forces 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.

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Not a few had accused the government of looking the other way when Nigerian carriers are maltreated by their host nations. They stated that the government does not support domestic airlines in any way nor protect them against foreign carriers as other countries protect their own domestic airlines.

This view is not totally correct as former Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika fought a long, protracted battle with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) when Air Peace’s frequency was reduced and prevented from operating into Dubai airport.

Government’s intervention

Sirika, through the government, stopped Emirates from coming to Nigeria until Air Peace was granted the same right under BASA. That suspension led to the stoppage of flights to Nigeria by Emirates.

The Minister of Aviation and Aerospace Development, Festus Keyamo has assured Nigerian carriers of government’s support. This support however came with a condition that the Nigerian carriers would also have the capacity to reciprocate many of the BASA and show responsibility too.

Last line

Aero politics come in different forms and these can be exploited by competing nations to edge out competition. They come in through 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.

These countries and airlines have mastered the act so well while the Nigerian government because of holding the short end of the stick does not have enough strategies and what it can use to force down the hands of international or foreign airlines having a field day in the Nigerian market that is huge in terms of yield.

Wole Shadare

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