Aviation in Q1: Defining moment for air travel

 

First quarter of the year already showed how the year will end.  The signs are not so good for airlines, aviation and others associated with the sector, WOLE Shadare writes

Difficult year

It has been a very terrible first quarter of 2020 for the aviation industry in Nigeria. The year started with so much promise in what is most likely to be the most difficult year for airlines and the sector generally.

Demand for air travel was expected to be better than in 2019 or to continue in that trajectory but the twin problems of flight disruptions occasioned by Harmattan haze that disrupted flight travel and ridiculed the nation coupled with coronavirus pandemic have thrown airlines and global aviation into turmoil.

Repositioning NCAA

The country’s aviation was poised to reposition after the former Director-General of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) Capt. Usman Muhtar’s tenure was not renewed.

Senate President, Ahmad Lawan had on January 28, 2020, read a request on the floor from President Buhari, seeking the confirmation of Captain Nuhu.

During plenary, a report of the committee on aviation submitted by Chairman of the committee, Senator Smart Adeyemi, was considered by the Senate.

Arising from his wealth of experience in the aviation sector, the committee considered Captain Musa Shuaibu Nuhu suitable for appointment as Director-General, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority,” Adeyemi added.

Nuhu assumed office five months after his appointment was made known by the Federal Government as the substantive director general of the regulatory almost two months ago.

Ever since he took up the plum job, Capt. Nuhu has done remarkably well, especially in his quick response to industry challenges in the face of COVID-19 pandemic. It is young in the day to judge and gauge his performance for the tough job at hand.

Flight disruptions, losses

As early as January, foreign airlines and Nigerian carriers started experiencing flight diversions as a result of harmattan haze that swept across many parts of the country.

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Aviation, probably more than any other mode of transportation, is greatly affected by weather. From thunderstorms to reduced visibility due to hazy conditions, every phase of flight has the potential to be impacted by weather.

Nigeria, Ghana and other West African countries are some of the places in the world where harmattan haze still brings flight operations to a halt. The trend has become wearily familiar.

As a result, the NCAA issued weather alerts to all pilots indicating hazards associated with harmattan dust haze in flight operations at this period of the year.

Commercial aviation in Nigeria must deal with these adverse weather effects. The cost is a significant budget item. It is one of the perennial weather phenomena that have adverse impact on flight.

Nigeria has a relatively fledgling domestic aviation market, which is constrained by high tariffs, high fuel costs, relatively low load factor and limited routes.

A typical domestic operator’s Direct Operational Cost (DOC) per flight can range between $3,000 for a regional jet type aircraft with seating capacity of 50-70 passengers to Abuja and $4,000 for a similar flight to Kano. Direct costs due to weather on airline operations can be separated into several categories: diversion, cancellation and delay.

The lowest passenger movements are always in November/December/January. Even though there may be other variables, obviously the effect of weather may have a significant impact on these reductions and the economic effects on domestic operators cannot be downplayed.

Though the costs associated with delays and cancellations vary, airlines taking such actions risk eroding passenger goodwill and that results in lost future revenue.

This year’s harmattan haze was worsened by the sudden removal of Category 2 Instrument Landing System (ILS) for Category 3 landing system.

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The problem intensified nationwide with disruptions in flight take-off and landing across local and international operations. While the local airlines either delay or cancel scheduled flights, some of their foreign counterparts diverted to Accra and Lome airports.

Poor visibility dropped below 1200 meters, which forced airlines to settle for alternative airport early January, especially in the absence of support from installed category III ILS at the Lagos airport.

 

Enugu airport project stalled

The Enugu airport reconstruction appears to be the most important airport project apart from the plans by the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) to complete the Lagos international airport terminal that has dragged on for so long.

President Muhammadu Buhari had late last year approved N10 billion for the repair of the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu.

The precarious state of the airport led to its closure, a development that was welcomed by many people. It was long overdue to forestall accident.

Infact, the Enugu airport should long have been closed long ago for renovation. In true sense of it, the aerodrome has nothing to qualify it as an international airport despite billions of naira that were reportedly spent between 2008 and 2014 that many believed were not well spent.

The aerodrome lacks adequate fire-fighting cover, night landing facilities, undulating and pot- hole riddle runway and decaying terminal facilities.  The airport was badly managed with no perimeter fencing among others.

Dubai based Emirates was said to have declined operating to the airport because of lack facilities. Emirates does not land in any airport where they cannot guarantee the safety of passengers, crew and equipment. The runway represented a clear danger to flight safety.

Work immediately started after the release of fund but the outbreak of COVID-19 has delay completion of work that had since reached 90 per cent.

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COVID-19 menace

Nigeria, like any other parts of the world, is currently faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has changed the job market almost overnight.

In Nigeria, many airline workers have been asked to go on compulsory holiday for two weeks without pay, while others are proposing pay cut to their workers for as long as they keep their aircraft on ground.

Virtually all airlines around the globe have long stopped operations nearly two weeks ago with over 70 per cent cut in capacity. They eventually shut down operations following closure of boarders and airspace restrictions by governments around the globe.

Nigerian carriers ate the humble pie penultimate week when all of them unanimously called for grounding of their operations and resorted to doing ‘humanitarian’ services which are far and in-between.

Many of the carriers paid percentage cuts to their workers ranging from 50 per cent to 70 per cent of their salaries.

It is, however, feared that many of them are not expected to be paid salaries and allowances because the airlines, which were already struggling before now cannot just pay their workers.

One of the workers, who is a cabin crew with a leading domestic airline, who spoke to our correspondent, said: “We were lucky to be paid by our employers. We got 70 per cent of our salaries. Some airlines paid as low as 50 per cent of workers’ salaries”.

Last line

First quarter 2020 is perhaps the most difficult period in the history of aviation in Nigeria. The remainder of the year will make or mar them and determine how they intend to weather the storm.

 

Wole Shadare